Jazz is often held to be the most direct form of personal expression: the taciturn cool of Miles (or do I mean cruelty?); the flighty genius of Bird; the stratospheric humor of Dizzy; the volatile arrogance of a Mingus. A long-favored cliché has jazz as a symbol of democracy. House Concurrent Resolution 57 loftily promulgated way back in 1987, during the anti-Jazz Age also known as the Reagan Years, begins its litany of platitudes with the claim that jazz “makes evident to the world an outstanding artistic model of individual expression and democratic cooperation within the creative process, thus fulfilling the highest ideals and aspirations of our republic.” A corollary to this is the rejection of musical monarchy. As educator and pianist Billy Taylor put it in a well-known essay entitled “Jazz America’s Classical Music”: “There is no conductor directing the musical flow, but rather, the interaction of individuals combining their talents to make a unique musical statement.”
These utopian pronouncements sidestep the role of the bandleader in molding the character of his group. Could one hear in the gruff sermons of Art Blakey, one of the great bandleaders of the 20th century, preached in between tunes during his live performances the character of the music that followed? Was the power of his personality to be heard in his big beat? The church of the Jazz Messenger was a serious place to worship, even over a drink and dinner: Blakey’s persona and his playing radiated authority. Yes, there was freedom of expression by individual members but only under the enlightened despotism of his omnipotent cymbal sound.
Last Friday, bassist Christian McBride brought his quintet, Inside Straight, to Cornell University for a high-energy evening of music. McBride has an impressively eclectic CV, studded with engagements with musicians ranging across the stylistic spectrum: from Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Roy Haynes, to Kathleen Battle to famous Sting. Add to the mix James Brown, with whom McBride appeared on electric bass at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006 shortly before Brown’s death, and you can get a sense of breadth of this bassist’s talents. Even beneath the lightning runs, the seeming nonchalance with which he dispatches the most blistering bebop tempos, or fleet bowing of a ballade, there is a funky foundation. The most technically demanding passages and harrowing, split second decisions on which improvisation succeeds or founders have a gracious soulfulness. It’s not that what has to be sharp becomes dull: rather there seems to me to be an underlying warmth to everything he does musically.
For a decade McBride has led The Christian McBride Band, an acoustic funk/jazz group, which plays to its leader’s strength for gutsy grooves. Wanting to return the Village Vanguard in New York after a decade away from that celebrated basement venue, McBride formed Inside Straight because the owner of the club, Lorraine Gordon, refused to let him bring with him what she called “that rock band.” The aptly named Inside Straight met the liturgical requirements of this temple of jazz.
But just because the name conjures straight ahead jazz that swings, that is saturated the blues, and that often challenges the technical and harmonic skills of the players, this doesn’t mean that it is without diverse influence and details that diverge from the relentless flow of the mainstream. The group—with Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones, Warren wolf on Vibes, Carl Allen on drums, Eric Reed on piano instead of the excellent Peter Martin who has since replaced him—released the CD Kind of Brown last year, and it was this mostly original compositions which formed the lion’s share of the repertoire on last Friday’s two-hour, no intermission concert in cavernous Bailey Hall on the Cornell University campus. There were plenty of seats left empty, but the crowd filled this century-old building with more enthusiasm and admiration than an audience twice its size. Why this wonderful group, like so many others, feels the need for amplification is beyond me. String quartets play in Bailey without loudspeakers and, although the acoustics are not those of Carnegie Hall, one can hear the music in all its refinements even from the balcony. Microphones and speakers blunt the immediacy of jazz, just as they do almost all forms of chamber music. While it is necessary at outdoor concerts, amplification strikes me as a concession to a rock concert, but for the small, expert ensemble it has the effect of pushing listeners away, rather than drawing them in. Sadly, classical concerts increasingly use the mike, if surreptitiously; that jazz players make no secret of their reliance on electronics does not make it any less off-putting.
In spite of this obvious, but largely virtually unmentionable, error, things got going with the first track off the Kind of Brown, ”Brother Mister,” a McBride original with the composer laying down a funky bass line urged on by the clarity of Allen’s drumming, a foil to McBride’s sound and style. That updating of these venerable musical topics was underway became clear when often predictable progress of the harmony gave way to modern digressions away from the basic menu: soul food with nouvelle cuisine condiments. Before one might have objected that these touches are misplaced, even coy, any fears were allayed by the honesty that seems to exude McBride’s performance. The combination of the traditional with bright bursts of the new makes McBride’s music and his band so appealing because these elements are brought together without irony. Fun, fantasy, and craftsmanship triumph over the studied, the knowing, the overly clever.
This is not to say that this music is without sometimes daunting intricacy. From the mostly gutbucket opener the evening concluding after ten o’clock with the searing “Stick & Move”—its syncopated jabs coming after long rests in which the whole band is silent and poised. Although these silences are each probably less than a second, they seem excruciatingly long given the blurring velocity of the tune. When the group hits the staccato chords that puncture these rests, they have all the sting of an Ali left hand. Then the group swings together without interruption over the dancing bass and drums: floating like the butterfly, though this one moving at jet-plane speeds. It is an amazing thing to hear, five musicians picking these exact moments out of abstract and elastic time—no conductor required or even possible. The precision of the ensemble playing is surpassed only by the elaboration of the fleet harmonies bobbing and ducking and threatening to floor all but the most skilled of high-speed improvisers.
As Warren Wolf on vibes showed from the outset, his is a tremendous talent for the blues. One can’t help but hear natural gifts akin to those of vibist Milt Jackson, one of the greatest of jazz improvisers. I suppose Wolf would have put in countless hours listening to the master. Also like Jackson, Wolf is a powerhouse at the fast stuff, up and down in decisive arpeggios and runs, and then rejoicing in the raucous and rhythmic repeated notes that punctuate his solos as they did Jackson’s before him. But Wolf is not merely an imitator: the blues is land without borders and with plenty of room for the young Wolf’s explorations. Saxophonist Steve Wilson can also play fast and furious, and dig in his heels on the slow grooves; he’s a bit more edgy than Wolf and pianist Martin— perfect bit of grit in the well-oiled machine that is Inside Straight.
Along the way to this knock-out finale of “Stick and Move,” the band traversed other McBride tunes filled with optimism and originality: it is iin no way intended as a criticism to say that they convey their moods without artifice and are reliable vehicles for improvisation. This is music with a purpose: to entertain and to uplift. As McBride said of his “Rainbow Wheel,” with its swinging optimism, the piece is meant to calm him every time Apple’s Beach Ball of Doom threatens a crash; he thinks of this music whenever he feels like putting his fist through his computer screen.
Amongst the other offerings was the up-tempo “Theme for Kareem” by the late Freddie Hubbard (with whom McBride has also toured) introduced by a long and spirited display of bass technique and melodic invention, in ingenious dialogue with drummer Allen, unparalleled interlocutor. Later, the piano trio departed the album for an Ellington classic, “Sophisticated Lady” with a bowed solo by McBride, which moved between restrained lyricism and the effusive gestures. Peter Martin pursued his artful and elegant reading of this standard across the entire compass of the piano and its full timbral range as well. This was a super sophisticated lady not afraid to let you know how she really feels.
So enraptured was the audience that the encore came after five minutes of applause: a quick and almost mournful version of the theme from the television show “Alice” before a version of the swinging “Shade of the Cedar Tree” with patches of Latin rhythms tucked in amongst the undergrowth.
It was not only that the program was by turns challenging, welcoming, easy, difficult intense, relaxed, and many other things as well. This was a great show: an evening predicated on the spontaneous but provided with a thoughtful and engaging framework. The exuberance one hears in McBride’s playing was confirmed by his remarks between numbers: he is a charismatic host, self-deprecating and self-assured, funny, unexpected, and warm. He has wonderful capacity able to engage with the audience not only through music both also with words, from his comments on the ways of college students to his invitation to a dancing child to join the band the following night for their gig in Kansas City. Does Inside Straight reflect in some mysterious way the big personality of its leader: the demonstrative, bald-headed rhythm section behind the impassive front men, Wolf and Wilson making for a complicated and compelling character? There is more to a concert than just music. An evening with Christian McBride and his band on stage twenty feet away makes one appreciate the accomplishment of Kind of Brown all the more, because one has the feeling of knowing him better. A memorable concert is not just about musical execution, but about the performance of personality: perhaps this is an illusion, but it is one that is often worth believing in.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org