"Even as a little kid, I knew jazz was a great art form, but I didn't really like it," admits jazz bassist Christian McBride. "It's not that I disliked it. But at that point, being that young, I would rather listen to my pop and my R&B more than jazz."
McBride hasn't entirely renounced other musical forms; his nickname--"The Godson of Soul"--references his extreme devotion to the catalogue of James Brown. But he switched directions when he got his hands on Jazz at Massey Hall, a 1953 recording of the Charlie Parker Quintet, featuring trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Max Roach and Parker (identified as "Charlie Chan" to avoid a contract violation) on plastic saxophone. This lineup is capable of inspiring anyone, and it certainly did the trick with McBride. "That record changed my life," he gushes. "The first time I heard Charlie Parker, that was it. That's when I started to understand the artistry of what musicians did."
At 23, McBride has clearly learned to incorporate these lessons into his own approach to jazz. Five years after he burst into the jazz public's consciousness, he continues to reap plaudits from all corners. He's the critical darling of the moment, and following the release of Number Two Express, his second album on the Verve label, he's got the sales to match. More important, however, is the quality of his playing--which is very high indeed. With the possible exception of Charlie Haden, McBride is the first bassist since Mingus to serve as the leader of a significant jazz ensemble. In short, he's got it all.
McBride doesn't seem fazed by his good fortune. "I don't take much of that praise seriously," he confides, "because it all comes from this new day and age of marketing and press hooks. They've got to call you 'young lions'--and they're out there saying stuff like, 'Christian McBride is the greatest since Mingus' and 'Joshua Redman is the next Coltrane.'
"The older musicians who didn't have this kind of media exposure really get shocked and surprised when they hear those kind of things," he acknowledges. "And that's completely understandable. But the reason we don't get upset is that we understand why people say it. It's not that they actually believe it. And it's certainly not for us to believe, them talking that way about us. Because, man, once we start believing that kind of stuff, then that's where we fall."
As a result, McBride chooses to focus on the work itself. "My whole attitude in the first place is just about the music," he says, his deep, lilting voice hinting at his inner passions. "If I get a recording contract, fine. If I happen to be successful, fine. If I don't get a recording contract, fine. If I don't happen to be successful--well, that's fine, too, as long as I get to play."
And play he has. Despite his youth, he's appeared as a sideman on an estimated 75 recordings, alongside such stellar talents as Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, Carl Allen, Benny Green, Roy Hargrove, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others. In addition, he's one of two bassists (Ron Carter is the other) in Kansas City, filmmaker Robert Altman's soon-to-be-released jazz, gangsters and gals epic. Among the other jazzers involved are Geri Allen, David Murray, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Craig Handy, Jesse Davis, Victor Lewis, Don Byron and Mark Whitfield.
Gettin' to It, McBride's acclaimed 1994 debut album, gave him the right to rub shoulders with these pros. About his new offering, he says, "I don't mean to sound prejudiced, but I'm actually very happy about it--because I think I was successful in making a drastically different-sounding recording than my first one. My first one was really a basic, simple-sounding record. Which isn't bad--I still love my first record. That's the roots of what I call my recording-career tree. Every album that I do will grow out of that album. But this new album sounds completely different, and it's more into what I like to listen to and what I like to play right now. It represents my current creative mind."
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The disc also showcases McBride's stunning technical skills. He feels that the bass has no limitations--and he hopes that he doesn't have any, either. "At least I try not to have any," he allows. "Actually, I started so young that I didn't know that there were supposed to be any limitations to the instrument. I was young and naive enough not to even think that there were limitations of size or anything. The only thing I don't use my instrument for is writing. Most of the time I do all my writing on the piano."
As a composer, McBride is emerging as an important jazz voice. He claims to have no inside information about where the music is headed, but he is dedicated to keeping it fresh. "I guess it's just the hunger to want to grow," he says. "I mean, we all grow at different stages. People can sit around and complain that the music sounds the same and it's not moving fast enough. But you can't force it to change. It has to change on its own. So I don't really think it's for us to say where the music might wind up. That's the whole beauty of it--no one knows. We just have to wait and see what happens. If we knew where it was going to go, we could just go there; we wouldn't have to wait around."
When it comes to his own future, McBride has a clearer idea about what he wants to do next. "I try to have a general plan," he divulges, "and so far it seems to have worked in my favor. When I first moved to New York, I really had this hungry attitude. I wanted to work with all the greatest musicians that I possibly could, who could teach me and inspire me to want to do better at all times. Be it in the form of a sideman, be it in the form of a bandleader--whatever comes, I just want to stay around the best musicians. And they will push me to become a better musician."
The Christian McBride Quartet. 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $15, 322-2308.