Busy performer Christian McBride is about to become ubiquitous
For local jazz buffs, this is the summer of Christian McBride. The 43-year-old bass virtuoso will perform with a pair of Grammy-winning trios over the next couple of months, leading his own at Scullers on June 3 and 4, then joining Chick Corea and drummer Brian Blade at Rockport Music (July 25 and 26), the Newport Jazz Festival (July 29 and 30), and Tanglewood (July 31). All of this comes as he settles into his new role as Newport’s artistic director, succeeding the festival’s legendary cofounder, George Wein.
McBride was already juggling assorted off-stage roles — most prominently hosting National Public Radio’s “Jazz Night in America” — when Wein announced in March that he was handing over the artistic director gig, and promoting Danny Melnick to producer. But McBride knew all along he would remain an active musician.
“George made it clear,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to compromise any of your relationships, because at the end of the day you're still a bass player. I don’t want you calling up musicians and saying, Hey, you want to play the festival? Let’s work out the details. No, no, no, no — you don’t do any of that. You think up who you want to have, and then Danny makes the calls.’ ”
McBride expects his preferences to resemble what Wein has been booking the past decade or so: jazz as broadly defined, with occasional pinches of other genres for seasoning.
“George told me specifically that one of the reasons he felt comfortable with me stepping into his shoes is because I’ve had a far-reaching concept of what jazz is and what it can be, how it fits into festivals,” says McBride. “He liked the fact that, although I’m pretty democratic in different forms of jazz, the common denominator is straight-ahead jazz. Real jazz will never be a minority at any festival that I’m involved in.”
Jazz that’s less straight-ahead remains welcome, too. “I shouldn’t hold it against an artist if they decide they don’t want to play music that’s coming out of Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley. They shouldn’t be penalized for that; they should have an opportunity to perform at a major festival.”
Don’t expect pop artists to proliferate the way they have at some jazz festivals. Those with long memories may recall Wein himself announcing that he was refocusing on jazz more exclusively for the 50th Newport Jazz Festival in 2004, a policy he has since maintained.
“That’s the concept that I intend to continue at Newport,” says McBride. “Mostly jazz, but I have no problem with bringing in a little bit of somebody funky or somebody from the rock world.” He remembers once watching rapper Mos Def at Newport. “It wasn’t Mos Def doing his usual thing,” he clarifies. “He was working with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble from New Orleans. I thought it was great.”
Planning for future festivals won’t be underway fully until this one is over. More immediately, there are those trio dates coming up in Boston. McBride won his fifth Grammy this year for best improvised jazz solo on his trio album “Live at the Village Vanguard,” belying the old joke about nobody listening to bass solos. Jerome Jennings has since taken over for Ulysses Owen Jr., on drums, after previous stints with Sonny Rollins and Dee Dee Bridgewater. McBride was particularly impressed by the Bridgewater connection.
“Any drummer who knows how to play behind a singer, that’s the kind of drummer you want,” he says. “No matter what style band you have, drummers who know how to work with singers, that’s a serious thing for me.”
McBride first encountered pianist Christian Sands, a protege of Hank Jones and Billy Taylor, while subbing as host for Marian McPartland on “Piano Jazz.”
“At the time he must have been 19,” McBride recalls. “I was surprised I hadn’t heard about him, because I always thought of myself as someone who’s got his ear to the ground. But when I heard him play that day I was really upset I’d never heard of him, because he was so incredible. I said, ‘Man, this kid is something.’ And we started working together almost immediately after that.”
Christian McBride Trio