Christian McBride’s VERTICAL VISION is a record about a BAND.
In this media-driven age of the “superstar” soloist, perhaps the most overlooked role in small group jazz is that of actually leading the band. A complicated task at best, leading a band is way more than kicking off tunes and taking the first solos. Assuming the leaders’ marquee value is sufficient to support a regularly working group, he or she must first ponder a vision and/or concept likely to satisfy creative urges. Then comes the task of assembling a cast of sidemen whose playing skills, imagination and musical personalities are likely to mold into a unit capable of grasping and enhancing the leaders’ vision. This may sound like Music Biz 101 (back in the day it was), but in era in which every wunderkind soloist is immediately hoisted into “leadership” and a revolving door of sidemen, the knack of maintaining an interesting, on-going band has gone under-appreciated.
The template for today’s jazz world still stems from the late-1940’s, but much has changed since bebop forced the big band era into the history books. In bop’s early days, bands comprised of what became superstars abounded. Miles Davis, Max Roach, Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson worked for Dizzy and Bird before forming bands that included Percy Heath, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. The bucks weren’t big, but ample gigs supported an evolving art form that encouraged unselfish woodshedding. As the musical vocabulary expanded, bop’s first class of young lions “graduated” and formed bands chock full of stellar leaders-to-be such as Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver and Art Blakey. They in turn, introduced the next class - Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and too many colleagues to mention. On it went.
But today the landscape has changed. The art form has long been defined. Chop-laden youngsters are at every corner, so struggling to find something new to say that they devote little time to the qualities necessary to lead an interesting band. The gigs are sparser (if better paying), turning the support of a regular band into a luxury afforded only those with great tenacity and a niche in the market place. Christian McBride, thirty year old bassist extraordinaire, thankfully falls effortlessly into that category.
Christian McBride hit the scene (has it really been over thirteen years?) with a headline-grabbing burst of late-teen notoriety. Heralded for a warm musicality beyond his years (AND the maddest bass chops since Jaco Pastorius), McBride seldom struggled for work – paying tour dues with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Watson, Benny Golson, and Roy Hargrove. He frequently appeared alongside his mentor, the late Ray Brown in his popular “Superbass” group and later earned his way into bands led by Pat Metheny and Chick Corea.
As McBride’s stardom gained fashion, his resume stretched to include projects with everyone from Kathleen Battle to D’Angelo to Carly Simon, and now Sting. It’s no wonder that his undying yen to lead a band and play his own music was almost lost in his busy schedule. Ironically, his was a music that sometimes seemed interestingly at odds with what he performed so well in others’ bands. Behind Christian’s deceptively mature playing and affinity for surrounding himself with the masters he so respected, was the fact that his generation had embraced funk and fusion on equal footing with the jazz he was instantly associated with. The inevitable record deal and early tours as a leader gradually revealed that it could just as easily have been Jaco Pastorius, or JAMES Brown, at his side as RAY Brown. His younger fans understood – they too had grown up with “Cold Sweat”, “Mysterious Traveler” and “Kind Of Blue” wearing the same turntable.
Now…four records and untold tours later, McBride’s unit has grown into one of the least predictable and most intoxicating bands on the road. Never a mere collection of sidemen assembled to recreate their records, the McBride band allows new material to mature on stage before taking it to the studio. The band is ever-changing, ever trying on new things for size - challenging each other and audiences alike with a repertoire that stretches boundaries to reflect all that is McBride. Such is a performance by the Christian McBride Band. And, more than any record before it, such is VERTICAL VISION.
The current Christian McBride band consists of musicians who fully satisfy the picky requirements of their leader. All young stars with singular voices, McBride’s cohorts have all paid their dues and eagerly contribute their own compositions to their ever-expanding song book.
McBride was attracted to saxophonist Ron Blake as, “One of the few modern tenor players who doesn’t obviously sound like Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson. I think he has a very singular sound and concept. He’s like Lester Young or Chu Berry with a modern vocabulary”. A veteran of Roy Haynes’ and Roy Hargrove’s bands, Blake is also featured on soprano sax and flute. The bands’ senior member, Blake has been on the McBride stage for over three years. A skilled composer, his “Song For Maya” is one of VERTICAL VISION’s highlights.
Keyboard whiz Geoffrey Keezer, who’s been a terror on the scene for the last decade as a player AND a composer, wrote “Tahitian Pearl” and “Precious One” for the album. Geoffrey joined the McBride band in September, 2000, following stints with the late Art Blakey and Ray Brown. Christian describes Keezer as the band’s “instigator”.
“Geoff is always interested in playing something different”, continues McBride. Obviously not put off by mixing electronic keyboards with his piano prowess, Geoffrey “Just loves to push things to the limit. He makes us think.”
Drummer Terreon Gully has also been in the band for over two years. A native of East St. Louis, Gully has followed the footsteps of Miles Davis, Clark Terry and a crew of youngsters like Russell Gunn, out of Illinois and into the International music scene. Having toured and recorded with the likes of Dianne Reeves, Abbey Lincoln and Yerba Buena, Gully was more than prepared when drum master Jeff “Tain” Watts and the incomparable Dianne Reeves referred him to Christian. “Both Tain and Dianne raved about Terreon. If he was good enough for Tain and Dianne, I knew he’d be the right guy”.
The band is rounded out by David Gilmore and Danny Sadownick. Guitarist Gilmore hails from Boston and has been one of the most respected guitarists on the scene for over a decade. He’s worked in the groups of Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman, Don Byron, M-Base, as well as his own band, Kindread Spirits. He also played a pivotal role on McBride’s previous recording, “Sci-Fi”. Gilmore’s musical vocabulary is as varied as McBride’s.
Danny Sadownick is another “underground” star. Danny has graced countless recordings and played key roles in a variety of bands. On the more creative side of the r&b world, he has worked with MeShell N’degeocello, Maxwell and Renee Neufville - all the while juggling gigs with cult favorite Screaming Headless Torsos and writing material for his own Function Over Structure.
VERTICAL VISION is melting pot music that doesn’t sound like a “fusion” record. The great thing about the current scene is that time has removed enough fusion-prejudice to allow it’s diverse heritage to seep into this generation’s music without category. McBride has joined the ranks of the chosen few – a bandleader that has shaped a music altogether fresh while managing to reflect all that came before it. Maybe this art form isn’t wholly defined after all!
Duke Ellington, the template for all bandleaders, frequently described music as merely good or bad. Christian McBride must have studied Ellington too. Christian is an important composer, a virtuoso player, a savvy band leader who sees the entire landscape…..AND clearly recognizes the GOOD music.