By K.D. Norris
Christian McBride Trio, Nov. 16, at St. Cecilia Music Center, Grand Rapids, Mi.
If you came to St. Cecilia’s Royce Auditorium Thursday night expecting a typical jazz trio, with bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride leading the standard group through the standard repertoire and his taking the lion’s share of lead in the standard solos, you were both beautifully satisfied and, yet, a little blissfully surprised.
McBride — a multiple Grammy-winning jazz man at heart but willing and able to play where the spirit moves him — is famous for his ability to slide into any musical genre where a bass of any form is at home, as he is for not only sharing the stage with young, talented musicians but showcasing them.
So it was McBride being McBride in his return gig at St. Cecilia when, along with young pianist Emmet Cohen and equally young guitarist Dan Wilson, he invited the audience to explore with him in a nine-song, roughly 90-minute musical conversation that ranged from the classics (“I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” and Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady”) to 1980s pop (Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed”).
My favorite conversations of the night — jazz songs really are a conversation among players who speak the improvisational “language of jazz” — were two tunes written by Cohen: “Three of Us” and “You Already Know”. I think that’s their titles; they are new and announced from the stage!
(The “language of jazz”, as an aside, is a term taught to me by no-less an authority than Ellis Marsalis Jr. — father of the Marsalis jazz family — when I interviewed him a decade ago and asked a dumb question about playing a new tune with musicians for the first time and he gently gave a reporter a brief jazz masterclass.)
Whether it was McBride fighting off a blister on a finger, as it appeared, or just his feeling like showcasing the very talented Cohen, the bassist gave the pianist not only got his fair share of solos but the majority of the spotlight. The addition of Cohen’s second composition, in fact, was an admittedly unrehearsed decision which was musical proof of trio’s ability to speak the “language of jazz”.
McBride — blister, or whatever, and all — and Cohen were uniformly good in their fluid solos and able accompanying efforts, but Wilson’s guitar may have been the most unique part of the show — while his solos were tight and, often, experimental, his work as an accompanist gave the trio a rarely heard sonic landscape.
May I have more, please?
These days, an electric (or at least amplified) guitar is completely at home in the jazz genre — has been from the time of the classic Wes Montgomery (and anybody else you care to name), to the more modern George Benson and Russel Malone (and anybody else …), to the youthful Gilad Hekselman (and …)
But it wasn’t always so.
Jazz historians, an often argumentative lot they are, will often point to Charlie Christian as the groundbreaker for bringing the electric guitar to the jazz stage. In his short life — 1916-1942, a life cut short by tuberculosis in the years before any cure or even real treatment were known — Christian was a key figure in the popularity of swing jazz, the early development of bebop and, some argue, even the infancy of cool jazz.
His teaming of the guitar with amplification pushed the instrument out of the rhythm section of big bands and front stage as a solo jazz instrument. His day-job swing-jazz work with the Benny Goodman Sextet and his late night bebop sets in Harlem in the years before his death made him a legend among guitarists of all ilk — so much so that in 1990 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence”.
Whatever. The man could, like McBride, speak the language of jazz.
McBride’s visit was the beginning of St. Cecilia’s annual jazz series, which will include the Brad Mehldau Trio on Nov. 30, and singers Gregory Porter on Feb. 22, 2018, and Kurt Elling on March 22, 2018. For information on tickets and more information visit SCMC-online.org.