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For his Mack Avenue recording debut, the 36-year-old bassist / bandleader / educator / artistic director / Grammy Award winner CHRISTIAN McBRIDE delivered the remarkable Kind Of Brown, a 10-track album featuring his new acoustic jazz quintet Inside Straight, comprised of old friends, pianist Eric Reed, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Carl Allen, as well as newcomer vibraphonist Warren Wolf, one of McBride’s former students.
Produced by McBride, Kind Of Brown is a collection of hard swing-to-bluesy groove tunes that the leader says he put together to give the members of his new ensemble “something to sink their teeth into.” He adds, “I wanted to present solid melodies with some decent chord changes that could be good vehicles for the guys to blow on.”
While McBride has helmed a longstanding acoustic / electric quartet—label mate and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, pianist Geoffrey Keezer, drummer Terreon Gully—the bassist extraordinaire decided to create a new quintet that was focused on playing straight-ahead acoustic jazz. Formed in June 2007, the group made its debut at the Village Vanguard in New York, marking the first time in 10 years that McBride appeared there as a leader. “For the occasion I wanted to put together a special group,” he says. “I had no intention of forming a future working band, but during that week people raved about the show and kept telling me that the group had to be documented.”
While various labels courted the quintet, McBride decided to hook up with Mack Avenue. “I was not interested in signing an old, classic recording contract,” he said. “But Mack Avenue made it clear that it was not only excited about me joining its family of artists, but also wanted to give me the freedom to be creative, which would be beneficial to both parties.”
Recorded in September 2008 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif., Kind Of Brown stands as McBride’s first album as a leader since his 3-CD Live at Tonic outing for Ropeadope Records in 2006 and his first studio recording since 2003’s Sci-Fi for Verve Records.
However, McBride has been anything but idle during this period. He’s been active as a sideman, most recently touring with the Chick Corea / John McLaughlin Five Peace Band project (also featuring label mate Kenny Garrett and either drummer Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade). He’s not only developed into a top-tier solo artist who is equally adept on acoustic and electric bass, but he’s also been the go-to bassist, with support duties ranging from Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to Diana Krall and Sting.
In addition, he has been at the forefront of jazz education, including serving as an artist in residence at festivals (most recently 2008’s Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival); artistic director at various arts centers and museums (including co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and the creative jazz chair for the Los Angeles Philharmonic); and as artistic director of the JAS Band Academy (Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Band Edition).
Kind Of Brown opens with “Brother Mister,” which McBride says is the perfect opening tune for a gig or a record. “The chordal sequence is a basic 12-bar blues,” he says. “I started playing a version of the song with my quartet when we’d have a guest play with us, but it never had a melody. So, for this recording, I put a melody over the chord changes, changed keys from F to E and it came out nice.”
McBride and Inside Straight deliver a buoyant, exciting take on the Freddie Hubbard number, “Theme for Kareem.” “I always had a soft spot for Freddie,” McBride says of the late, legendary trumpeter. “Carl was instrumental in me getting to play with Freddie when I first moved to New York. Carl was kind of like my sponsor. He recommended me to Freddie, who initially felt that an 18-year-old player wasn’t ready for the big time. But he took a chance with me, and it was a great thrill to play with him. I wanted to record at least one Freddie song on Kind Of Brown. I decided to do ‘Theme for Kareem.’ It has a lot of meat on it, and it’s hard because the chord changes go by real quick. It’s a tricky song by a great composer.”
The gently grooved “Rainbow Wheel” is a tune McBride came up with while playing chord changes on the piano. “Jazz players love playing minor thirds, but I thought, how many songs go up and down in major thirds? So that’s what I did. It reminds me of the way Freddie played. He would have eaten alive a song like this.”
The lyrical, slow-tempo “Starbeam” is another song whose genesis can be traced back to the Christian McBride Band library. “I wrote it three years ago, and we played the tune, but I could never find the time to finish it,” he says. “I could never find the end. When I was planning to put the music together for Kind Of Brown, I was inspired to sit back down at the piano to finish this, to play the melody all the way through.”
On “Used ‘Ta Could,” play is the operative word. It opens with a funky acoustic bass line and has an oozing blues-gospel feel throughout. “I wanted to make the guys laugh when they were playing this,” says McBride. “This song is silly, but fun silly. It’s a ¾ vamp that I thought we could have fun on, especially in the middle when we get to deliberately play a little bit sloppy.”
The whimsical “Shade of the Cedar Tree” is a new version of the tune from McBride’s first album, 1995’s Gettin’ To It on Verve. A tune that, according to vibraphonist Stefon Harris, “is clearly on its way to becoming a standard.” “I get a lot of requests for this song, and a lot of kids play it in jam sessions,” he says. “But there was a mistake in the original version where Roy Hargrove tripped over one note in the melody. I figured this was the perfect time to give the tune its definitive performance.”
“Pursuit of Peace” is a tune that Reed brought to the session. “Because all the guys in the band are so creative, I didn’t feel like I had to write everything,” McBride says. “So, as soon as I requested song suggestions from them, Eric immediately asked me to listen to this, and I loved it. It fit the mode for the album, and it’s not too traditional. Plus, it’s got an interesting bass line. It’s quite involved, which was another reason why I wanted to record it. It put me on the spot. It made me work.”
The other slow-tempo tune on the album is another McBride original, “Uncle James,” which is a tribute to the late pianist James Williams. “This song exemplifies what James was all about,” McBride says. “Young jazz artists have all been taught that we have to write something challenging to be modern, that to be different you have to come up with something new. But James never believed that. He wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel each time he wrote a song. He was all about fine melodies and chord changes. He wrote songs that were pretty. He wrote a song titled ‘Arioso.’ I used the last four bars of his melody in this tune as my tribute to James.”
The tour de force “Stick & Move” opens with bright rhythmic leaps. “It’s a basic blues,” says McBride. “I told the guys, hey, it’s a blues, go for broke. So everyone jumped in and played.”
Kind Of Brown closes with a piano-bass duo on the standard “Where Are You?” It was a tune that McBride’s bass mentor Ray Brown taught him from a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert with Ben Webster. McBride also has a Frank Sinatra recording of the tune. “I’m always on a quest to find songs that are obscure standards,” he says. “This has a gorgeous melody that’s nice and simple. It’s a great song for a duo. I love duets. Eric already knew this song, so it was a perfect fit.”
Kind Of Brown is one of many projects that McBride has set into motion for 2009, which marks his 20-year anniversary since his arrival on the international jazz scene. Other endeavors include the innovative “Conversations With Christian” interview-duet performance series available as digital downloads culminating into a full 20 song album, plus a summer big band residency in New York. While the quintet’s performances had been limited to the weeklong Vanguard stint and one-off shows at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in Brazil, McBride and his new ensemble Inside Straight will be on the road throughout the year performing songs from Kind Of Brown.