Christian McBride: Live at Tonic (Ropeadope)

christianmcbrideBassist Christian McBride was among the young jazzers who rose to fame, albeit limited, in the brief boomlet of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as Blue Note and Verve competed to see which could groom the most snappily attired young stars in carefully themed and heavily guest-starred productions that mostly followed in the retro footsteps of the Marsalis brothers. McBride, probably like many of them, was more stylistically adventurous than many of those records allowed him to reveal, although in 2000 he finally unveiled his fusion impulses. Verve dropped him soon after that. After a one-off release three years ago on Warner Bros., he reappears on a more sympathetic label with this three-CD document of McBride’s two-night stand at downtown NYC club Tonic a year ago.

On disc one, compiling peak moments of the first sets, which were solely with his quartet, it’s clear that McBride’s fusion move was no whim; introducing a cover of Weather Report’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” he displays familiarity with that seminal band’s pre-“Birdland” setlist. The music on this disc in particular is heavily steeped in the heady fusion brew of Weather Report’s ‘70s heyday, though the more dissonant stylings of Miles Davis’s late ‘60s electric groups (key members of which went on to form Weather Report) are also heard at times.

Now, this style is 30+ years old now, so in a way it’s even more retro than the Marsalis clan’s ‘60s post-bop revivalism was in the early ‘80s. But fusion’s never gotten the same level of respect, due to the purists’ opposition to electricity and to loose vamp structures, so it feels less rote even though, honestly, it’s just a formulaic. Such philosophical issues aside, however, it’s great fun listening to this quartet: the leader alternating electric and acoustic basses; drummer Terreon Gully, who does yeoman duty throughout, hitting solid grooves; Geoffrey Keezer (the veteran of the band) deploying a varied array of vintage electric keyboard sounds along with acoustic piano; Ron Blake digging deep on tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones along with flute.

The parade of guests starts on disc two (night one, second set). Gully and McBride lay down a funky groove with a second-line flavor on the 29-minute “See Jam, Hear Jam, Feel Jam” as guitarist Charlie Hunter, then pianist Jason Moran, then violinist Jenny Scheinmann are introduced in turn to improvise over it. After it’s mutated into straight funk, Blake comes out and gets down honkingly. It peters down into the second track and then shifts into a cover of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit Loose.” Really, the 73-minute set is one unending jam (all guests remaining), with lulls inevitable but bearable. Keezer returns by the third track, and most of the highlights come from him, especially on Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew.” There are also spicy interjections by Moran on piano, and a scorching solo by Hunter (over a disco groove) near the end of the set, before it drifts into freeform sound-painting for an atmospheric coda.

Disc three opens similarly: a groove’s laid down by McBride and Gully, over which, for 32 minutes, guests are brought on one by one, but it has a more modern flavor to it thanks to those guests: Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, turntablist DJ Logic, trumpeter Rashaan Peterson, and human beatbox Scratch (ex-Roots). Now, this music is so about the beat that my modem sounds good over it (only Keezer really brings any harmonic interest to it, though Blake and Peterson blurt intense solos on the funky final jam), but it’s also so ebulliant that questions of comparative artistic merit seem irrelevant. It may not be profound, but the beat’s so deep it compensates.

It’s a brave label that puts out a three-CD set by a jazz bassist. Here’s hoping it works out well for the always adventurous indie Ropeadope, which has wisely priced the package at the cost of a single full-price disc. - Steve Holtje

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.

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