If the Olympics had a category for jazz trios, the Christian McBride Trio took the Gold Medal last Thursday night in the final 2012 Coral Gables Congregational Church Summer Series event. With a bass voice to match his bass instrument, McBride, center stage, regaled the audience with his stunning virtuosity and wit for a couple of sublime hours, plucking and bowing his ax into the hearts and souls of a packed house, folding chairs added to the ends of rows to accommodate the overflow of fans.
Remarkable were his two other players, the prodigy Christian Sands on piano and the devilish Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums. McBride framed Owens as “the number one call in the biz” and quoting George Benson regarding Sands, “He’s mean!” The heat was turned up on these three superb musicians all night long.
From the opening notes of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You” Sand's murderous keyboard was evident, the lid of his grand piano propped up launching every note out over the audience, Owens’s steady hands using the rims of his drums and cymbals to drive the rhythm forward. Midway through it, McBride took his first solo, instantly establishing his greatness with a plucked upper and lower bass run. Owens then revved it up, stopping, bobbing and weaving, crossing tempos as the lively conversation between the threesome concluded the piece. “Killer Joe” came next and it might as well been named “Killer Chris” as McBride, taking his solo in the center again, moved from walking bass lines to melody with the relaxed ease of an athlete. McBride, his height matched perfectly to his bass, is one of those few greats who turns the double bass into a featured instrument; his grooves were stout and smooth, his solos articulate and snappy.
McBride’s charm was on tap all evening, first asking, “How’s it going folks?” while mentioning how he missed us over the past 17 years since his last visit to South Florida, hoping that it wouldn’t be another 17 years before he returned, musing, “because of my name, it’s easy to get booked into a church.”
Several unlikely tunes of the evening came from the Richard Rodgers songbook including “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, a show tune from the 1935 Rodgers and Hart musical “Jumbo” which McBride dedicated to the wives and significant others in the audience. “I had a dream that Halle Berry and my wife had a fight, and my wife won,” McBride said as he lit into this swinging version of the tune. Owens was hard driving and took the center cut while Sands tore it up on piano. One would hardly guess that the virtuosic Sands, running melodic on the next tune, would dissolve into “My Favorite Things,” dishing out a robust rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from “The Sound of Music.” Owens kicked it out with a ten minute drum adventure that was remarkable in scope, McBride commenting at the end of this extended tune, “I’ve never seen that before. Keep it in.” A highlight of the evening was McBride bowing “I Have Dreamed,” the beautiful and haunting melody from R and H’s “The King and I.” All three players, their eyes closed, separated the audience from any conscious concerns they might have had during their day for several glorious minutes. This tune will be featured on the Christian McBride Trio CD which has yet to be released.
McBride, plucking with two fingers most of the night, went upstairs and made his bass talk on his composition, “I Guess I’ll Have to Forget”, a bossa nova piece ending with a single resonant bottom note fading into silence. He took the solo at the top of Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)”, finessing his instrument’s upper register, the piano trilling the melody simultaneously with the bass runs, McBride then bending the melody with considerable agility.
The final tune featured Sands on “Hallelujah Time” (Oscar Peterson), making his piano sound as if it had 176 keys. Sands and Owens challenged each other during the piece, fueled by McBride bowing with abandon.
McBride summed it up: “Music can bring everyone together, no matter your faith or politics.”
At 40 years old, Christian McBride sports an uncommon versatility, having worked as a sideman with Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, in the R&B universe with Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, and James Brown, and in pop/rock collaborating with Sting, Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby. As the leader, arranger and conductor of his big band, he garnered a 2012 Grammy Award for “The Good Feeling”. When I asked McBride about his first memory of the bass, he answered, “Watching my father play it.” (His father Lee Smith was a well known Philadelphia bassist.)
Christian Sands, now 23, has a maturity and versatility that belies his age. He studied with the great Billy Taylor and played with the formidable Oscar Peterson, appearing to channel “the spirits of jazz masters from all eras”. Ulysses Owens Jr., a multi Grammy Award Winning drummer, is a native of Jacksonville, Florida and a Juilliard graduate, possessing an extensive percussive vocabulary.
Kudos to Mark Hart for producing a musically diverse and culturally rich Summer Series with musical bookends the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Christian McBride Trio.