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Published: 2006/05/14
by Brad Farberman

Live at Tonic – Christian McBride

Ropeadope Records

Many passages from Miles Davis’ excellent autobiography are unforgettable (i.e. the trumpeter’s infamous cab ride with Bird), and I was reminded of one while checking out Christian McBride’s latest, the triple-disc Live at Tonic.

When Davis first arrived in New York, he used to sit in at Minton’s Playhouse, the Harlem club that saw the birth of bebop (the house band included Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk). But sitting in back then could be risky; playing poorly could cost you more than just your pride.

“If you got up on the bandstand at Minton’s and couldn’t play,” said Davis, “you were not only going to get embarrassed by people ignoring you or booing you, you might get your ass kicked.” One night, he recalls, a man was dragged offstage by an irate jazz fan and beaten in the alley next to Minton’s. Apparently, the musician had been more interested in getting noticed by women that night than in contributing anything valuable to the music.

Anyway, this story came to mind because, from what I could tell as I watched disc two unfold last year (Tonic documents McBride’s two-night, four-set, guest-ridden stand at the famed NYC venue in January 2005; I made it to night one, set two), Christian’s guestfest had little or nothing in common with the so-called cutting sessions’ that defined bebop in its formative years. In sharp contrast, McBride and his band were friendly, supportive, and looking for a good time that night. Live at Tonic is high in jam, low in ego.

And spilling over in talent. Here’s the deal: two nights in a row, the Christian McBride Band kicked it at Tonic. The first set each night was straight CMB: Ron Blake on saxes, former Jazz Messenger Geoffrey Keezer on keys, Terreon Gully on drums and the tremendous McBride on basses.

The second sets, however, were considerably less straight: on night one, the quartet expanded to a seven-piece with the addition of Charlie Hunter on six-string guitar (a rarity for the 8-stringer), John Zorn cohort Jenny Scheinman on violin, and Jason Moran on acoustic piano. Night two saw the band become an octet featuring Soulive’s Eric Krasno on guitar, Scratch on beat box, DJ Logic on turntables and Rashawn Ross on trumpet.

The result: three discs of bad, bad funky jazz. This stuff should have Head Hunters fans drooling.

Disc one, comprising the best of each first set, is the tightest. If you want to hear the CMB burn through a set of originals propelled by McBride’s juicy bass runs and Gully’s monstrous beats, listen close to tracks like the rockish “Technicolor Nightmare,” or “Clerow’s Flipped,” a newer composition that moves back and forth between dirty, MMW-esque sections and crisp bop workouts.

The real fun, however, can be found on the second two discs, especially on disc two, featuring Hunter, Moran and Scheinman. The septet really digs deep during what could be their only performance ever, and comes up with a series of improvisations that could only have sprung forth from a date featuring James Brown, Jaco and Miles Davis. Or these cats, it seems.

But that’s not all you get. Throughout Live at Tonic, the musicians present drop quotes like it’s going out of style. But, of course it’s not: McBride tosses out snippets of “Monk’s Dream” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” Moran offers the riff from “Hard to Handle,” Krasno throws in “Soul Power.” These guys (and girl) were having fun at Tonic those nights, recalling past victories for jazz and soul music, and inventing new ones. But, above all, they were creating comfortable environments for each other to shine in. You want to hear this.

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