A Conversation with Christian

16. April 2012
Released in DownBeat February 2012

Jazzkaar 2012: 25. April at 18.00 Marina Pavilion Christian McBride Trio

Christian McBride won’t be classified by genre. In September, he released the big band album The Good Feeling, which has received a Grammy nomination. In November, he put out a versatile collection of duets, Conversations With Christian, on which McBride is billed alongside both jazz mainstays and pop icons. And as the host of “The Lowdown: Conversations With Christian” on Sirius/XM Radio’s Real Jazz channel, McBride has conducted interviews with Roy Hargrove, Bill Charlap and Angelique Kidjo. It’s hard to define the virtuosic bassist, and in a recent conversation with DownBeat, McBride says he prefers to stay that way.

How were the creative processes different between The Good Feeling and Conversations With Christian?

Obviously you’re writing for improvised musicians as opposed to improvising for two people. In that sense, it’s different in that the actual size of the group is different. It really depends. With the Duets project, I worked with 13 musicians, so you have 13 different personalities, 13 different concepts, 13 different ways of communicating. But at the end of the day, it’s still kind of in the same family because it’s all based around my musical conversation with my partners. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in so many different so-called genres, so it’s not that alarming to me. I enjoy it. People say, “What’s it like working with Sting one day and Benny Golson the next?” As long as you know both playbooks, you just go in there and do what you’re supposed to do.

Are your conversations more about finding a common groove and synching up, or is it more of a contrapuntal back and forth?

It depends on who you’re working with. Take the Chick Corea duet, for example. We didn’t speak about anything beforehand. I told Chick, “Let’s go make up something,” and Chick said, “Great!” I like those situations where you have no idea what you’re going to do. You might land in some kind of groove. You don’t know if you won’t land on some kind of groove. But that’s a lot different than playing with Hank Jones, who says, “Let’s play a standard the standard way.” And that’s cool, too. So in terms of being the best musician you can possibly be, it’s a matter of learning as much as you possibly can. That way, when you get into these situations, it’s not a big deal. Finding a common groove doesn’t necessarily mean a groove in the musical sense. It’s just about finding more of a common ground, so to speak. What’s even more of a challenge is if you play with someone that says, “Well, I like to go here,” and you want to go somewhere else. You say you want to meet in the middle, but that person wants to stay in their comfort zone. That’s taking your ego out of it. If that person really wants to go there, I guess I’ll go there. They’re missing out, though [laughs].

Being able to forgo your ego is a key point of good musicianship.

Absolutely. I think that’s what I love able working with Chick Corea because I work with Chick in various settings, and his groups and different collaborative efforts—like him with John McLaughlin. Chick is always the kind of guy that says, “Whatever you want to do is fine.” I love someone that can be that flexible and who can shine in any sort of situation you put them in. Herbie Hancock’s the same way, but that’s been well-established for decades.

What made you think that pieces like “Shake N’ Blake” and “Science Fiction” that were initially written for small combos would be characteristic of a big band piece?

[With] “Shake N’ Blake,” I just felt that the melody was such that if I expanded it and blew it out, so to speak, it seemed to make good sense as a big band tune. And with “Science Fiction,” I actually didn’t know if that was going to work. I always knew, even when I originally wrote it for my small group, that there was something bigger surrounding it. So for the big band version, I wrote this new intro and put this middle section in. I tried to get into my cinematic head, so to speak. But I have a lot of fun writing for that. It’s a lot of work.

You called “Broadway” a “natural habitat.” Whatis Christian McBride’s natural habitat, musically? Where do you feel most at home?

I was speaking of tempo more so than vibe. I tend to gravitate toward that sort of tempo. I told someone the other day that even when I’m not thinking about music, I tend to snap in that tempo [laughs]. That’s just my natural body rhythm. I just like music that has a real hard, strong groove. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a swing groove, a funk groove, a Latin groove. But as long as that pulse is really strong, I like that. That’s just my thing.

Talk about some of the differences between you as a sideman and you as a leader.

I again have to mention Chick Corea, because I think there’s this notion that there’s a difference. I’ve realized that even if there’s a leader, there’s still an element of support and democracy involved. When I’m a leader in my own band, I don’t make it a dictatorship. Yes, it’s a conceptualization of mine at the end of the day, but inside of that I realize that everybody has his own perspective. Everybody needs a place in which they can shine, so you create with that in mind. As a sideman, just because you’re in someone else’s band doesn’t mean you don’t have say-so. But there’s also that thing that says, “Hey, this is not my band.” The person who called me has the final say, and that should be OK. I’m surprised how many musicians get on a gig as a sideman and then try to tell the band exactly what it is that they do. You’d be surprised how often that happens. That really bothers me [laughs].

If that’s how you feel, then why don’t you get your own band?

Between the two albums, what is the more accurate reflection of where you are creatively these days? Oh, I’m all of those people. The big band writer, the duets guy. I’m still very much a funk and soul and r&b electric bass player as well. I like to wear all those hats.

So you’re expanding your repertoire rather than transforming your sound.

I get so much joy spanning the musical globe. It’s all about experimentation, and like I said, my natural habitat, where my strength lies is in a very, very strong groove, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a real joy playing music where the groove is flexible and kind of moves in and out.

Do you have an Achilles’ heel?

As a trained musician, you really try to get all of the tools you possibly can. So no matter what situation you’re in, you can thrive. If I’ve ever been in an uncomfortable situation, it’s never been so much [a question of] “Am I able to?” It’s a matter of confidence, ego. All of that is intertwined. Man, especially when I’m playing classical. A few times this year, I did performances with the Shanghai Quartet. I find that playing classical music has nothing to do with the instrument or the technique or the music, but it’s a head thing, like, “What are these classical musicians going to think of me?” I’ve got to get out of that. That’s a mental, personal hang-up. I’ve got to stop doing that and just play the music the same way as I would anything else.

Is it more difficult to experiment with new arrangements, like with the big band, or to maintain the integrity of an original in a tribute?

That’s always a challenge because it’s always the question of, “How do you pay tribute to a creative artist?” Do you play that person’s music the way that they played it, or is the tribute [one in which] you take liberties and think freely about the music as that artist? You have to meet in the middle. If you listen to Mingus, there’s a certain thing, you know when you hear it. It’s like an angry Duke Ellington, like a ‘hood Duke Ellington or something. Do you go into it thinking, “Well, we have to play it like that?” Or do you say, “Well, if Mingus were alive, I’m sure Mingus would say, ‘Play what you feel or play what you hear. Do what you do?'”

Because you’re an artist who also hosts a radio show, you’ve done interviews from both sides of the microphone. What have you learned about the art of conducting an interview?

Besides music, I’ve thoroughly studied talk show hosts, because I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve love politicians at press conferences, even two people having a regular conversation, or conversational chaos, like five people in the room, you got three different conversations going on simultaneously. I’ve always paid close attention to that. I think when you interview somebody, it’s the exact same thing as playing music with that person. You feel their personality really quickly. You feel their vibe. Since I’m the one that’s the host, I navigate where I think it should go, and then I follow that person to see if they agree with me. I just keep feeling them out. You should always have a format. You should always have a plan, but you should also be able to still operate if that plan doesn’t go as planned.

Have you had any particularly surprising interviews?

I hope that never happens. I’ve only done eight shows, but I still do the interview series at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem when I’m in town. You find people who are extremely talkative [and] people who aren’t very talkative. I remember one time we had a musician, without naming names…no matter what I asked this person, it was like one or two words. And they weren’t trying to be a wise ass. I could just tell that’s how they really were. I hate to do all the talking, and I try really, really hard to kind of get to the core, some verbal oil, but I couldn’t get anything, man!

Do you have any dream interview subjects?

You know who I interviewed for my second season? It hasn’t been released yet, but I’m editing it right now, it’s Quincy Jones. That was a big thrill. I find that almost anybody who ever interviews Quincy Jones, they always talk about his early years or the pop life. I specifically wanted to ask him about jazz and orchestrating and arranging, getting into Hollywood in the ’60s—all those things that no one ever thinks to ask him. I had a chance to interview him about a year ago, and it wasn’t long enough. I had a chance to talk to him for about an hour, and I thought, “Man, I need like four hours.”

Especially to interview him in such a different context.

Right. There’s a lot of people I would like to talk to in the setting of my show, because I like to keep it personal. I like to give that person the respect of knowing as much as I can about them so I’m not asking these general, lame questions. Where were you born? How old were you when you started? Ugh, God, use the Internet to find that out.

Are you reaching a broader audience with the show, so far as spreading the gospel of jazz? Who is the audience?

That question is different nowadays. It’s a wild West world with the Internet and who you’re able to reach. I don’t really know who my core audience is, aside from jazz lovers, but I have been able to find some new fans outside the jazz world, be it in pop, sports or local politics. There’s a great level of diversity in my audience, and I hope I can keep that up.

So the most effective route is going outside the realm of jazz?

All of us should be doing that every day. Just because you reach out doesn’t mean you should lose your core. I think that’s a general rule of everyday life, no matter what endeavor you’re in.