The Christian McBride Quartet delivers “fusion” in the truest sense of the word — an organic melding of varied ingredients to achieve a personal vision.

Hot Fusion

When jazz bassist Christian McBride plays the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall on Feb. 2 with his quartet, the last thing he wants while he plays is respectful silence. “We thrive on audience participation, big time,” he says during a telephone interview. “A lot of people treat jazz as fine art. Entertainment gets thrown out the window. But if the music is burning, people want to have an emotional reaction. Often the concert-hall surrounding intimidates them; they just sit there.” Whether he is playing in a large concert hall or a small jazz club, McBride’s performance is anything but staid. McBride knows that when people get excited, they get involved. At 28, McBride has played on more than 70 recordings with musicians as diverse as Kathleen Battle and Betty Carter to Bruce Hornsby and Wynton Marsalis. His sense of tone and time, and ability to balance individual innovation and group expression has made him a first-call sideman, often playing with the great musicians who defined the postwar jazz tradition. His taste in music, however, is not bound by category. “I have a reputation for acoustic, straight-ahead jazz,” he says, “but what I listen to at home is fusion, funk, classical. The music I like participating in is open, heady. You listen to the bass parts in Bach, the Brandenburg concerto, they’re like bebop lines.” McBride’s musical heroes are not just the recognized giants. He cites Cannonball Adderly, an alto sax player now best known as a sideman (with John Coltrane and Bill Evans), as an important influence. “He put together the first jazz-rock [fusion] band,” McBride says. “It was real jazz, but it had that pop edge, too. The audience would have a real good time listening to him. Another fusion band McBride admires is Return to Forever. “That first album, the one with the song ‘Crystal Silence’ on it, was beautiful,” he says. “I love that moody music.” The fusion balance was short-lived, however, an attempt to transcend genre that became a genre itself. RTF’s evolution was typical; the jazz-rock balance eventually tilted toward high-volume excess. “… They became a testosterone band,” McBride says. “[Return to Forever leader] Chick Corea told me that by the time of their last tours the promoters couldn’t sell seats in the rows near the stage — the band was too loud.” Many established jazz musicians disdained jazz-rock’s arena bombast, and resented its popularity. (Some were also embarrassed by their own attempts to cash in on the craze.) For the 28-year-old McBride, it’s just another branch of the tradition. Its peak was past before he was in kindergarten. The music on McBride’s recordings is “fusion” in the truest sense of the word, an organic melding of varied ingredients to achieve a personal vision. His 1996 album “Number 2 Express,” which the bassist says is the best representation of his intentions, extends a coherent musical vocabulary into sonically adventurous directions. His most recent CD, “A Family Affair,” is a soul-driven outing dedicated to influences ranging from Sly and the Family Stone (note the title) to Duke Ellington. McBride will start recording his next release almost immediately after his Richmond show. “A lot of people think that [the next album] will be even more R&B and funk, that the last album was a setup for that,” he says. “Actually it will be acoustic. I don’t like to stay on any concept too long; I like to experiment. I think the music should leave you to draw your own conclusions; it should stay in the middle, undefined.” McBride will play the new material at the University of Richmond with his new quartet, which includes fellow Philadelphia native Rodney Green on drums, Shedrick Mitchell on piano and veteran musician Ron Blake on tenor and soprano sax. As jazz has become recognized as “America’s Classical Music,” with increasing levels of high-quality programming on National Public Radio and public television, McBride has become one of the music’s best advocates. He is committed not only to preserving the music but, more importantly, to keeping it


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