In the jazz universe, space - thanks to a sprawling legacy of pioneers that spans a millennium - is NOT "the final frontier." But it is a challenging and creative atmosphere for exploration and improvisation that is among the music's most rewarding playing fields for artists and listeners alike.
Over the course of three albums as a leader and over a hundred as a sideman, internationally renowned bassist Christian McBride has revealed the curiosity and the discipline to bend and shape space at will. Now, with a brand new band and an engaging new album, Sci-Fi (Verve), McBride is again ready to take listeners on a thrilling aural adventure. Seven original compositions, four choice covers, and five keenly utilized special guests insure that the ride is one of masterful intrigue and wonder.
"For lack of a better description," McBride says, "Sci-Fi is my 'acoustic fusion' record - certainly more acoustic than anything I've recorded as a leader in a while. After I wrote the song "Science Fiction," the performance turned out so great that I decided to revolve the album around it. But Sci-Fi isn't so much about the title as is is about the record's sound concept."
It's an airy sound as laid out on the driving, boldly-going-where-no man-has-gone-before rush of "Science Fiction" and "Xerxes" (featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, who clearly has The Force with him). Rounding out Sci-Fi's soundscape are the celestial grace of "Lullaby For a Ladybug" (featuring a lovely vocalese by Dianne Reeves), "Uhura's Moment Returned" (McBride's inspired melding of Alexander Courage's "Theme from Star Trek" and Oliver Nelson's jazz classic, "Stolen Moments"), and "The Sci-Fi Outro," (a collage for bass and synthesizers).
The album opens with McBride's inventive arrangement of Steely Dan's "Aja". McBride breaks the song into shifting meters of 3/4 and 4/4, then inverts composers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's original solo sections. Where Wayne Shorter took his soaring sax solo, there is now a tastefully fluid guitar break by David Gilmore. "We played it on the road for two months before we recorded it," McBride says. "I tweaked the arrangement several times in the process."
Destined for widespread appreciation is McBride's version of the Police's "Walking on the Moon,". Here, McBride ingeniously conjures the haunting weightlessness of touching down on the moon. Switching to electric bass, he plucks with a precision similar to that of B.B. King milking the most out of a single note. "I was shooting for a spaciousness in the mix that resembled Quincy Jones' Walking in Space," he shares.
McBride also sinks his chops into compositions by two bass giants of the '70s jazz fusion revolution. "Butterfly Dreams," composed by Stanley Clarke, finds McBride turning in a deeply sensitive performance on bowed upright bass. Though the song is best known for its vocal recordings by Clarke (with Andy Bey) and Flora Purim, McBride elected to render the song instrumentally. The other piece
is "Havona," composed by the late fretless electic bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, who cut it as a member of the groundbreaking band Weather Report. Ever in search of bold new ways to approach a piece, McBride plays the song on acoustic bass - daunting sixteenth note runs and all.
"Via Mwandishi" is McBride's hypnotic nod to the criminally-undersung works that Hancock recorded with a sextet in the late '60s and early '70s that explored mood, texture, space and their relation to African American culture like none before them. The song is based on a suite Hancock composed entitled "Ostinato" "-- a musical term that means bassline. McBride says "Herbie's Mwandishi sextet is among my all-time favorite bands. It amazes me how many piano players that call themselves Herbie fans aren't up on that period. The Mwandishi and Crossings albums contain some of the most daring music I've ever heard in my life. The bass clarinet of James Carter lends tremendously to the mystique of this piece, recalling the mojo of Mwile Bennie Maupin of the Mwandishi band.
The last of McBride's new compositions is the bittersweet "I Guess I'll Have To Forget," which showcases the quintessentially poignant harmonica of Brussels' Jean "Toots" Thielmans. "I started writing that song when my A Family Affair tour started," McBride remembers. "Each time something tested me personally and professionally, it sparked me to work on it. Now the song represents a way to forget things that are difficult to deal with."
Among McBride's recent trials was the unraveling of his previous band. Within a two-week period in the midle of his tour, pianist Charles Craig had to leave due to a family emergency while drummer Greg Hutchinson departed to join Joshua Redman's band. A year after that, saxophonist Tim Warfield also left for new challenges. McBride accepted it all with healthy attitude and found an exciting, new band.
"[Drummer] Rodney Green was a good friend of Warfield's. He started coming to our shows, watching the band like he was studying for an exam. I flew him to Orange County for a gig and showed him the music. He told me, 'I don't need that,' and proceeded to play my music perfectly that night. That's when I knew he was a talent to be reckoned with. [Keyboardist] Shedrick Mitchell was watching my shows, too. His father was a preacher, so he comes from that gospel/R&B world where you can't hold back. He plays with a lot of melodic and rhythmic convicton - bringing assuredness and soul to anything we play. He's fearless!
"I've known [tenor and soprano saxphonist] Ron Blake for many years - since we used to run into each other on the road when he was in playing with Roy Hargrove. He plays in a very modern way without sounding like Shorter, Henderson, or Coltrane. He attacks from another angle. Ron's very much into letting the rhythm section play him and he uses space impeccably."
Recorded in New York City over three days, Sci-Fi represents the supersonic debut of the Christian McBride Band.