Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Christian McBride Situation - Yoshi's Jazz Club, Oakland, California - July 27, 2007

Open sessions of pure jazz improvisation were common back in the day. By “back in the day”, I mean the mid-seventies. You could catch these on Sunday afternoons at a number of clubs on either side of the bay. Frequently, top artists headlining at the marquee clubs would stop by, and you’d witness something truly special. The Christian McBride Situation represents an updated version of those sessions.

At the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival, McBride was without two of his usual band members due to scheduling conflicts. McBride brought Ron Blake and DJ Logic to the festival, to be joined by Patrice Rushen, who was appearing with Lee Ritenour. Backstage following her set with Ritenour, Rushen asked “What are we going to do?” referring to the set list. Christian replied: “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out”. That, along with another pre-performance conversation that included Blake and DJ Logic, was the rehearsal. What happened on the stage will go down as another of those legendary Monterey moments.

The version of the Situation that came to Oakland featured Rushen, once again, was on keyboards, and Bay Area saxophonist Dave Ellis. DJ Jahi Sundance manned the wheels of steel. Like the Monterey situation, there was no rehearsal, no charts, no set list, no plan, and no fear. The songs would be created, in the moment.

Sundance led off with a spoken word piece, then launched a beat-loop flavored somewhere between Afro-Cuban, Old-School Funk, Electronica, and Techno. After a moment of contemplation, McBride jumped in and created a fierce bass line that established the groove, and a counterpoint to the rhythms. Rushen was next in with complementing chords and riffs, setting in yet another style on top of the groove. Dave Ellis treaded cautiously at first, but soon realized the only way into this mix was to use a crowbar, as he pried his way in and took the first solo round.

It took all of 30 seconds to create an incredible flight of reckless, yet controlled fancy. Chord and key changes would come without warning, and many times, without a cue. They were usually initiated by Patrice, who gave no real visual or musical hint that they were coming. Ellis would watch her intently in anticipation. McBride had to be using a sixth sense. Which way was the change going, up or down, and by how much? They hit every change perfectly, the whole night, like they were following a chart. This was incredible to watch and hear.

The only way to describe the music is to say, you had to be there. After exhausting an idea, they transition into something new. McBride or Sundance would start, and the others would fall in with what they felt would work, or lay out until they had something that fit. I don’t know if a pre-show audience member about a Julian Priester Tribute that McBride participated in had any influence or not. Okay, it was me and Julian talking about that night in 1999 when the members of Herbie Hancock’s legendary quintet were reunited (minus Billy Hart, who had a conflict). Besides Herbie, there was Benny Maupin on sax and bass clarinet, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Julian Priester (who wasn’t expected to play, so soon after a liver transplant), and Buster Williams on bass. Subbing on drums was Terri-Lynne Carrington. They had just finished “I Have a Dream”, and Buster was leading with a trance-inducing intro to the next piece. When he started the opening vamp and the packed house audience realized what he was leading into, every jaw in the room dropped to the floor. It was “Ostinato, a Suite for Angela Davis”. Christian and I both recall standing in the wings, just losing it. With the Situation that night, McBride did something similar. However, he kept circling back to a phrase that was based on the bass line chorus of “You’ll Know When You Get There”, also from “Mwandishi”. It evolved into the only truly structured song of the set, a deeply moving rendition of “Maiden Voyage”.

McBride has scheduled more “Situations”, with a variety of personnel. Hopefully McBride will tape the various Situations, and releases a live compilation. Kudos to Christian McBride for having the courage to take on such a high risk venture, and bring back something long considered a lost art.

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