Grammy-winning bassist, composer and bandleader Christian McBride played with his intriguingly named ‘New Jawn’ on a wintery Wellington wednesday to open the Wellington Jazz Fest. As he explained, a ‘jawn’ is simply slang from his hometown of Philadelphia for ‘thing’ or ‘project’, as in “Christian McBride has got a ‘New Jawn’ going on.” He sure does, and it is hot. McBride is a highly respected bandleader and figure in the jazz world having performed with his own ensemble for over twenty years now. However, this was the first stop on a world tour with this new quartet Josh Evans (trumpet), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax) and bass clarinet and drummer Nasheet Waits.
McBride is the real deal and was an excellent choice for the festival opener. He is host of NPR’s Jazz Night In America and an artistic director for the jazz program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (in Newark), the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and, as of last year, the venerable Newport Jazz Festival. As Will Friedwald puts it in the Observer:“There’s no doubt that the No. 1 bandleader, spokesman, and role model of the contemporary jazz scene is Wynton Marsalis. But, as a virtuoso soloist, an organizer of many different ensembles, and an eloquent advocate for the music in general, bassist Christian McBride is right behind him.”
McBride let the music do the talking and didn't say much at all until 45 minutes into the set (about the length of a standard festival set), incidentally that was only two songs. These first two songs were Pier One Import, by Evans and a Larry Young tune Obsequious.
These two tracks were excellent with dynamic changes in tempo from frenetic pace to a loping casual groove. Mcbride was a rock solid presence in the middle of the stage with impressive triplet runs up and down the frets and bouncy twanging notes, micro-elaborations and a massive slap driving the whole thing along. Evans and Strickland dropped in and out and left stage when not playing giving a dynamic visual effect. When they were there they were there in full, playing with all their energy.
McBride’s Bass sounded at times to almost move into Eastern scales and the contrapuntal melodies of trumpet and sax interwove and harmonised alternately. When the band dropped down to just bass and drums for a section of Pier One Import we really saw what these two could do together as they traded solos in evolving time signatures in total synchronicity.
Waits drumming was insane and full of fire and creativity throughout with trills and rolls, great tom's sounding like African djembes and punchy military style snares, tintinnabulation of the cymbals and a solid kick synching up perfectly with the bass, or at times wandering off on side tangents.
Obsequious was a great tune with the Sax at times screeching smoothly with beautiful sound and timbre and at other times staccato bursts, farcical ‘rusty bugle’ sounds. It had a real 'Miles Davis' soulful feel with an Eastern or Spanish Gypsy “sketches of Spain’ tinged vibe.
When McBride did speak it was with a genuine warm voice, that I felt like I already knew (radio announcer voice?) and he had a great sense of humour. He said how great it was to be back in New Zealand and that he had ‘appropriately’ been walking around in his “All Blacks” jersey, but added that the name was “a bit misleading.”
He also introduced the band saying Strickland is one of the finest reed players in jazz today and that they have spent ten years playing together. And that he had known Waits for 25 years but this was their first band together.
A highlight for me was Christian’s original song ‘Brother Malcolm’ part of his Movement Revisited work with choral director JD Steele. It is “bluesy and soulful oratorio for big band, gospel choir with soloists, and four speakers representing great figures of the Civil Rights Movement.” The work was inspired by the written words and speeches of Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Barack Obama and in this case Malcolm X. We didn’t get the choral elements here, but it was an excellent and moving piece full of raw emotion. This NPR story delves into the interesting project and McBride's backstory:
This piece featured the best example of Christian’s bass skills with a bass solo ranging from classical or flamenco guitar, to 80s digital computer sounds and deep bouncy drawn out bass lines. It had beautiful sax lines with deep rich timbre and a dramatic New Orleans southern feel. You could feel the pain and sadness emotion in the piece, building up into rebellious and proud lines then fading out to noise and ending with a funeral march.
The piece then evolved into an original piece by Strickland, which was a great juxtaposition and a highlight for me. It had an atmospheric subdued drum beat and repetitive done bass sound in a 5 beat time holding it all together repeating over and over at different speeds. The solos came in an out starting slowly repeating different variations on the bass motif and building back up to fast pace before uniting for a final flourish of hamony. A sublime piece of music and the crowd was entranced with feet tapping showing more than just me would have rather been dancing than sitting in a stuffy Opera House for this one. This was a great show and I would definitely see him again. I hear his other band is more electric and heavy on the funky soul and fusion. I’d really love to see that, and hopefully in a dancier setting.
In the meantime, apparently we can look forward to an album of these latest songs in the future.