Christian McBride’s New Jawn – Wellington Opera House June 6, 2018

Bass player, bandleader, artistic director and go-to man Christian McBride has played with virtually every talented musician on the planet – from jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to James Brown, Sting, and even Carly Simon. 

photo: Stephen A’Court.

He’s currently the main man behind the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival and probably knows more about the genre that anyone currently living.  So it was my hope that I’d get a night of really great music, depth and experience to start my long weekend at this year’s Wellington Jazz Festival.

Backed by horn player Josh Evans, saxophonist Marcus Strickland and percussionist Nasheet Waits McBride lived up to his promise – well, at least my expectations.  I wouldn’t say that he’s the most experimental of artists.  His latest album was a great crowd pleaser.  Bringing It is a very upbeat, swinging sound featuring staples like Mr Bojangles and The Wee Small Hours.  But what McBride ‘brought’ was well past a simple bunch of covers and re-jigs.

photo: Stephen A’Court.

The concept “New Jawn” McBride explained was a kind of Philadelphia street slang for “new thang”, which gives plenty of license for his arrangements to break out of the usual tried and true interpretations.  For example, the use of two horn players (Josh Evans on trumpet and Marcus Strickland on sax) and two rhythm players (McBride on his upright and Nasheet Waits’ drum kit) is more like a pop band arrangement and differs from his usual 16 piece big band arrangements.  Nearly every big band derives its DNA from the greats like Ellington, Basie and Benny Goodman.  So it was great to see McBride shunning tradition, even stripping back to an almost busker level.

McBride has often ‘stolen’ from popular icons like James Brown but tonite’s repertoire was not quite as ‘funky’ as I’d hoped.  The band kicked off with two highly complex pieces that were a maelstrom of sound and chaos.  The accompanying light patterns of overlapping spaghetti on the back cyclorama pretty much summed visually what we were hearing on up the tunes Pier 1 (an Evans composition) and the follow up, Obiessence, originally by Larry Young.  The latter also featured a short but sweet solo from drummer Nasheet Waits.  While he did his best to hide behind his simple stripped back kit there was no denying his presence on stage.  His playing was mighty phenomenal.

The big-small sound had its moments with the players taking their turns and folding back at each corner but always at the expense of allowing more interplay between the horns.  Most times they were either mirroring each other or playing in isolation.  The solos were complex, layered and clever but often just a bit too nerdy for my ears.  One really odd bit was Evans’ playing his bass sax so low only the dogs in the alley outside could really hear it, whilst Strickland was forcing air through his trumpet as if he was strangling a chicken.  An idea that was thankfully short lived.

I did enjoy McBride’s two original’s – Brother Malcolm and his vodka inspired Walkin’ Funny.  The first was a sombre, broody piece that morphed into the abstraction of Seek The Source (another Evan’s number).  The second was a very clever reinterpretation of the classic

photo: Stephen A’Court.

walking bass trick, with a few tangents provided by Waits, for extra colour.  Waits snuck his own sultry lounge tune in called Kush.  Immediately my mind drifted into a purple velvet Martini haze with this one.  A highlight, I think.

Sadly, the two-hour concert rushed by.  Their closer was pretty poignant.  It was a song recorded by Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny called  The Good Life.  Metheny was the man who brought McBride out to our shores over nine years ago.  It was great to see him back.  This was the first gig on his month-long tour over this side of the world.  Let’s hope he makes it a regular ‘Jawn’ and keeps coming back.

Tim Gruar