Jazz bassist Christian McBride has unabashed enthusiasm for the Mack Avenue SuperBand, one of several ensembles that the busy superstar currently helms. “It’s a unit consisting of me, Christian Sands on piano, Carl Allen on drums, Tia Fuller on alto and soprano saxophones, Sean Jones on trumpet and the great Gary Burton on vibraphone,” he said. “We’re just getting started on our tour right now. We played for a week in New York, and we played Philadelphia last night [Jan. 31]. We have some shows up and down the East Coast and then we head to the Midwest. We’re performing mostly originals. The tour is following a tradition — you know, like Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic.
He’s referring to Granz, the jazz impresario and label chief (most notably of Verve and Pablo) who spearheaded a series of jazz concerts, tours and recordings featuring the genre’s greatest stars over the years 1944 t0 1983. His example inspired the Mack Avenue SuperBand, which has embarked on its first-ever tour. It stops Feb. 19 at Orchestra Hall for a SCP Jazz Series concert. Opening the program is Chicago legend Willie Pickens and his trio.
Established in the late 1990s in Detroit, Mack Avenue Records was launched “out of a genuine love for jazz and the artists who create it,” according to its founders. The label takes its name from the historic thoroughfare that crosses the city’s east side. “What I like about Mack Avenue is that it seems to be one of the few — dare I say only — jazz labels that really has an eye on straight-ahead jazz,” McBride said. “It’s a lot of fun to work with such highly skilled musicians, and they’re so much fun to be around.”
McBride and his colleagues are touring behind their latest disc, “The Mack Avenue SuperBand Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival,” recorded last September and released in January. “We knew we were going to record our Detroit concert and eventually release it as a CD. It was my only wish that we could have had more than one rehearsal. That was pretty risky, trying to play a live gig — you know — one gig where you don’t have any chances to do retakes — on one rehearsal. So I was biting my nails. It’s my job as musical director to never show any angst, but I was a little worried.”
His worry was unnecessary. “The Mack Avenue Super Band Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival” is a stellar display of jazz created by veteran performers and exciting young talent. Now in his mid-40s, the Philadelphia-born McBride has made a career of collaborating with highly skilled musicians (and has won four Grammy Awards in the process). “I started on bass guitar. A young man by the name of Joey DeFrancesco and I played together in an after-school jazz ensemble at the Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia. I became part of that ensemble while I was still in middle school. So I was in eighth grade — 12 years old — when I met this 13-year-old genius who was playing piano. I didn’t even know he was an organist! It was Joey DeFrancesco.”
That Settlement Music School group provided McBride with his first paying gig, a private party. “We each got paid 10 bucks. I’ll never forget that. That was a really great feeling to have someone give you money for services rendered. I kept working around Philadelphia, playing with as many people as I could, with Joey and a lot of other great musicians who grew up with in Philly. We were too young to be in bars, but the musicians all knew us. ‘Here come those pain-in-the-behind kids,’ they’d say.”
But those pain-in-the-behind kids were bursting with talent. “We were underage and we weren’t supposed to be in bars.” McBride said. “There used to be this one club called Slim Cooper’s in Mount Airy. The musicians would see us sneaking in there, and they’d say, ‘Look, we’ll let you sit in on one song, but that’s it. You’ve got to get out of here because we don’t want to get in trouble.’”
McBride, though, did not restrict his musical studies solely to jazz. “I was also studying a lot of classical music. I played in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and the Temple University Chamber Orchestra. I studied with Neil Courtney of the Philadelphia Orchestra. My original goal was to somehow have a dual career as a classical bassist and as a jazz bassist. I didn’t realize that there was no such thing as a freelance classical bassist. I thought that the New York Philharmonic would say, ‘Hey, man, we need a sub, can you make a gig with us? We’re playing the New World Symphony.’
“It doesn’t quite work that way, so the classical thing didn’t work out for me. But it’s OK. I knew in my heart I really wanted to play jazz, so I moved to New York, studied at Juilliard, started playing in Bobby Watson’s band and things just kind of snowballed from there.”
McBride lists Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Jaco Pastorius among the bassists who have influenced him. “They’ve all helped me how to figure out how to grasp rhythm. I think rhythm is the most important thing you can have as a musician,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from any musician who has strong rhythm. Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins and Bird, of course.”
Despite his life in jazz, McBride has great reverence for the Baroque era. “Bach’s my favorite composer of all time,” he said. “I have this feeling if Bach were alive in the bebop era, he would have thrived.”
McBride then laughed and paused for a second, waiting for the idea of J.S. Bach making music with Charlie Parker to sink in. He then he added, “You know, composition is just improvisation slowed way down.”
Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.