Highlights of the 2016 summer jazz performance season in Boston kicked off with a firecracker of a show by the galvanizing (and ever frisky) bassist, Christian McBride, and his grooving compatriots (Christian Sands on piano and Jerome Jennings on drums) at the intimate Scullers Jazz Club (“Scullers”; www.scullersjazz.com) in Cambridge, MA. in early June. Amongst his many endeavors, McBride is also now the Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival (presented by Naxitis Global Management, www.newportjazzfest.org) and this animated performance at Scullers followed McBride and his Trio’s dynamic show at Newport last season, where they brought down the house with their old school charisma and swanky grooves that included their closing number: a funky churning version of Rose Royce’s 1970’s hit “Car Wash”.
At their Scullers concert, “Car Wash” was also the closing tune as McBride and his dapper partners brought the pedal down on a full funk assault of disco bass lines and slinky crisp snare and cymbal work from a playful Jennings- all accompanied by the capacity audience’s boisterous claps in unison with the tight funk.
Playful and brilliant is a great way to describe this Trio in concert and on their stellar new recording, Christian McBride Trio Live At The Village Vanguard [Mack Avenue Records; www.mackavenue.com].
McBride and his Trio have this great ability to feed off each other’s stunning musicianship to completely (and with ease) inhabit the eclectic repertoire they perform. At their Scullers performance, McBride and his partners moved seamlessly from the funk of “Car Wash” to the furious bebop pace of J.J. Johnson’s “Interlude,” (both numbers also getting a dynamic workout on Live At The Village Vanguard). “Interlude” gave space for McBride to duel with his percussionists (Jennings at Scullers and Ulysses Owens Jr. on Live At The Vanguard) and with each sparkling partner, McBride displayed his special gift for both deliberation and total freedom of expression on his acoustic bass. We thus can follow his comic slides, his high light punctuations and his big fleshy pounces with ease and listen with delight to his spinning of a sprite melody into a web of concatenations both wide and deep. (The sound of McBride’s bass on Live At The Village Vanguard is captured in all of its fleshy presence with great image dimensionality and tactile immediacy and really tests the ability of an audio system to ensnare each one of his tactile plunges or feathery light finger brushes on his highest notes).
The drummers get their turn too to show their shining grooves on “Interlude” and a highlight of the Scullers performance was how Jennings took it to the bank, ripping staccato splatters of cymbal, snare and wood rim hits in quick sparring with McBride’s bass pitter-patter (who used his bow in short whiplashes of sounds).
Rounding out the magnificence of this Trio is the young pianist Christian Sands, one of the most dynamic, creative and omnivorous players of the keyboard. At his Scullers performance, Sands took every opportunity to paint his own canvasses of finger twisting passagework that could be tumbling and bluesy one moment (as on his solo during their version of Herbie Hancock’s “Toys”) or singing with a bouncy, furious and airy touch, as on their rendition of the tune “Tangerine.” Sands loves to take a melody and shake it up on his piano into a whirlwind of fragments, colors and ingenious shards, always coming back to it with big fistfuls of chords in his left hand or leaving it to twinkle and shine in a glowing light caress.
On Live At The Village Vanguard” Sands’ artistry is fully on display, although unfortunately, his piano is recessed a bit on the left of the Vanguard’s stage and thus some of his piano’s full body, colorations and note decays (especially from his big chord holds) are heard somewhat abbreviated and harmonically cut short. But this slight recording limitation does not take away from Sands’ brilliant artistry: from his whiplash quickness in the opening of “Fried Pies” and the rip-roaring frolic of “Cherokee” (with McBride and Owens keeping up with their own nervy crispness of play) to the glowing R&B sway of “The Lady In My Life” where Sands moves in elegant tenderness on his piano, reaching a crescendo of fervent power with his sympathetic partners.
Speaking of fervent power and absolute force of creative will, another highlight of this summer’s jazz season for me came from listening to a new recording of another artist who has also performed and recorded with Christian McBride (taking her own glory from those moments and passing it on). I speak here of the incomparable vocalist, Dee Dee Bridgewater, who I have written about previously with a review of her 2008 tribute to Billie Holiday entitled Eleanora Fagan To Billie With Love [DD8 Records] (with Christian McBride appearing on bass)
and in duet with McBride on his own 2011 stellar recording, Conversations With Christian [Mack Avenue Records] where together they created one titanic performance of the Isley Brother’s “It’s Your Thing.”
Now Bridgewater has turned her attention to New Orleans and its great swashbuckling universe of sounds in her new recording, Dee Dee’s Feathers [Okeh Records; www.okeh-records.com].
Here she joins forces with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (“NOJO”) to create a recording of great virtuosity, sumptuous glow and rollicking grooves.
There is simply nothing like the creative and soulful vocal struts of Bridgewater as she scats and pontificates next to the slow brewing chorus of Mayfield’s warm trumpet and the giddy horns of the NOJO. They fire on all cylinders on the hot opener, “One Fine Thing” and on their tigerish version of “Saint James Infirmary” where Bridgewater moves in twitchy soulfulness with her talky, frisky vocals high and low (nestled in Mayfield’s blaring solo and the NOJO’s slow stew of horns and piano accents). She also takes a creative swerve into New Orleans’ “Second Line” drum traditions by marching with just vocals and drums (performed by Adonis Rose and Bill Summers) in the stark and surging title tune (with a huge bass drum drone if your system is up to capturing it) and in the swirling drum colors of “Congo Square.” The buoyant theme to the great HBO series Treme also gets a shimmering workout here, sweet and radiant with Bridgewater reprising a tantalizing slice of her (aforementioned) duet with McBride on “Do Whatcha Wanna.”
Bridgewater also shows her curvaceous, glowing vocal side on such warm, inviting numbers as her creative version of the classic, “What A Wonderful World” (her voice in animated symmetry with Mayfield’s trumpet blaring far off right stage) and the glowing lyricism of “Come Sunday,” with Bridgewater unfurling her voice full of strength and warmth. The recording captures all of this frenetic, colorful and ardent action with immediacy and presence, like you are on the bandstand or Frenchman Street with the players all around in informal positions. Bridgewater’s voice is full, articulate and sparklingly clear, as is Mayfield’s carousing trumpet and vocals.
Catch him in swinging duet with Bridgewater on the final number, “Whoopin’ Blues” for another highlight (can you hear the banjo swinging in the background of all the metallic heat?) And, of course, what would a New Orleans’ gem recording be without an appearance by the great Dr. John?
Here, Bridgewater and Dr. John ride a wave of player piano staccato breeze to locomotive their spiky, infectious grooves on “Big Chief”. Bridgewater’s voice dives as deep as the baritone sax plunges and Dr. John and the NOJO fire away in huge volleys to “burn it down.”
Finally, I wanted to acknowledge in this summer of music a new recording gem from another New Orleans Master who recently passed away: the magnificent Allen Toussaint and his final album American Tunes [Nonesuch Records; www.nonesuch.com].
Produced by Joe Henry, (who always has a keen ear in achieving audiophile quality sound in his recordings, particularly the deep air and ambiance of a particular recording space), American Tunes is a marvel both artistically and sonically: a chance to hear Toussaint’s solo piano mastery with all of its great swirl, textures and churning creativity (“Viper’s Drag” and “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” are great examples as well as Toussaint’s solo pulsating version of that classic “Big Chief” come around again) as well to hear a great band plying Toussaint’s levity all over the map. Duke’s “Rocks In My Bed” with (one of my favorite vocalists!) Rhiannon Giddens sparring with Greg Leisz on strings and big upright bass from David Pilch is a glowing thrill, as is the earthy sway of “Danza,” full of string depth and Toussaint’s piano charisma and flourishes against Amy Shulman’s gentle harp runs. Duke’s shadow returns again on Toussaint’s eloquent version of “Come Sunday” and here, (in contrast to Bridgewater’s faster tempo and sweetly swinging version), vocalist Giddens and Toussaint take a stately, slow pace to search every nuance of the gospel landscape of this comforting ballad, (with a languid solo from the intrepid saxophonist Charles Lloyd), keeping Toussaint’s steadfast New Orleans roots alive…
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT JAZZ REPORT: following pianist Christian Sands, bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Charles Lloyd to Newport Jazz Festival 2016…