Christian McBride brings Monterey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary Tour to Philadelphia

Christian McBride is musical director of the jazz festival tour.
Christian McBride is musical director of the jazz festival tour.
Posted: February 01, 2013

HOW DO you encapsulate an entire jazz festival in a single night of music?

Leave it to Philadelphia's musical pride and joy Christian McBride - a superb bassist/composer/band leader/sideman with far and wide interests - to make all things possible, as musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary Tour landing at the Merriam Theater Saturday night.

"I almost don't want to give it all away," the 40-year-old McBride shared with a laugh. "But I'll tell you this - there will be a lot of variety. You'll see some duos, some solos, a little bit of this and that. Some classics and some originals, too, a must given the talent on hand. Dee Dee [Bridgewater] and I act as the evening's George Burns and Gracie Allen."

And what a fantastic crew McBride's aligned with here - "The reason" (Monterey Jazz Fest chief) "Tim Jackson talked me into this touring project a year and a half ago," McBride said. Besides Ms. Bridgewater - at 60 the elder stateswoman/chanteuse of the troupe - the ensemble includes the polished pianist Benny Green (who's worked with McBride since the latter's whiz-kid days here at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts), the much buzzed-about saxophonist Chris Potter, rock-solid drummer Lewis Nash (who's played with McBride on more than 60 album and touring projects) and a relative new kid on the block, 30-year-old trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

"I've been following Ambrose's evolution since I hired him for the horn section of Queen Latifah's touring band," McBride related. "And we've really enjoyed working with him since the tour started Jan. 8. He's a completely different player now than he was then. He told me, 'This is my first time being on the road playing night after night, working with musicians who do this kind of thing.' And he's absorbing the heat."

The boundlessly energetic and creative McBride is very much a musical chameleon - as comfortable working behind a pop star like Sting (who returned the favor guest-performing on McBride's all-star duets project "Conversations with Christian") or fronting, when affordable, his own, luxuriously brassy 17-piece big band, which put out its 2011 debut album almost simultaneously with "Conversations" "to make a statement, create a buzz," he explained. The CM Big Band tours South America this summer, lucky continent.

McBride also is hoping for another reunion with his CAPA classmate Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and avant-garde pianist Uri Caine in their new-fusion flavored The Philadelphia Experiment. And he's already plotting a 2014 recording session tapping into the exploding EDM (Electronic Dance Music) vein with DJs Jahi Sundance and DJ Shadow and keyboardist Patrice Rushen, collectively called A Christian McBride Situation.

But for the current Monterey-themed concert, Christian and Co. are mostly taking a funky, hard bopping, straight-ahead jazz course, retracing what was once a road map for huge jazz-crossover hits like Ramsey Lewis' "The In-Crowd" and Horace Silver's "A Song for My Father." Not incidentally, this merry mainstream music also is a core ingredient in yet another CM recording and touring band - Christian McBride and Inside Straight (their next album due out in April) and is largely what the Monterey Jazz Festival is all about, suggested the musician.

"Almost every other festival that calls itself 'jazz' fills the seats by bringing in non-jazz acts.

They're 80 percent rock and funk. When you go to Monterey, you see the best artists representing this so-called genre. That in itself is special.

"There's a myth that nobody writes foot-stomping, finger-snapping jazz anymore," continued the cool cat, clearly on a roll. "That's because everyone is about the esoteric, the experimental side of jazz, the 'What's new?' There's nothing wrong with new, but there's also no reason to throw out what's good, what's classic."

McBride blames the "accountants" who took over music labels and the sway of smooth-jazz radio stations like the late (but unlamented, in his mind) CD101 in New York. "They had a listening board - a group of people who would sit in a room, making snap judgments and nitpicking suggestions about a new CD ['The guitar's too loud in that section']. And they'd force the hand of labels to change the music so it would get played and have a modicum of success."

But hits or no hits, McBride is confident about the future of his music. "People have been predicting the 'death of jazz' since the British Invasion. If jazz has been able to survive The Beatles, hip-hop, hard rock and death metal and all that stuff, I can't see it being in any imminent danger now."

Monterey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary Tour, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 8 p.m. Saturday, $26, $46, $60, 215-893-1999,