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JAZZ REVIEW : McBride: Past's a Welcome Presence

March 30, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was like a vision of the Jazz Past Revisited. Christian McBride and his quartet came on stage at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday night with the dapper polish of a be-bop band from the mid-'40s.

Sheer sartorial elegance: Primly adjusted neckties and well-tailored jackets on everyone, with McBride wearing an eye-grabbing, red-and-black striped zoot-suit model, and saxophonist Tim Warfield in a pair of creamy white pants and pointy-toed, brown-and-white wing-tipped shoes that would have done Fred Astaire proud.

And with music to match--at least at first blush. McBride kicked off the set with "In a Hurry," a soul-styled number straight out of Cannonball Adderley, raising the possibility that the gifted, and much-praised young bassist's initial outing as leader of his own group was going to be a serious exercise in retro-jazz.

Like many of his younger contemporaries--Nicholas Payton, Cyrus Chestnut, James Carter among them--McBride has been perceived by some observers as a tiller of the past. His music, and theirs, they say, essentially overlooks or bypasses 35 years or so of jazz evolution. And, to a large extent (despite the debt that Warfield's playing clearly owed to John Coltrane), McBride's group did indeed work within the traditional, harmonically based, rhythmically focused jazz methods of the '40s and '50s.

But retro-jazz is a disingenuous term. It would be far more accurate to view what the McBride group played as continuation music--jazz that picked up from the point in the '60s where the mainstream was diverted into the often (if not always) barren wastelands of avant-garde, funk and jazz-rock. McBride and his musicians simply reopened the channel for straight-ahead playing, and in doing so produced some of the most creatively provocative, musically entertaining jazz of the year.

The delights arrived in bunches. At the age of 22, McBride already has become one of the very few bassists who can command sufficient authority, both as a soloist and as a musical pointman, to be the leader of a band. In nearly every piece, his playing provided a central, creative nucleus, often by laying down a walking beat, at other times via contrapuntal riffing that combined with Carl Allen's drums to propel the rhythm forward.

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His solo work confirmed why he is identified, almost universally, as the next great bassist. On "Alone Together," performing without accompaniment, he was--as he so often is--slyly virtuosic. The musical line he unfolded was so gripping, so beautifully articulated, that the occasional bursts of technique--sudden runs from the top of his bass to the bottom--exploded without warning, drawing gasps of astonishment from an audience that hung on every note.

McBride's interplay with his musicians was every bit as magisterial as his solos. His back and forth passages with pianist Anthony Wonsey on "Sitting on a Cloud" generated a superbly expressive, late-night-in-the-city feeling, and his persistently understated, deceptively subtle exchanges with Allen resulted in state-of-the-art rhythm section time-keeping.

Tenor saxophonist Warfield had to deal with his potentially problematic role as an upfront soloist in a band led by a bassist. Once again, however, McBride's innate musicality allowed him to step back and assemble an undistracting framework for Warfield's solos. The consequences were impressive. Warfield is still a busier player than he needs to be, but on several choruses, and on McCoy Tyner's "Inner Glimpse" in particular, he linked up with Allen's whirling dervish drumming for a brilliantly turbulent romp across the length and breadth of his instrument.

McBride closed his set with the title track from his Verve album "Gettin' to It," a James Brown tribute that was the only pedestrian item on the program. But the balance of the evening was rewarding enough for McBride to indulge in a small gesture of appreciation for the pop sounds he heard as a youngster. Fortunately, he also heard a lot of world-class jazz, and his love, understanding and expression of that music makes him a sure bet as one of the vital new voices in the jazz of the '90s.

* The Christian McBride Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $12 cover tonight and Sunday, $15 cover Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum. McBride performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.

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