Avant garde jazz is all well and good – I enjoy something brain-scramblingly off the wall as much as the next man – but there are times when only swing will do, and when only swing will do what you really want is Christian McBride, a man who’s built a career out of it. Appearing with his prodigious young trio of pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr for the inaugural performance of his year-long Wigmore Hall jazz series, the great bassist’s set certainly swung, but it had plenty more to offer besides.
From the opening bars of ‘Day By Day’ to the final phrase of ‘Down By The Riverside’, a bluesy romp of an encore, the three men played with next-level polish. ‘East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)’, featuring a whisper-soft drum solo full of theatrical leans and cymbal catches; ‘Good Morning Heartache’, with McBride’s richly bowed bass on the melody; and a tender rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘The Lady in My Life’ that hovered between jazz and R&B, displayed uncanny dynamic control. Monk’s ‘Raise Four’, in which all three men traded solos and quirky takes on the theme, was an interactive masterclass and ‘Caravan’ was elusive and intangible – a mirage of shifting cross rhythms that brought Owens Jr’s wonderfully subtle musicality to the fore.
But it was the virtuosity with which they played that really stood out. Signet ring glinting, his fingers quick-stepping over the strings, McBride’s phrases were both technically astonishing and effortlessly melodic, punctuated by bluesy bass grooves and low end tugs that brought you down to earth with a bump. Sands, who combines the fire of Oscar Peterson with an elegance and lightness of touch that recalls Bill Evans, was just as impressive and it’s easy to see why even Wynton Marsalis is billing him as the next big thing. On ‘Sand Dunes’, a ballad of his own composition and one of a number of tracks to feature on the trio’s upcoming album, Live At The Village Vanguard, his lines unfurled like ribbons of silk and tied the keyboard in knots.
The only thing that was amiss was the pacing. There’s a limit to how much virtuosity you can take before it loses its impact and mid-way through a storming rendition of J.J. Johnson’s ‘Interlude’, with both Sands and McBride unleashing blizzards of semi-quavers, I could feel my attention beginning to wander. If they can keep a little more in reserve rather than giving everything in the first few numbers they’ll be even more swingin’.
– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Roger Thomas