Christian McBride, 'Live at Tonic' (2006)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

First of all, I was there. The place was Tonic, a Lower East Side outpost of venturesome eclecticism, which had opened just weeks before my arrival in New York. (I fast became what you might call a regular.) The time: early January of 2005 — a temperate stretch, by northeastern-winter standards. As I recall, folks weren’t as bundled up as you’d expect, for that time of year. Anyway, the room was packed tight. I remember sweating, though that may just be the effect communicated by the music.


Right, the music. Bassist-composer-bandleader Christian McBride had set up for a two-nighter at Tonic with his eponymous band and a choice heap of special guests. The CMB played the first set on both evenings, and those all-star interlopers — like violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Jason Moran and vocal-percussion whiz Scratch, of The Roots — joined for a freewheeling second set. As I recall, the whole affair was advertised as a recording session; Live at Tonic was the eventual result.

In Playing Changes, I write about McBride first in the context of the 1990s “Young Lion” boom, when he was playing with the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Joshua Redman. He hit the scene as a big-toned bass player in a familiar mold, paying homage to Ray Brown and Milt Hinton. But for anyone paying attention to McBride’s choices, there was always another layer. This comes up later in the book, when I pause to catalog a post-Y2K wave of funk, R&B and fusion albums by erstwhile torchbearers, including Hargrove and Redman:

Christian McBride, a lifelong James Brown fanatic, had flirted with funk on his first two albums. His third, A Family Affair, released on Verve in 1998, tilted decisively in that direction, with heavy backbeats and wah-wah electric bass solos. (The title track was a Sly Stone anthem.) McBride then lunged toward fusion, full stop, on his 2000 album Sci-Fi, and teamed up with Questlove and the keyboardist Uri Caine for an expressly groove-centric project called the Philadelphia Experiment, which released a self-titled album in 2001. By the time the Christian McBride Band recorded a three-CD set called Live at Tonic early in 2005, with guests like Charlie Hunter and DJ Logic, the group’s explosive mix of jazz-funk and electronic breakbeats felt reasonable. Few questioned the gall of a former Jazz Future evoking actual jazz futurism.

When Live at Tonic was released, on Ropeadope, I reviewed the album for JazzTimes. (Rereading the review now, I stand by my assessment, which definitively falls on the positive side of “mixed.” Basically, I felt Disc 3 was a stray appendage.) There’s one big reason this is the McBride entry on my 129 Essential Albums list, and it has to do with the hard-charging energy of the CMB on Disc 1.

The band — with McBride on electric and upright bass, Ron Blake on saxophones and flute, Geoffrey Keezer on keyboards, and Terreon Gully on drums — has an inspired ferocity that’s expertly captured on this recording. And it isn’t all about fusioneering. Listen to the deep groove of “Clerow’s Flipped,” which merges an R&B swagger with some old-fashioned tippin’, and even has a Monk quote in the bass solo.

At this point I should note, for full-disclosure purposes, that Christian McBride is now a colleague: we work together on Jazz Night in America, a multi-platform collaboration between WBGO, NPR Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center. That had no bearing on this selection, though. Listen to Live at Tonic, and you’ll understand.

Purchase Live at Tonic on Amazon, or stream it on Spotify.

Medeski Martin & Wood, 'End of the World Party (Just in Case)' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

So here's an album title that hasn't lost its bite, huh? End of the World Party (Just in Case) was the fifth Blue Note album by Medeski Martin & Wood, which had also released material on Gramavision and elsewhere. What the album signaled, along with a tongue-in-cheek alarum about our state of affairs, was an evolution in the band's balancing act. 


MMW — John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums, Chris Wood on bass — had famously come together as an avant-garde acoustic proposition, only gradually finding its purpose as the thinking person's jam band. There'd even been a return to those acoustic roots on the live album Tonic, recorded in 1999 at the Lower East Side haunt of the same name. A sizable portion of the MMW fan base celebrated this side of the band's sound, alongside the more groove-centric, organ-forward stuff. What not everybody realized, certainly not on the jazz side of the fence, was that the members of the band truly drew no distinctions between these means and modes.

But End of the World Party (Just in Case) does belong more squarely to one side than the other. And a lot of that has to do with its design. For this album, MMW enlisted John King as producer. As a member of the Dust Brothers, he'd helped create the distinctive, allusive sound of Paul's Boutique, by the Beastie Boys, and Odelay, by Beck. And you can clearly hear his influence on the album, notably in the first few tracks, which inhabit an air of foreboding even as they shift almost constantly from one set of textures to the next.

See for instance "Reflector," one of several tracks to feature a guest turn by guitarist Marc Ribot. It begins with twangy guitar and chattering clavinet, but soon also incorporates Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano and what sounds to me like another set of analog synths. The thrust of Martin's beat doesn't change all that much, but the context around it does, almost constantly: I hear a series of threaded arguments, presented in sequence, à la the Dust Brothers' signature approach. Listen to the section that begins with a sampled vocal, just before the three-minute mark. When Medeski adds a chiming piano part, it always reminds me of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. But it's here and gone in a few seconds; by 3:30, he's playing a crooked montuno, which provides the track with its fade-out.

Other tracks on the album inhabit a more typically organic, go-where-the-groove-leads vibe. They sound more temperamentally upbeat, too. So Medeski Martin & Wood were hardly articulating their new direction with End of the World Party; they were just adding another set of possibilities, and showing that they could go this route if they wanted to. Just in case.

Buy End of the World Party (Just in Case) at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

The Bad Plus, 'These Are the Vistas' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

It has become all too easy to forget how radical The Bad Plus seemed circa 2003, when These Are the Vistas appeared on the all-but-phased-out jazz imprint of Columbia Records. This acoustic but high-octane trio — with Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano, David King on drums — presented a pugnacious front, not just unified in purpose but aggressively fused in its sound.

In recent months, the band has made news for its turbulent yet altogether successful transition from one social configuration to the next. Last spring, Iverson announced his intention to depart The Bad Plus, and his band mates appointed a successor, the postbop piano dynamo Orrin Evans. I delved into this story, speaking with all parties, and later helped create an episode of Jazz Night in America about it.


None of this drama was on the known horizon when These Are the Vistas made its entrance. At the time, and for quite a while afterward, The Bad Plus was impressive in its indivisibility, and in the assertion of a nonhierarchical model for the state-of-the-art improvising piano trio.

The other thing that grabbed attention was the band's choice of repertory. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Squarepusher's "Flim" — these were covers reflecting a Gen X sensibility, a set of preferences true to the life experience of Anderson and King. (Iverson, an unapologetic yet largely nonjudgmental jazz and classical partisan, came to rock and electronic music relatively late.)

What was already clear on These Are the Vistas, though some observers would take a while to acknowledge it, was the audacious integrity of its original music. Each member of The Bad Plus contributed new music to its book, and some of these pieces were fantastic in their scope and execution. 

Reviewing the album for JazzTimes, I noted that the album's tour de force was "Silence is the Question," an Anderson composition that "works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors." 

"If The Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz," I added, "it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these."

These Are the Vistas is available on Amazon, on Spotify, or on Apple Music.

Below, find my first piece for The Village Voice — a review of The Bad Plus at the Bowery Ballroom, which solidified something about its pop-cultural reach. 

Village Voice | Sound of the City | March 23, 2004

Victory Parade

Power-piano trio takes jazz to the people—but no requests

By Nate Chinen

The dude who kept shouting for “Free Bird” doesn’t get the Bad Plus. Yes, they’re cornballs from the heartland. Yes, they’ve covered Nirvana and Neil Young. But there’s no place for irony in their rumpus room, which is littered with press clippings and spare neckties. An acoustic jazz piano trio with arena rock on the brain, this band courts chaos but never loosens its grip on the wheel.

At their first honest-to-goodness New York rock show, the Bad Plus managed to play every song but one from their new Columbia album Give. In fact, the show sounded more like the album—vast, thunderous, and cathartic—than like previous Bad Plus gigs in asymmetrical, low-ceilinged rooms. If last year’s Village Vanguard engagements were like crusaders storming the castle, this one was more a victory parade.

Partly this was due to the rapturous full house; partly it was inherent in the music. Ethan Iverson favors simple but somehow grandiloquent accents in the piano’s upper register, a trait counterbalanced by Anderson’s low-slung basslines and David King’s often brutish percussion. The net result is sweeping, epic: The Pixies’ “Velouria” came across like Squarepusher wrangling “Chariots of Fire.” Like every other song of the night, it reached a dramatic climax, with an air of triumph after great and noble struggle.

What kept that struggle engaging was how much the band is a band. Iverson played a lot of piano, but took standout solos only on Anderson’s luminous, lonesome “Neptune (Planet)” and King’s ploddingly funky “1979 Semi-Finalist.” He sounded most like a conventional piano-trio pianist on the stately new “Prehensile Dream.” He sounded least so on the inevitable first encore, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” more viscerally satisfying in person than on disc. The second encore was a goofy sing-along called “People of the World Are United.” Thing is, they meant it.

Jim Black's AlasNoAxis, AlasNoAxis (2000)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


I first encountered Jim Black in Philly, on a mid-'90s gig with Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio. His playing nailed me to the spot, in a way that it hadn’t on record: he was capable of so much texture in the midst of so much propulsion. I soon sought out more of his sideman work — with Tim Berne, Uri Caine and others — and caught dozens more gigs, especially after I moved to New York.

AlasNoAxis dropped out of the sky soon after this. And it prompted me to reconsider Black yet again. Here was a rounded, yearningly forthright, deeply modern-sounding music, nearly devoid of the craggy complexities he was usually compelled to tackle. Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed functioned partly as a vocal surrogate, fleshing out long-tone melodies over a shifting series of drones. The Icelandic half of the group, bassist Skúli Sverrisson and guitarist Hilmar Jensson, brought deep-saturated color to their open chords and flinty arpeggios. Driving the bus was Black, who imbued each of his backbeat grooves with micro-variations; his hookup with Sverrisson often hit upon a shrewdly woozy disorientation.

“It takes confidence in this world sometimes just to bring out those things that actually come out very quickly and honestly,” Black told me in 2000, before the band’s Philadelphia debut. “And it wasn’t until I heard the music with the band that I was convinced I was doing the right thing.”

AlasNoAxis has released six albums, the most recent being Antiheroes in 2013. Listen above to a track from the band's 2000 debut. You can also buy it on Amazon or stream it on Spotify.