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.