Last weekend, Christian McBride was in town for a concert with his new band, "Inside Straight." If you don't already know, Christian McBride is one of the most in-demand jazz bassists on the scene today. Since beginning his career in 1990, Christian McBride has performed and recorded with a stellar list of jazz musicians, including Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Ray Brown, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, and Wynton Marsalis.
On the day of the concert, Christian McBride also gave a master class at Georgia State University. Due to a likely cover-up by the attention-starved saxophone faculty, I didn't even hear about the master class until a couple of hours before it started (special thanks to Laura for texting me!). But once I did find out, I dropped what I was doing and sped on over. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see and hear one of the greatest jazz musicians of my generation, especially when it affords me the ability to then write a blog article where I once again poke fun at my buddy in the GSU saxophone faculty.
Like my favorite master classes, Christian McBride's master class included both a discussion and playing session. During the playing session, several bass players got to sit in with a jazz combo while Christian listened and critiqued their playing. For the most part, the young bassists played really well and Christian spent about as much time offering suggestions as he did giving praise. You might think that's how it goes in all master classes, but I'm always amazed at how eager some "masters" are to criticize and cut down aspiring musicians. Christian was really cool, though, and I'm sure his words of encouragement will inspire the young players through many of their practice sessions.
SAVE THE FIREWORKS FOR JULY 4TH
During the past twenty years, Christian McBride has recorded hundreds of albums as a sideman, so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed as a working jazz bass player. He summed it up nicely when he said "Nobody hires you for the fireworks." Instead, it's the fundamentals of bass playing that get you the job. Skills like keeping time, having a good sound, and staying in the pocket are much more important than showy tricks and gimmicks. But unfortunately, aspiring musicians spend way too much time chasing the showy stuff and too little time on the basics.
To illustrate his point, Christian McBride mentioned Victor Wooten's double thumb slap. If you Google "bass double thumb slap" you'll find tons of YouTube clips and articles devoted to the subject. In their quest to play like Victor Wooten, bass players are spending countless hours learning this advanced technique instead of focusing on the strong fundamentals that made Victor Wooten such a great musician in the first place. To paraphrase Christian McBride, you have to learn A-M before learning N-Z. And all these bass players are skipping right over to Z! That's like a karate student learning how to punch before learning balance. Big mistake.
The part about mastering A-M before learning N-Z, reminded of my musical misstep with "outside" playing. At the end of my first year of college music school, I bought a CD by the head of the jazz department, Ed Sarath. It was a quintet recording that featured an unfamiliar (to me) saxophonist named Dave Liebman. As soon as I heard Liebman's playing, I was mesmerized. It was the most flawlessly executed display of reckless abandon that I had ever heard. Even though I knew I couldn't play any of Liebman's licks on the trumpet, that recording instilled in my mind the notion that playing "outside" (against the harmonies and rhythms) was the apex of jazz improvisation.
A few months after I got that Liebman album, I bought a book of pentatonic jazz licks. Yes, the Ramon Ricker book. I played through them all, and memorized a few of the more "outside" licks to incorporate in my jazz solos. At the time, I was playing weekly gigs with a jazz combo in some of the finest empty coffee houses in Chicago. Each night I'd run through my "outside" licks and for a few measures of each tune I sounded fantastic. Even my band mates, who heard the licks over and over again, seemed impressed whenever I played them. But as soon as the licks came to an end, I sounded terrible because I lacked the fundamental skills I needed to improvise well on my own. I was all fluff, without any substance. Eventually, this lack of substance led me to quit playing the trumpet for seven years.
When I started playing the trumpet again I made a conscious effort to focus on the fundamentals of jazz improvisation. I no longer worry about sounding modern or "outside" because with strong fundamentals I'll be able sound however I want at any given time. Since I couldn't play anything accurately by ear back when I was in college, I now spend a lot of time working on ear training with my ear training tools. And to improve my sense of rhythm and time, I started practicing with a metronome (I never even used one in college). I've also spent more time listening to earlier jazz as I try to learn the fundamentals directly from the pioneers of jazz. More than anything, that's taught me that if there is an "apex of jazz improvisation" it's less likely to be "outside" playing and more likely to be something that Louis Armstrong played.
HISTORY OF JAZZ PODCAST, BY GORDON VERNICK
And speaking of the pioneers of jazz... Georgia State University professor, Gordon Vernick, has an excellent and free podcast that I've been meaning to mention for some time now. Gordon Vernick's "History of Jazz" podcast currently includes 76 episodes covering everything from ragtime to Weather Report. I've been listening to it for nearly a year and I always enjoy his depth of knowledge and his respect for the music. If you dig the podcast, be sure to subscribe since he's still adding more segments. In fact, just this week he added two episodes on Lee Morgan!
Update September, 2013: Gordon Vernick's podcast has moved to a new location within iTunes. It's now called "Jazz Insights with Dr. Gordon Vernick" and you can find it here in iTunes.