When the buzz started five years ago about Christian McBride’s potential as the next great jazz bassist, the purists seemingly put their fingers in their ears as he mixed the names of great funk musicians in with the straight-ahead icons. After two acoustic jazz albums for Verve and roles in the bands of Benny Green and Joshua Redman, he has turned to electric jazz for his “Family Affair” disc and marries funk and post-bop in a bountiful performance.
First set in a six-night stand was a generous 90 minutes that found its center in an acoustic reworking of Sly and the Family Stone’s hit from 1971, “Family Affair.” Just as John Coltrane did with “My Favorite Things” and the avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware does with “The Way We Were” on his new DIW/Columbia album, McBride has found a melodic vehicle known to pop fans that can be expanded upon with elan and adventure.
Tuesday’s perf was far looser than the recorded version, with saxophonist Tim Warfield turning the theme inside out and back again in a series of deft improvisations. “Affair,” along with works from Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, provides a point of entry from the commercial side favored by radio; once inside, listeners scared off by frantic improvisation will be hooked by the musical skills and range of material on display. No one is doing this better than McBride.
The bassist gives considerable time to his band: new pianist Shedrick Mitchell, after only two shows, is ex-hibiting an engaging light style; Gregory Hutchinson took but two drum solos, the first a spectacular display of how articulate a solo can be, the second locked into a glorious funk groove; and Warfield is in the class of solid technicians trying to find a personal offshoot of the basic Coltrane sound.
Aside from a dip into instrumental pop on Wonder’s “Summer Soft,” McBride brought out all the tricks. His bowing was steady and tuneful on a romantic rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Miyako”; as a supporter he showed little twists and turns while keeping pretty good time; and as a soloist he was a marvel, his final blazing improv sounding as if a second or even third bassist were playing along.
He has yet to distinguish himself with a similar uniqueness on the electric bass. He does what others before him have done without necessarily expanding those concepts. But when he’s thinking funk and classic jazz at the same time, as he does on “Brown Funk,” a tribute to bassist Ray and singer James, he’s headed in a direction that can only be good for the future of this music.