Together for three years — a dog’s age in the life of a modern jazz group — the Christian McBride Band has found a seamless blend of the elements — electric and acoustic, funk and bebop, pop instrumentals and challenging suites. The acoustic bassist of choice among jazz leaders before he hit the drinking age, McBride has spent his 20s exploring the intricacies of band leadership with the ungainly bass out front and, over the course of four albums for Verve and now one for Warners, blossomed with as commanding a presence as can be found in jazz today.
The music performed Thursday, much of it appearing on his current album for Warner Bros., “Vertical Vision,” insists that the musicians present themselves as commanding forces, with McBride deftly gliding between soloist and backbone. As a collective they hit the bandstand with an enormous gust, cemented by Terreon Gully’s ferocious and piercing drumming. Ron Blake, on sax and flute, pays no heed to any particular school (Wayne Shorter? John Gilmore?) and his lack of antecedents is alarmingly affecting. There are many moments when tunes segue into sonic impressions of fusion masters Weather Report and the first edition of Return to Forever, though Blake is wisely never a period echoist. His playing is consistently fresh.
McBride, though, realizes a little bit will go a long way as he and keyboardist Geoff Keezer settle into a bit of Jaco Pastorious-Joe Zawinul-styled interplay on “Walking on the Moon” by McBride’s former employer Sting; on a lengthier, suite-like piece (a romantic film score, perhaps?) the noodling is pushed to very edge of acceptance and then spins on a dime back to coherent music exchange. (Try to get that out of a ’70s fusion act).
On his own “The Ballad of a Little Girl Dancer,” McBride sits inside the groove and gives his partners ample room to wander around the borders of the composition. His writing, more than any other aspect of this uniquely blessed musician, has grown over the past eight years with each step reestablishing new boundaries until few are found. As a leader, he works like a basketball coach, putting his musicians in position to execute at will. Certainly McBride’s act will continue to add depth, though for now it’s hard to beat for its all-around accomplishments.