Review: Conversations with Christian

AKIE BERMISS: I am never worried when I pick up a record with Christian McBride on it. In the long time that I’ve been listening to him live and on record, he has never disappointed me with subpar playing.  Its always a wonderful musical experience.  So, I admit, I didn’t even blink an eye when Howard told me about the new duets record.  I purchased it immediately.  As I was waiting for it to download though, I started thinking: “Wait — an entire record of just duets with bass?  Oh crap.  What did I just buy?”  Turns out, I bought I dynamite record full of great music all of which is made by Christian McBride on upright bass… and somebody else.

The record is called Conversations With Christian and part of my temporary trepidation was founded on the recent slew-age of Duets records.  From Tony Bennett, to Ray Charles, to whomever just kind wants to throw a record together with a lot of star power. And they all make some hay over the idea of duets being like a musical conversation between peers and so forth. And yet, for the most part, those duet records tend to be tedious to listen through altogether.  Once I got over my initial-and-unwarranted anxiety I realized that the majority of the people on Conversations aren’t simply big name acts, but folks that McBride has worked with over the years.  And folks who are familiar with the duet format and the flexibility of a jazz paradigm.  That is, with folks like Chick Corea, Russell Malone, and Dr. Billy Taylor as guest artists you’ve got redoubled insurance against poor quality material.

So how is the record?  Its great.  The opening track with singer Angelique Kidjo is a fantastic way to get oneself ready to hear a record built around Christian McBride’s bass-playing. Kidjo sings with graceful ease despite having nothing more than than a bassplayer backing her up.  And, in turn, McBride’s bass is like a bass and a drum and a guitar all crammed into a single thing.  I mean, to be fair, we’ve all known that McBride could play like this, but it still impressive to behold.  And, for that reason, one has to wonder why this record hasn’t been made before now?!  That first outing is followed up by a drastic musical shift in which jazz violinist Regina Carter and McBride bow their way through a Bach tw0-part counterpoint invention — displaying McBride’s beautiful arco sound — that eventually segues into a simmering minor blues.  And then the third track is McBride and Sting — yes: Sting! — on vocals on guitar.

What I’m saying is by the end of third track one has already more awesome music than you’d hear on most full records by full bands.  Add to that that you’ve still got tracks with Chick Corea and Ron Blake (a long time McBridge collaborator) and Roy Hargrove still to come.  For all its simplicity, this is heavy and beautiful record.

My personal favorite of all the tracks though has got to be the collaboration with Hank Jones.  Jones, who died in May of last year, was the quintessence of jazz piano.  His style was at once elegant, sensitive, musical, and — above all — musical. Those of us that have known his playing have sorely felt his absence this last year and half.  And just when you thought there could be no new Hank Jones records along comes this duet with McBride over that jazz warhorse, Alone Together.  And, as with everything Jones, the track just makes you want to stop and listen and stand in awe of the genius. Jones is, in my opinion, the only guest who actually upstages McBride on this record.  And its not in a bad way. No, its actually quite lovely.

The record concludes with a somewhat perplexing duet with Gina Gershon in which she and McBride play through a couple of chorus on the blues (Gershon plays mouth-harp on the track).  There’s not much going on and mostly they are just bantering back and forth about music and food.  Its a weird, if very charming, conclusion to the record.  And so, in the end, though so much is changed, everything is in its right place.  Conversations With Christian is a beautiful and simple record of great music.  There is challenging listening if you want it, but if not you can just enjoy the pleasant surface of things and go about your day.  Finally, a duets record that doesn’t suck.

Its been a while.

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