The latest assault on the jazz crossover audience comes to town this Saturday in the form of “What Is Jazz?”, a touring caravan headlined by the Christian McBride Band with support from the Charlie Hunter Trio and drummer Bobby Previte with DJ Logic. It makes sense: all these players (with the exception of Logic) come from a deep jazz background, and all have reps for mixing it up with funk, rock and other pop moves. As jazz tours go, it’s got artistic and commercial smarts; either way, the total of the evening promises to be more than the sum of its parts.
Talking to me from a tour stop in San Francisco, McBride says the idea for “What Is Jazz?” came from Andy Hurwitz at the ropeadope label, who thought that Tonic, on the Lower East Side, was the perfect spot for the McBride band (saxophonist Ron Blake, pianist Geoff Keezer, and drummer Terreon Gully) to record a live album. McBride recalls, “He said, ‘I think the energy of this band would be right up young people’s alley: you could get some new, fresh faces over to the music and not only keep your old fans but definitely pick up a whole lot of new ones.’ ”
Hurwitz also suggested bringing in other friends of McBride’s — Hunter, Logic, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Eric Krasno from Soulive. Violinist Regina Carter was scheduled; when she couldn’t make it, Jenny Scheinman, a regular in Bill Frisell’s bands, came in.
Ropeadope recorded both nights that week back in January 2005, and next month the label will release the three-CD Live at Tonic. It gives a hint of what the Berklee audience might be in for. McBride did need a live CD. His albums have been thoughtful mixes of straight-ahead jazz and funk, with excursions into covers of Sting and Steely Dan, all superbly played. If they have a fault, it’s slickness.
Live at Tonic corrects the balance. From the first notes of his “Technicolor Nightmare,” the playing jumps with rock-band ferocity. What’s especially impressive on the all–McBride Band first disc is the strength of the band’s original book. Gully’s “Say Something” is a jagged up-tempo line with odd stops that stretches out with McBride galloping four-to-the-bar behind a stentorian Blake tenor solo. “Clerow’s Flip” (McBride’s tribute to the late comedian Flip Wilson) is a quick little bebop line stated in unison by bass and tenor before settling into a straight walk with B3-style organ solo from Keezer. Disc #1 does have its stretches in swing time, but as McBride says of “Clerow’s Flip,” “it’s got a little edge on it, a hidden rock auxiliary.” Maybe that edge is in Gully’s aggressive funkification of the beat; he never relaxes into simple ride-cymbal dotted rhythms over McBride’s walk. The one ballad, “Sitting on a Cloud,” is in waltz time. So, is it true, jazz swing in 4/4 repels the rock audience?