When bassist Christian McBride slides into a groove, as he did Sunday afternoon, he rides it all the way.
The man is a monster on his instrument and he proved it over and over in the middle of three concerts he and his band, Inside Straight, played over the weekend in the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series.
In McBride’s hands, the bass is a key lead instrument — so much more than a timekeeper with an occasional solo. His playing was crystal clear, even during hectic ensemble playing, as he led the crack band of alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Peter Martin, vibraphonist Warren Wolf and drummer Carl Allen through mainly McBride compositions.
Right from the opening of a blues Brother Mister, McBride, along with drummer Allen, set a tight groove that embraced the other three. This band is, among many things, as tight as a tattoo suit, to use an overworked cliché.
New Hope’s Angel, a piece McBride wrote following the death of singer Whitney Houston, featured brilliant ensemble playing and gave a sense of the larger-than-life performances the pop diva gave.
McBride opened Theme for Kareem with such an extraordinary bass solo that it had even his bandmates looking on with appreciation. The piece was a series of solos, each one seeming the best until you heard the next musician, and in the end there was no way to pick a winner. But an exchange of solos between bassist McBride and drummer Allen was, simply, terrific and a crowd-pleaser in an afternoon full of them.
McCoy Tyner’s composition Celestial Chant closed with an unaccompanied solo by McBride. It was a tour de force and emphasized how his skill makes it impossible to ever tire of his playing.
On the warhorse standard East of the Sun, West of the Moon, McBride played with the accompaniment of just piano and drums, a format that highlighted his skill and how, in the right hands, the bass can be a formidable lead instrument that engages listeners as fully as the more common front-line instruments horns, vibes or piano. That’s not easy to do on stage with four other musicians who play their instruments with such command and feeling.
The band closed out its show with a McBride composition with a title that comes from experienced musicians from the south the bassist met when he was a young, up-and-coming player; those elders talked about how they Used to Could.