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Vertical Vision by Christian McBride

For several years now, bassist Christian McBride has been dead set on proving true the old axiom that not only does jazz have the ability to broaden the scope and depth of popular music, but that the latter can also rejuvenate and invigorate the former when it hits a rut. Indeed, if McBride began his professional career in the traditionalist trenches of the early nineties, the turn of the century has seen him refocus his gaze on the rock, soul, and fusion of the 70’s and 80’s. These efforts have still born the stamp of traditionalism; they have just been attempts to redefine exactly what the "tradition" includes. It is a rare mainstream musician today who is seriously reinvestigating the canon of Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and making the argument that it is still vibrant territory to be expanded and explored, particularly if he does so without commercial forays down the slippery slope of "smoothness."

But this is precisely what McBride has offered forth on Vertical Vision, his debut for Warner Brothers. The tongue in cheek opener, "Circa 1990" (a scratchy, 16-second snippet of a retro-swing tune) points up the bassist’s stern-faced dedication to this new direction, in sharp response to the snobbish responses to 1998’s A Family Affair and 2000’s Sci-Fi (his earlier similar departures, both on Verve). From that moment on, for fifty solid minutes, McBride is committed to an aesthetic every bit as reconstructionist and conservative as his neo-bop days - the difference being that here he substitutes Jaco-like fretless work for his Ray Brown-style walking, a variety of keyboards for plain piano, and modern break beats for reliance on the ride cymbal. Indeed, this recreation is so faithful at some points, such as in his sliding, fretless double stops and ringing harmonics in "The Ballad of Little Girl Dancer," or in the slow, sunrise textures of "Tahitian Pearl," that I had to make sure I hadn’t accidentally thrown Black Market or Word of Mouth into my player.

That said, the greatest success of this disc by far lies in McBride’s commitment to the aesthetic he is mining (like on his earlier works), his patent refusal to settle for the facile, "commercial" resolutions inherent in the genre. Indeed, the pure excitement that results from his sincere appreciation of this music yields the highpoints of the album. Particularly when he is worrying least about what purists will say, he ends up with the most compelling, forward-looking music. It is when McBride lets his funk-rock influences inform his bass lines, forming hard-line, up-for-the-down-stroke riffs, that he begins to reach the heights of the records that inspired this one. Whether when he and Ron Blake lock into the same simple-note pattern halfway through "Boogie Woogie Waltz," or in the all-out hard-driving riff that opens "Technicolor Nightmare," these moments act like a renovation, a dusting-off of a much-maligned, dark corner of jazz’s history - those two songs like a glossy book cover that only tells part of the story of what’s inside.

Still, all this is part of the larger issue at work on Vertical Vision, the question of how to canonize this still-contentious period of jazz history without either smoothing it over or slavishly recreating it. This is something even more "outside" players like Matthew Shipp and Dave Douglas have been asking lately, albeit within their own aesthetic constraints. Here McBride answers it most satisfactorily on a number like "The Wizard of Montara," where he combines overt bop dynamics with the intriguing keyboard work of Keezer, or on "Lejos de Usted," where he takes a cue from the pulsing recent work of the Jazz Composer’s Collective. For most bass players that approach the jazz landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, fretless in hand, the world is broken up into pre and post-Jaco. It is only in moments like those just mentioned when McBride escapes this trap, by incorporating his multiple areas of interest (both sides of the great Jaco divide) into a more coherent, combined sum. That alone deserves an honorable mention, though like most honorable mentions, it is given more out of respect for the attempt than heartfelt love for the ultimate result. With a little luck, McBride will continue to listen to his own desires more than those of the record executives at the major labels he frequents; however, hopefully one day that exploratory spirit will yield a more synthetic whole.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Christian McBride
  • CD Title: Vertical Vision
  • Genre: Fusion
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Warner Brothers
  • Tracks: Circa 1990, Technicolor Nightmare, Tahitian Pearl, The Wizard of Montara, The Ballad of Little Girl Dancer, Lejos de Usted, Precious One, Song for Maya, Boogie Woogie Waltz
  • Musicians: Ron Blake (Flute, Tenor Sax, Alto Sax), Geoff Keezer (Piano, Keyboards), Christian McBride (Bass), Terreon Gully (Drums)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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