Christian McBride on His Top Five Big Band Tracks, From Count Basie to Maria Schneider

Sep 25, 2017

Christian McBride doesn’t need a big band to make a big impression, as he’s shown us countless times — on the bass, on the bandstand and in the booth. But when he finally did assemble a big band of his own, he saw  results: The Good Feeling, on Mack Avenue, won the 2011 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

McBride has just released a follow-up, aptly titled Bringin’ It. A new salvo from a band that always comes out swinging, it’s also a proud showcase for his evolution as a composer-orchestrator. So for this installment of Take Five, I asked Christian — who among other things is our host at Jazz Night in America — to share his top five big band recordings, with remarks.

“I had to be careful when I was thinking about this, that I didn’t pick my favorite five tracks as they relate to the bass,” he said, when we spoke by phone last week. “Originally I was going to pick Duke Ellington’s ‘Jack the Bear,’ or something else from the [Jimmy] Blanton era. Or some [Charles] Mingus pieces. But then I said ‘Naw, it’s gonna be too bass heavy. I’ve got to think about the bigger picture, and what influenced my thinking about orchestration.’”

Here are his picks, in no particular order, and in his own words.

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Oliver Nelson "Patterns For Orchestra"

Oliver Nelson was probably the first big band arranger-orchestrator that I paid close attention to. Blues and the Abstract Truth was a very important record for me as a teenager. And that recording sort of sparked the interest in learning how to orchestrate for a big band, even though it was not a big band album. 

This track, I discovered later. I knew that Oliver Nelson was big on patterns. (In fact, he’s got a song called “Patterns” that he recorded on soprano, and a book called Patterns For Improvisation.) On this track, he uses these very angular and wide-ranging patterns going between the woodwinds and the brass, on top of a blues sequence. Listening to what the trombones play, I can only assume that when he put the music in front of their faces, they probably got a little angry. It sounds very difficult. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to think that he would do something like that. These demanding lines for trombone, and the entire orchestra in general.

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra "Don't Git Sassy"

Thad Jones is a very interesting balance of tradition and experimentation. I know he’s not usually thought of as an experimentalist, but if you really pay attention to his orchestrating, you hear these dissonances and these unusual ideas. The way that Oliver Nelson had these angular, far-reaching lines, Thad Jones did that with harmony. There’s all kinds of great details in this tune: these double diminished chords he uses, and he arbitrarily goes from a major-seventh chord to a dominant sharp-ninth chord. At some point, you sit back and think, “That’s wonderfully strange.” There’s a part in the saxophone soli there, where for one bar they hit this D-flat major seven, which is this really pretty, sweet chord inside all this funk. Just the imagination that Thad Jones had — that he was able to come from the Basie background and then start his own group, which in many ways tipped its cap to the Basie sound but was very forward-thinking in terms of harmony and melody. If there’s a Bible for modern jazz arrangers, this song is definitely in it.

Count Basie Orchestra "Jessica's Day"

I first heard this song on a Cannonball Adderley recording, Jazz Workshop Revisited. So I always knew it as a fast, burning tune. Then I heard the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band version from ’56, which I believe is the actual original version. Then when I heard this Basie version, it knocked my socks off. In the midst of the legend that Quincy Jones has become in American culture, I think many of us who forget that he’s one of the greatest arrangers of all time. This whole album, One More Time, which is all Quincy Jones charts — theoretically I could probably pick any track from the record. There’s the legendary tightness of the band. It’s some of the greatest arrangements played by one of the greatest bands in one of the greatest periods for that band. As far as the orchestrating itself, I don’t think there are any unison lines at any point during this performance. Every single note is widely orchestrated and arranged to such a degree of excellence. I have a copy of the score. The way he’s able to use flute along with the muted trumpet, which sort of became the sound of the New Testament Basie Band, I just think it’s some wonderfully executed arranging. Quincy was studying with Nadia Boulanger at that time, and I think you hear some of that influence in the end, which is downright Baroque.

Gil Evans "Ella Speed"

It was another Gil who turned me on to this record years ago, and that was Gil Goldstein. We were talking about big band arranging stuff. He said, “I’m sure you’re familiar with the Gil Evans & Ten album.” I wasn’t familiar to extent I should have been. He said, “There’s a track on there called ‘Ella Speed,’ and I think you should check that out. In fact, I have a copy of Gil’s score for that.” Much like the fascination I had for Blues and the Abstract truth, here’s a recording where there’s eight horns in the ensemble. It’s not a full big band, but in many places it almost sounds like a double big band. Gil Evans is always able to make a band sound really, really big. Not loud, but full. His usage of middle brass is some of the most masterful technique of any style of writing. This was the first record of Gil’s that I heard outright, as opposed to the stuff he did with Miles Davis. Just to hear him cut loose, and to hear his real writing, I gained a whole new respect for him.

Maria Schneider "Giant Steps"

At some point in the early ‘90s, Maria had her regular gig at Visiones. I remember hearing this amazing music, and it just wasn’t your standard big band sound. It was coming out of that Gil Evans sort of thickness (and at that time, I didn’t know that she had studied with Gil). But when I finally got to work with Maria – she called me for a gig sometime in the early 2000s – playing some of that music of hers, and getting on the inside of it from the bass chair, she instantly became somebody whose brain I wanted to pick constantly. She not only shared Gil Evans stories but also a lot of her own ideas about orchestrating: about extended harmony and putting instruments in not necessarily comfortable ranges, depending on the kind of sound you want to achieve.  

Maria Schneider in 2014
Credit Whit Lane

I was at the North Sea Jazz Festival one year. (I’ve never gone public with this story, but now is as good a time as any.) This must have been 2002, 2003. So Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were there. I’m backstage with those guys, and I overheard them speaking about Maria and this arrangement of “Giant Steps.” Like, “Who in the world would think to put ‘Giant Steps’ over a D pedal? I never heard of such a thing!” They went on and on about it. Maybe a couple of years later we were all in a room together. And man, the way Herbie and Wayne were fawning all over Maria, it was almost like a comedy movie. They were all, “Oh, we’ve never heard anyone who writes like you!” And: “Gil gave you the keys to the castle!” Maria’s sitting there all demure, like, “Oh, fellas, stop!” Mind you, at this table it was also me, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Brian Blade. Man, Wayne and Herbie had no time for anybody but Maria Schneider. They got back on the “Giant Steps” thing. Wayne was like “That’s just so ingenious – a D pedal! Maria, what made you think of that?”

Well, I had asked Maria the same question. What chords did you come up with for the melody? Her answer was so surprising: “I just made ‘em up.” There was no method or anything? “No! Just make up something, as long as it blends well.” I remember thinking: “Yeahhhh. Dig that!” And I thought, “Well, that makes more sense as to why it works over a pedal.” So back to the night Herbie and Wayne were fawning. I got so jealous. They had gone on for so long, like a straight hour. I remember saying “Well, dammit, I’mma write my own arrangement over a pedal.” That’s where I came up with the treatment for “I Thought About You,” from my new recording. So Maria Schneider in a much broader sense influenced that arrangement, though it really came down to the fawning of Herbie and Wayne.