Sunday, April 12, 2015

Old friends combine in first-time trio as Christian McBride visits Butler University

Christian McBride showed his expertise at Butler.
Thoroughly adept musicians who have proved themselves individually and in groups over many years unsurprisingly jell quickly in new combinations.

It wasn't startling, then, to hear unalloyed excellence from the "new" Christian McBride Trio Saturday night in a Butler ArtsFest concert at the Schrott Center for the Arts.

The genial bassist, a virtuoso of deep pizzicato sound and ingenuity, brought to the stage an old Philadelphia friend, pianist Orrin Evans, and a veteran collaborator, drummer Carl Allen. "This is a world premiere trio," McBride announced, taking charge after a guest appearance with the Butler Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Matt Pivec.

Evans proved capable of being effective in a conventional jazz grouping where the bassist is the boss. Pianists normally predominate in what are usually called piano trios, but Evans was neither too deferential nor helplessly in the spotlight. Without being overemphatic throughout, he set the approach to the trio's first number, which turned out to be "Autumn Leaves," with oblique, "outside"  statements that McBride and Allen joined in full colloquy.

McBride's lengthy cadenza, out of tempo and unaccompanied, opened a deep-dyed "Blue Monk." Apart from the evident three-way enjoyment of getting into and sustaining a slow groove, the performance was notable for a real blues solo on the drums. Not just a drum solo at slow tempo, mind you, but a well-phrased representation of the blues on unpitched percussion.

Allen is a master of timbre, whose technique encompasses a flexible foot on the bass-drum pedal that creates a full-spectrum effect. Tom-tom accents are judiciously applied. His use of cymbals is relatively restrained, but always to the point. Exchanges with McBride and Evans always found him coming up with something new, in "Bernie's Tune" and a concluding fast blues as well as in "Autumn Leaves."

McBride modestly introduced an extended arco treatment of Wayne Shorter's tribute to his daughter, "Miyako," which had only a few out-of-tune notes in the trio's calmest offering among the half-dozen tunes it played. Jazz bassists whose plucking always sounds on target sometimes go awry when they pick up the bow: The peerless Ray Brown takes a short arco solo on an old Oscar Peterson recording I own that causes me to wince just thinking about it. McBride's outing was at the top end of this (in his field) uncustomary technique.

The guest artist's praise of the Butler Jazz Ensemble was more than dutiful. It was well-deserved. The disciplined big band's set featured several McBride arrangements, all of them well-conceived and -executed. Vocalist Chloe Boelter made much of the bassist's sensitive setting of "The More I See You," rising to a climactic final chorus without becoming facilely emotive.

Pivec opened the program by leading the band in Ellington's kaleidoscopic riff piece, "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue."  Sam Turley put a few hints of Paul Gonsalves, the Ellington sideman who owned "the wailing interval," into a lengthy solo without being too imitative. Two percussionists were in the pocket with a good approximation of that relentless Sam Woodyard drive. All the horn sections placed their frequently staccato phrases with precision, and the whole performance hung together splendidly.

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