It was an odd sight to see. The audience smiled, clapped their hands to the beat, and grooved to the music. It was especially odd since I was smiling and grooving to the music– I refrained from clapping since I can’t find a beat even if it beat me over the head. Normally, I stifle my yawns and prop my eyes open. Even though I know I’m in the presence of genius, it’s difficult to stay awake at a jazz show. In the presence of the Christian McBride Trio, however, only the comatose are asleep.
I have had the great fortune to doze off to many of the jazz greats: Ellis Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran. If Wayne Shorter had stuck to the standards rather than tickling his experimental fancy, I would have dozed off rather than squirm in my chair, fighting the urge to walk out. If the drummer for The Bad Plus hadn’t been so interesting (he used children’s toys as drumsticks), I would’ve fallen asleep at that show, too. It’s not that I don’t like jazz or that the performances were awful, all of them were stellar, and Shorter is a matter of taste, but the conditions are right to cast a soporific spell. The shows start late in the evening, the rooms are small and dark, the performers are serious and into their music, and all that is required of me is to sit, listen, and drink wine. Hence, sleep.
As I walked into UC Davis’s Vanderhoef Theater, I fully expected to carve a notch on my bedpost marking the Christian McBride Trio– another artist that I have “slept with”. The Vanderhoef, unlike the larger Mondavi auditorium, is fairly intimate. The stage is surrounded by small, circular tables that allow the audience an uninterrupted view of the artists. Bassist Christian McBride, pianist Christian Sands, and drummer Ulyesses Owens, Jr. used this to their advantage to engage the audience. Jazz musicians often give the audience a cursory smile before getting lost in their music. It’s as if the audience doesn’t exist; it disconnects the visual from the aural. They do stop and say “thank you” and maybe tell a story or two with their smooth voices, but it’s back to the music. It’s all very sedate.
Christian, Christian, and Ulysses don’t hang with sedate. They married the visual with the aural as they were all fun to watch. Throughout the the performance they smiled at the audience and at each other. They encouraged each other– each basking in the moment of playing together. When Owens knocked out his drum solo (which would give Neil Peart a run for his money), the others did not stand silently and respectfully by. Sands stood up from his piano seat, pumping his fist into the air. They enjoyed it as much as the audience did. Sands fingers floated and fluttered across the piano keys like hummingbirds’ wings– at points moving so fast, they were a blur. McBride, a giant in the music world, having played with all of the big names in jazz and many in rock (think Sting), was down to earth and funny. He poked fun at Owens’s hometown of Jacksonville, Florida for having a team that “nobody wants to root for.” With his big smile and down-home humor, he pulled the audience in in a way I had not experienced before. We were no longer there to just honor and enjoy the music, we were there because we cared.
Their performance was amazing. Sands and Owens, both in their very early twenties and extremely accomplished, are perched to dominate the jazz scene for years to come. All three performers played with a freshness and verve that, well, kept me awake. They played a wide variety of standards from Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time”, Richard Rodger’s “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I, “East of the Sun (West of the Moon)”, and the go-to standard, “My Favorite Things.” Ironically, as much as I love The Sound of Music and all things corny, “My Favorite Things” is not my favorite song. I’d much rather hear “The Lonely Goatherd”. Steve chuckled as the first few notes played, knowing how I rolled my eyes at the song. The McBride Trio did not fall into the same trap as Coltrane, who again and again emphatically states that These. Are. My. Favorite. Things. with his saxophone. Their interpretation was light and playful with interesting variations of the chords that I didn’t mind it as much; I might even go so far to say that I liked it.
My favorite part of the performance was when they played a cheeky version of “Who’s Making Love?” by Johnnie Taylor– a master of funk. This is what got the audience grooving and smiling. The trio’s energy and enthusiasm infected everyone. It was hard not to get into the music. It was clear they were having fun, and in their fun, we had fun.
Kudos to the Christian McBride Trio for keeping me up my past my bed time– a truly enjoyable feat.