Acclaimed Christian McBride Big Band with Joey DeFrancesco Nod to Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Oliver Nelson on ‘For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Grammy-winning bassist, composer, and all-round jazz impresario Christian McBride has already released one stunning album this year with his major opus paying tribute to Civil Rights leaders on The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons, reviewed on these pages. Now McBride brings us another poignant effort, featuring his Grammy-winning big band ((CMBB’s third release) and quartets comprised of his lifelong friend and stellar organist Joey DeFrancesco and frequent collaborator guitarist Mark Whitfield. Regular CMBB drummer Quincy Phillips anchors both the big band and quartets which alternate on renditions of songs inspired by the 1966 recordings of organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Over the course of three days, the two jazz icons recorded the material for two now-classic albums: The Dynamic Duo (1966) and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (1968), backed by a big band featuring arrangements by the great Oliver Nelson.  As you can imagine McBride and company swing like crazy on this one, inspired by their forbears.

Native Philly sons McBride and DeFrancesco have worn out the grooves on those recordings, even going back to their high school days throughout a friendship and collaboration that has lasted nearly 40 years. “Joey is, without question, my oldest friend in music,” McBride says. “We met in middle school playing in the Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble in Philadelphia. We’ve recorded a few things here and there over the years, but we’ve never recorded an entire album together until now. It seemed logical to salute the two albums that we listened to quite a bit as kids.”

The 17-piece Christian McBride Big Band has become one of the most consistently strongest large ensembles on the modern jazz scene since its 2011 Mack Avenue debut, The Good Feeling. Both that album and its successor, 2017’s Bringin’ It, garnered GRAMMY® Awards in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category. The CMBB features a host of elite musicians mixing renowned veterans with rising stars, most of them bandleaders in their own right: trumpeters Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Brandon Lee, Nabate Isles, and Anthony Hervey; trombonists Michael Dease, Steve Davis, James Burton and Douglas Purviance; and saxophonists Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Dan Pratt and Carl Maraghi.

Two singles have already been released. “Don Is” is a quartet piece, written by DeFrancesco for bassist and Blue Note chief Don Was. The second is the CMBB rendered, Whitfield composed “Medgar Evers Blues,” which originally appeared on his own 1990 debut, The Marksman. In keeping with the theme of McBride’s previous work, the cause of the original Civil Rights crusaders, unfortunately, rings as true today as during those times of almost six decades ago. Whitfield says, “That which pains me the most is that nearly 60 years after Medgar Evers was assassinated for his efforts to further the cause of civil rights in America, we’re still fighting against the same injustices that have plagued our communities since our emancipation. So much about our world, our society, has changed but as a nation we have yet to evolve beyond the indignities paid to our fellow citizens in the name of racism and oppression. Perhaps, remembering the loss of one of our country’s greatest advocates for civil rights and equal treatment for all Americans will help us finally begin to make significant and long lasting improvements to the system that we trust to serve our great nation and to our very human nature which must continue to evolve as we struggle to eradicate racism from our very existence.”

Beyond those two originals, the ensemble reprises four originals from Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver, mixing them with their own compositions and standards that reflect the ebullient, mostly joyous swinging vibe. That celebratory tone is set with the rollicking classic “Night Train.” The familiar groove was part of The Dynamic Duo, but it’s been a constant in the books of many a bandleader who’s been influential to McBride and DeFrancesco, including Duke Ellington and James Brown. Montgomery’s “Road Song” from Further Adventures, and has both Whitfield and DeFrancesco fronting the big band in an extended workout that captures their dynamic chemistry. “Milestones” is taken from the same album, and again allows the band to nod to another giant: Miles Davis, who famously recruited DeFrancesco straight out of high school. Sandwiched between those two is the first quartet piece, Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” which finds DeFrancesco and Whitfield playing soulfully and fluently. McBride takes his lyrical, romping solo and Phillips keeps the insistent beat.

The quartet proves that they can tackle a ballad sensitively too with Whitfield and DeFrancesco pouring out emotively on “The Very Thought of You” which precedes the CMBB’s rousing take on the gospel chestnut “Down by the Riverside,” also now a single, which was the opening track on The Dynamic Duo. This is a tune that offers itself to many interpretations and as such, never becomes tiring. Here, the CMBB takes it at a frenzied rhythm, revving up beyond the pace of the original. In keeping with the pattern, we next shift to a quartet and another ballad, “I Want to Talk About You,” made famous by Billy Eckstine and John Coltrane, among many others. Again, the quartet reveals unmatched sophistication as all four members make their statements. 

The closer is a co-write between McBride and DeFrancesco, a soulful, full-of-filthy blues riffing “Pie Blues,” built on a groove that they devised while still in high school together at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative And Performing Arts (CAPA), alongside classmates like Kurt Rosenwinkel and members of Boyz II Men and The Roots. “There’s not really a melody, just a groove,” McBride explains. “As for the word ‘Pie,’ we’re not sure where that came from. We were just being silly. I know we sure ate a lot of pie back then!”  There’s some outstanding down in the gutter sounds from the trombonists and bari sax throughout with some laughter from the band as the disc closes.

In the tradition of the three jazz icons, this is a date full of swinging soulful grooves. It represents yet another outstanding big band offering in a year where there are many superb entries, making Grammy voting an unenviable challenge in this category, to say the least.



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