Christian McBride reflects on Ray Brown

bassist Christian McBrideChristian McBride reflects on Ray Brown

Jazz virtuoso now plays mentor’s old bass

By David Sands
November 20, 2015

Today Christian McBride is someone aspiring musicians look up to, one of the great bass luminaries of contemporary jazz.

The four-time Grammy winner is both a respected bandleader and sought-after sideman who’s worked with jazz greats like Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock as well as popular artists like Willie Nelson, The Roots and Linda Ronstadt.

Even virtuosos have their role models, though. McBride talked about one of them, the great jazz bassist and cellist Ray Brown, in a recent interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish. Brown is renowned for his work with jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson. McBride not only had a mentoring relationship with him, but also played and recorded with him in a bass trio called SuperBass that also featured John Clayton.

“Any time my hands touch a bass, I think of Ray Brown,” McBride told Cornish.”Ray was very bluesy and very folky and very soulful…. Ray Brown was all about the ‘grease,’ as he used to say.”

By grease, Brown meant flavor, and he certainly didn’t skimp on it. In fact, McBride spoke with a few of the drummers the great bassist used to work with—folks like Grady Tate, Jeff Hamilton and Karriem Riggins—and they actually told him Brown’s sound was so attention-grabbing that they’d have to do a “major adjustment” just to play with him.

“Ray Brown could be too strong, to the point where they would play the drums and they would look over him and go, ‘Why am I here? You don’t need me,'” McBride said.

His connection with Brown goes deeper than just memories, however. McBride now owns the main bass that the jazz legend played during the last 30 years of his life. He’d already owned one of Brown’s basses when he got a call last year from his widow Cecilia, asking him how much he loved his old mentor’s principal instrument.

“Well, the reason why I’m asking is because the Smithsonian wants Ray’s bass,” she told him.

“Um, now, I could work it out so that you could give the Smithsonian the bass that you have and I can give you the bass that Ray had all the time, or I can give this bass to the Smithsonian and you keep what you have.”

“No, let me have that one,” McBride responded. “So she sent the bass to me just over the summer, I believe. I had it worked on, and this has been the bass I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop for the last three months.

Beyond its sentimental value, McBride says the bass, which he’s still coming up with a name for, is also an impressive instrument in its own right.

“We could play in a 1,000-seat auditorium, acoustically, and everybody would hear every single note.”

McBride’s latest album, Live at the Village Vanguard, came out earlier this fall.

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