At the beginning of the Christian McBride Band's new CD, Vertical Vision, a slightly scratchy recording of what sounds like an emblematic bop standard starts to play. The joke is that the piece is called "Circa 1990," a comment on the old-school jazz purity that bassist McBride and many of his colleagues were building their reputations upon at the time. A few seconds later, though, McBride's voice asks for another record. And then things get funky. What the Christian McBride Band launches into for the rest of the album is a rocking take on the fusion jazz of the 1970s and '80s.
It's a risky venture -- one that threatens to come across as pretentious. But McBride and his band succeed in making it work because they're not interested in recreating this music -- they want to take it to the next level. While the players rarely reach the delirious and glamorous frenzies that Miles Davis did when he started running the voodoo down late in his career, they still achieve an intensity absent from much current jazz.
Always at the forefront, McBride's bass leads the ensemble like a spidery locomotive, powerful and intimidatingly agile. The musicians move with him into this musical language like warriors conquering a landscape, masters of all they survey. So much so that comparisons with late Davis aren't entirely appropriate. Where Davis seemed to be playing primarily for himself late in his career, McBride and his colleagues play like they're out to prove something. This isn't the usual "we grew up on every kind of music, and we'll let that influence our playing" that often passes as innovative in contemporary jazz. What the Christian McBride Band seems to be saying instead is: "A wide range of music grew up on what we play." That range -- hip-hop, funk and techno -- is articulated on this album with remarkable clarity. Listening to the eight substantial tracks, you can hear all of these styles, and when the musicians are really on you can hear them connect back to old-school bop.
Occasionally this feels a little too thought-out, but jazz this intelligent is rare from such high-profile artists. That Vertical Vision is so much fun so much of the time is a tribute to McBride and his players, who have set themselves on a path they genuinely seem to want to explore. In the future, I hope they'll run all over it.