For the inaugural Cornell Concert Series performance of 2017, Grammy-winning bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer will take to the stage at Bailey Hall on February 3. Although both musicians helm their respective vessels in nominally different streams, together they have created something as fresh as their foundations are solid. Where McBride is something of a musical chameleon, rooted in the backyard of the blues yet stretching his branches over into every willing neighbor’s property, Meyer has turned his classical wheelhouse into a kaleidoscope of interpretive possibilities. I had the opportunity to speak with both bassists — first to Mr. McBride on the phone, followed by Mr. Meyer via e-mail — as an overture to what promises to be an engaging night from this rare combination of instruments.
The Sun: One of my all-time favorites from your discography is Live at Tonic. I’m curious to know your personal feelings regarding that performance, because for me it’s such a solid compendium of who you are as an artist and of the different streams you bring together in your performance.
Christian McBride: That record was recorded in 2005, and by that point [saxophonist] Ron Blake, [keyboardist] Geoffrey Keezer and [drummer] Terreon Gully had been in my working group for six years. Consistency was always a struggle in terms of gigs and recordings, mostly because at that time I was touring also with Pat Metheny’s trio, which made it hard to get any momentum going. But I really loved that band. I considered it a hybrid. Everyone gets involved in false sentiments of genre, and everybody in that band listened to all sorts of music. Yes, our hearts and skills were in jazz, but the way we played it had been informed by pop, soul, classical, avant-garde, electronic, you name it. You can’t possibly be a professional creative musician and not be touched by various styles of music. Even those who make a conscious decision to do one thing—which is fine because you should do what moves you — like more kinds of music than one would give them credit for. You might not guess you could have an in-depth conversation with Wynton Marsalis about Earth, Wind & Fire, but you could.
Sun: One thing I like about that recording is the third disc, which is nothing but jams. What does the jam mean to you?
CM: One of my current responsibilities is being the artistic advisor for jazz programming at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center] in Newark, where I’m hoping to create something called “The American Jam,” for which my goal is to get musicians spanning all kinds of so-called genres up on stage to jam for an hour. Get a group of musicians from jazz, rock, country and gospel together, and there’s all one thing we know collectively, and that’s the blues. I’m hoping to make this thing happen at some point, because music seems to be the one fail-safe way to bring different cultures together. When you see the polarization and intense disagreements between parties, music is that one thing that keeps us on the same page and allows us to have a conversation. Music exposes the lies and propagandas that bombard us on a daily basis and brings out our honesty and rawest passions. In that respect, music is a truth serum.
Sun: I’ve always enjoyed your arco playing. Were you inspired by anyone else’s use of the bow or was it just an extension of your training on the instrument that you decided to incorporate later on?
CM: I started using the bow out of necessity. One of my first steady gigs while attending Julliard was at a club called Augie’s. Every night, the third set would turn into a jam session. There was always a long line of saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists, and drummers and maybe two bassists, who would usually go home. So there I was, playing the same song on stage for 40 minutes. One night we were playing an old standard called “Lover” [by Rodgers and Hart]. The bandleader was Jesse Davis, who liked to play it way up-tempo. My muscles were already cramping up and my callouses getting soft, and there was Jesse looking at me for a bass solo. I couldn’t even feel my hands at this point. I took it as a challenge, but playing it pizzicato would’ve been too fast, so I pulled out my bow. Not only did it work, but Jesse seemed rather impressed, so I kept it in the playbook. That gig solidified my commitment to always using the bow, even in jazz settings.
Sun: Can you talk about your relationship with Edgar Meyer and how you two came to play together?
CM: The first time I heard Edgar was in the early 1990s, shortly after I met the great Ray Brown, who was one of my greatest mentors and like a second father to me. Ray asked if I knew of Edgar Meyer, so he showed me this video he did with Edgar and fellow bassist Victor Wooten. From that point on, I became a huge fan of Edgar and started following his career, in awe of his creativity and skill. Jump to 2000, and speaking of Victor Wooten again, I went to Victor’s bass camp in Tennessee, where Edgar was a surprise guest. It was so great just meet the guy and hang with him, and we ended up jamming together. As all artists do, we shared the obligatory “Hey, we should work together one day” line, but as much as I admired him, I knew that if I wanted to do some duets with him, I had to be at the top of my game. It’s like, if you’re going to fight Floyd Mayweather, you’d better get training. In 2007, we decided to do a duet concert at the Aspen Music Festival. It was so wonderful that we decided to figure out how to keep it going, and finally started going on tour last year. Standing on stage next to Edgar is, on the one hand, depressing. I wish I could do what he does. But it’s also inspiring, because it makes me believe in what I can do and do it well.
McBride’s obvious respect for Meyer is echoed by the latter’s own for the former. True to form, and in artful contrast with McBride’s penchant for storytelling, Meyer speaks concisely and with rigor although each of these respective tendencies is the yin to the other’s yang.
Sun: Having performed with other bassists such as Victor Wooten, what distinguishes your work with Christian McBride, and how has it enriched your own playing?
Edgar Meyer: Most of what I did with Victor was to perform on a television program with him and Ray Brown around 25 years ago, which was of course a wonderful experience. Playing with another bass player is rare for me. I prefer to collaborate with complementary instruments. However, playing with Christian is an experience too rewarding to pass up. He is my favorite bass player and I enjoy hearing him up close and feeling what his flow and reactions are like. I can listen to the replay of a show and directly compare how we do things and try to imitate the things that I cannot do as well as he does. He also makes everyone with him better, so why wouldn’t you want to play with him? Never turn down a breath mint.
Sun: As one who crosses boundaries, working with a variety of musicians, do you see any need for identifying with particular genres, or is music more of a holistic experience for you?
EM: I do not have a clear answer to that question. I think the reality is complex. Studying a particular branch of music in depth should hopefully broaden horizons, not narrow them. A simplistic answer is that one should accurately observe what makes different music similar and what makes it different. I personally lean toward developing a unified voice that can be credible across a fairly wide stylistic range instead of multiple voices for different situations. It is helpful to try to figure underlying principles in different kinds of music instead of following rules of tradition.
Sun: What is something you know now as an artist that you didn’t, say, 20 years ago?
EM: That we are here for a brief time. There is no time to waste.
Seeing how smoothly these two masters converse when they’re not even in the same room, one can only imagine how well their voices will mesh when they delight their audience this Friday.
Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]