Keep this in mind: Christian McBride’s 2006 recording, Live at Tonic, spans three CDs and is packed with funk, acid jazz, instrumental hip-hop, and other fusions, with jam sessions sometimes exceeding 30 minutes and featuring guest musicians like guitarist Charlie Hunter and turntablist DJ Logic. “Restrained” is not the right word to describe it. Following that, it’s remarkable that the bassist’s current project, Inside Straight, which made its Santa Barbara debut last Saturday, plays a brand of jazz traditional enough to satisfy Wynton Marsalis. The most unusual thing about the quintet, other than the off-the-charts musicianship displayed by each member, is the inclusion of the vibraphone. All the same, it was a thrilling night for bebop lovers.
Vibraphonist Warren Wolf took the first solo on the opener, “Brother Mister,” from the group’s 2009 album, Kind of Brown. Beginning subtly, he took the opportunity to wipe the instrument clean of associations with dewy mall bop, deconstructing the song’s blues melody and building it up with blustery sweeps and freefalls. If the Kind of Brown material sounds a bit safe in recorded form, the band’s live show allows for dirtier, more expressive playing, especially on the gravy-drizzled “Used ’Ta Could,” which McBride described as “the musical equivalent of some four-day-old fried chicken.” Each soloist let loose on this number, most notably drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and pianist (and potential Zach Galifianakis stunt double) Andy Langham.
The leaner arrangements allowed the audience to zoom in on McBride’s solos—which is never a bad thing. Because of McBride’s considerable dexterity and grace (no doubt influenced by Paul Chambers and Ray Brown), his double bass let out sonic flurries that befitted a much more user-friendly instrument. No mere technician, though, he accented his improvisations with gospel-style slides and winking pop-culture references, interrupting a difficult run with an allusion to a certain unmistakable sailing song. That was only a quick snapshot of the extended, unaccompanied intro he gave to Freddie Hubbard’s hard-bop sprint, “Theme for Kareem.”
For Inside Straight, jazz has a sense of humor. The infinitely quotable McBride, in what he termed a “commercial break,” kicked off the encore by leading his band through a samba-style version of the theme song from the ’80s sitcom Alice.
The set wound down with a mid-tempo McBride original, “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” which featured some tight harmonic interplay between the vibes and Steve Wilson’s alto sax. From a musician who has supported the likes of Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea, there may have been less risk-taking than expected. But in this case, experiments are overrated. Sometimes, when talents like these get involved, it’s best to hear them play it straight.