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Christian McBride
A Family Affair,  Verve CD 314 557554-2, 1998

 Funk honorific

One look at bassist Christian McBride’s latest release with, of all things, George Duke listed as its producer, and it might give any self-respecting traditional jazz fan a case of the frightened chills. I mean, isn’t George Duke best known for his jazz-fusion and pop music work? What could this slick studio hack possibly bring to McBride’s well-established acoustic work? (OK, maybe "hack" is a little too strong. But I’m not backing down on "slick.").

There’s no real need to fear, though, since much of McBride’s traditional sound survives the lightly funked treatment here. This reminds me of something another master bassist, Ron Carter, once said. He was asked why he didn’t play an electric bass, and answered by saying that he’d already worked so long and hard at getting just the right tone from his stand-up playing, that he didn’t want to give all that up just for the sake of "modernizing" his sound. Thankfully, McBride spends about the same amount of time on both the acoustic and electric bass. Instead of overly funk-ifying his playing on  A Family Affair, he uses this project as a kind of homage to old-school soul music, especially the late ’60s and ’70s variety. The Spinners are saluted with "I’m Coming Home," Stevie Wonder is spotlighted on "Summer Soft" and the title track remembers Sly Stone’s glory days.

While it’s encouraging to see contemporary jazz musicians, such as McBride, who appreciate songs that don’t exactly come from their particular musical history, not everything here stands up well to such jazzy renditions. The title track, for example, swings along quietly and nicely, which would be a fine tactic for many other ballads, but it’s entirely inappropriate for this emotional statement from Sly Stone. "Summer Soft," on the other hand, is jazz-ready, and a reminder of just how skilled Stevie Wonder is at creating memorable melodies.

McBride is joined here by Tim Warfield on tenor sax, Charles Craig on keyboards and Gregory Hutchenson at the drums. Additionally, Russell Molone adds guitar, Munyungo Jackson chips in percussion, and Will Downing and Vesta each take turns in vocals. This album may not be the best forum for Christian McBride’s music, but it’s always fun to get a peek at a musician’s influences. Instead of labeling this as a sell-out (which it very easily could have become),  A Family Affair is better viewed as a side road along the fruitful journey of one diverse musician. – Dan MacIntosh

Copyright © 1999 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.