On a Friday night in Sanders Theatre, Christian McBride was wearing the widest grin in the room. He was not responding to applause or even playing the weathered, deep-voiced bass with which he has carved out a unique place in the 21st century jazz pantheon. With the bass propped silently on his shoulder, he was enjoying a solo from his drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr. McBride, Owens, and Christian Sands on piano traded chorus-long solos during the encore to an enrapturing hour-long set, and on this particular chorus Owens was playing nothing but a long snare roll, teasing a novel expressiveness from the sound. Following him, Sands humorously imitated Owens’s solo with a deep rumble from the piano’s low register, a slow crescendo which bloomed into vibrant harmony. McBride, still grinning, unsheathed the bow to his bass and followed with a tremolo rumble of his own as the audience erupted into laughter. The entire performance was filled with moments of ingenuity, expressiveness and joy such as these, during an evening that provided a lighthearted look at the strongly beating heart of jazz.
The evening began with a vocal jazz performance from Cécile McLorin Salvant, a delightful singer with a unique poise, almost reminiscent of Monk. A casual, precise use of discord—manifesting itself in anything from a verse bending the slightest bit off-pitch to a short rhythmic disconnect with the backing band—gave the performance a persistent freshness. Salvant also performed with disarming honesty, which showed even in song choice, as she explained that she had often found herself in the situations described in “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” and “The Stepsisters’ Lament” from “Cinderella.” Alongside standards and showtunes, Salvant performed some originals, which were characterized by a certain mystery. For instance, her epic composition “Fog” alternated between moments of near silence and slow, relentless crescendos as her backing band followed that trajectory with shimmering arpeggios. The band, while playing with a technical precision that bordered on stiffness, provided an environment with ample space for the singer’s remarkable vocal acrobatics.
McBride did not hesitate to heap praise on Salvant. He lamented the challenges of following such an expressive vocal act with three instruments often relegated to the rhythm section behind a horn-playing soloist. The trio didn’t have much trouble overcoming that hurdle, however. The set kicked into gear with a fresh rendition of the classic “Down By the Riverside” as Sands tweaked the song’s melody to create a more spunky rhythm, and the band settled into a lively groove.
McBride, who has recorded and performed with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, and Sting, is, of course, the superstar of the group. But while both Sands and Owens are significantly younger than McBride and possess less absurdly stacked resumes, neither man seems like a protégé. This trio is comprised of three equals, each with just as much to say as the next. The only way McBride dominated the performance was through his role as a kind of master of ceremonies for the set, introducing each arrangement as the band played it.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the performance was Owen’s soft, precise touch on the drums. In a performance that at one point saw him tapping the snare drums with his hands—no sticks necessary—with his head cocked back and closed eyes, heprovided a dynamic, expressive groundwork to every piece the group performed. During one drum solo, it seemed that Owens had everyone in the theater so engrossed that he had to remind McBride and Sands to re-enter at the right time, smiling and nodding to the two as his eyes opened and he emerged from his percussive reverie.
McBride’s trio began the performance with the intent (announced by McBride) to “bring some Roxbury to Cambridge”—in other words, to express the kind of soulful joy that brought them to their instruments in the first place. The program included such joys as Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life” and the theme to the 1972 movie “Car Wash,” highlighting jazz’s close relationship with pop culture. While they are as technically impressive as any group performing today, what really defines McBride’s trio is its tenacious placement of pure, accessible love and joy in a genre that is often gleefully esoteric.