PURE MUSIC (I Want to Talk About You): the work of Christian McBride and Inside Straight (Kind of Brown), the Steve Kuhn Trio (Mostly Coltrane), and Roman Street (Amore)

by Daniel Garrett

Christian McBride and Inside Straight
Kind of Brown
Produced by Christian McBride
Andre Kimo Stone Guess, Associate Producer
Mack Avenue Records, 2009

Steve Kuhn Trio, Mostly Coltrane
Produced by Manfred Eicher
ECM Records, 2009

Roman Street, Amore
Produced by Roman Street
Engineered by Barry Little
And Mastered by Parker Dinkins
Roman Street Music, 2009

The bassist Christian McBride’s work with his musical group Inside Straight has a fine propulsive energy, featuring pretty and quick rhythms, as the musicians cultivate complexity—rhythm and counter-rhythm, notes that begin full and round but end with sharp punctuation, a sultry soft line erupting in something playful, with the atmosphere of something private being made known. Music is music and everything else is—everything else. I suppose the most important thing to say when you like a piece of music is “Listen to this!” Anything more can be superfluous: after all, each of us has ears and many of us can hear and know how to listen. Sometimes talk is nothing more than after dinner conversation—when the feast has been beyond one’s most exacting and greedy imagining. What is there to do, but say “Thank You” and recommend the chef to others? Well, I want to recommend, with what I hope is a little pleasant table talk, Christian McBride and Inside Straight’s album Kind of Brown, and the Steve Kuhn Trio’s collection Mostly Coltrane, and the set Amore by the band of brothers and friends called Roman Street.

A light, short but intense rhythm begins “Brother Mister,” and then one hears the distinction of each instrument, sprightly vibes, then piano and bass and sax—the band’s introduction has been made charmingly: Christian McBride is on bass, Carl Allen on drums, Warren Wolf Jr on vibes, Eric Reed on piano, and Steve Wilson on saxophone. The song “Brother Mister” has delight, movement, and something slightly brooding underneath. Most of the songs on Kind of Brown are written by the Philadelphian bassist Christian McBride, who began playing bass when he was nine and has become one of the most respected practitioners of the instrument; but, the second song was written by the now deceased trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and it is Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem,” which has a lot of energy, with the saxophone seeming to talk and run, while the vibes reach for something celestial, as the bass examines what is on the ground, and the drum beats a cycle of rumbles. There is a scintillating splendor and a bustling rhythm in “Rainbow Wheel,” with warm long lines of sound from the saxophone, and piano notes amid a quiet interlude, bubbling vibes, and the solitary, subtle quality of the bass. It sounds terribly romantic but “Starbeam” seems music of virtue, music that heals rather than hurts. There is an odd sawing pattern in “Used ‘Ta Could” and a sultry sound, though whimsy is not entirely lost (there are a lot of changes of direction). McBride has called that song silly but fun silly. McBride’s tribute to pianist Cedar Walton, “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” is refreshing and reassuring: the beauty—the invention, imagination, and skill—of the music is refreshing and it is reassuring that such beauty can be quite strong. McBride has a firm sense of music history, as could be expected from someone who is a professional performer of two decades and who has been the artistic director at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass summer program and California’s University of the Pacific-Dave Brubeck Institute, the co-director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, and creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The interplay that occurs on Kind of Brown within the music of Eric Reed’s “Pursuit of Peace” is a recommendation for deference, mutual respect, harmony, and sharing; and “Uncle James,” dedicated to another pianist, James Williams, is very nice too (Williams was devoted to fine melodies and chord changes, according to McBride). A variety of musical patterns, featuring an exultant saxophone and almost martial drumming, has the piece “Stick & Move,” which McBride, yet, calls a blues. Christian McBride’s bass in the old Sinatra standard “Where Are You?” produces a lonely lament.

The saxophonist John Coltrane, who was inspired by Lester Young and Johnny Hodges, has himself inspired many with its musicianship and spiritual explorations; and the creator of A Love Supreme has the high regard of pianist Steve Kuhn, who was born in Brooklyn and performed with Coltrane in early 1960 in New York City’s Jazz Gallery. The Steve Kuhn Trio—Kuhn, with David Finck on double bass and Joey Baron on drums—and guest Joe Lovano on saxophone pay their deepest respects with the album Mostly Coltrane. I was surprised by the melancholy “Welcome” that opens the album, but that lends it a memorial quality. (Coltrane himself said that “Welcome” is about peaceful awareness achieved through struggle.) “Song of Praise” sounds ceremonial at first, but then becomes more tumultuous, and “Crescent” could be late night music (suggesting deep thought, solitude). The bulk of the songs on Mostly Coltrane were written by John Coltrane, who was known for playing more than one note at a time, and for his inclination to experiment, as much as for the serious purpose he gave to his music, believing it could have a philosophical effect in society; but the songs that are not by Coltrane can stand tall in his company. Anticipation is created in Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You” and what is fascinating about it is how it—and all jazz—allows men an access to elegance and sensitivity that they do not usually embrace in public. “The Night Has a Thousand Faces,” by Buddy Bernier and Jerome Brainin, has rhythm and speed, even a chattering quality (it is easy to imagine the sway and swing of bodies); and “Living Space” is good too. One of my favorite places, Central Park, a place of urban refreshment, is evoked in “Central Park West” (I recall the trees and benches, the conversation and exercise of people in the park, the apartment buildings and restaurants near the park). “Like Sonny” is boisterous, and Steve Kuhn’s own composition “With Gratitude” has a tone that is both humble and sure, with the piano prominent and the bass seeming a shadow. There is a cacophony made by the saxophone and drums in “Configurations”; and a repetitious worrying of notes that evoke a particular psyche in “Jimmy’s Mode” (and muted horn and the drums and cymbals indicate complication). Gorgeous horn-playing echoes the blues in “Spiritual,” a contemplation of the spirit that does not deny the sensual (however, the tumult near the end could be wailing—the naked complaint, the shameless call for divine help); and Steve Kuhn’s “Trance,” which completes the album, is a quiet piano piece, yet able to evoke dimensions.

I thought Roman Street’s Amore was lovely when I first heard it but I was not sure it could hold its own with the music I like best: hearing it again, without distraction, I know it can. The very short “In & Out” has a fine force and intricacy, “75” is breezy, light, resembling jazz, “Caravan” has a smoky Latin flavor and momentum, and “Rondo” is delicately sultry, ageless, with an African percussion that adds something earthy and contemporary. The brothers Noah and Josh Thompson both play classical guitar (and Josh plays modern acoustic guitar too), and Jason Sikes plays bass, Daniel Brett congas, and Nik White djembe, an African goblet-shaped hand drum. The Alabama band Roman Street was featured in a regional magazine, Southern Breeze, in which the Thompsons talked about being guided to play music by their father when they were very young. Their father told them that music taught life lessons. One thinks they have learned many lessons well. Roman Street’s song “Amore Mio” is supple and without hurry, but it is not slack, and offers discreet climaxes. “Hwy 30 A” has relaxed guitar strumming against a clapping beat, “Hope” opens with a rhythm that is like a subtle vibration, a golden throb of sound, mellow but not dull, and it achieves a steady pace. There are a lot of lone notes in “Canon,” the sound of something old but not worn, melodious; and the music can seem a kind of miracle. “Born” has vigor, a dynamism that is both jazzy and rocking,” while “Lucky” is nicely relaxed. Short, sharp vocal exclamations punctuate the smoldering patterns of Roman Street’s “Fire,” before the reprise of “In & Out.”

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and he has said, “My life has been about feeling, observing, reading, thinking, and writing—about learning and teaching—and I have been committed to identifying and celebrating intelligent forms of culture.”