Sunday dinnertime in Montco may not be Saturday night in Philly, but it’s close enough that Christian McBride wouldn’t stand by while a near-hometown crowd remained demurely quiet. After hearing the audience at Normandy Farm in Blue Bell fail to clap after solos early on during a late February concert by his quintet Inside Straight, the bassist offered a tongue-in-cheek reprimand.
“No disrespect to Keith Jarrett,” McBride said, referencing the pianist notorious for demanding reverent silence at his performances, “but Philly people applaud.”
He didn’t have to remind them again. During the next song in the set, saxophonist Steve Wilson’s stately “Ms. Angelou,” the ballroom erupted in cheers midway through McBride’s own solo. That likely had less to do with the scolding and more to do with the bassist’s profoundly elegant playing, which glided over the bass with the poetic grace of the tune’s namesake.
Few bassists in jazz history have shared McBride’s astounding fluidity on the bass. He manages to play the unwieldy instrument with a fleet, nimble touch while maintaining a robust, window-rattling low end rooted as much in R&B and gospel as in the classic jazz for which he carries such a torch. Inside Straight, which McBride assembled in 2007 and has become the longest-lasting working band of his career, has also become the best vehicle for his muscular and soulful take on the music.
The band’s latest album, Live at the Village Vanguard, brings Inside Straight — originally formed for a weeklong engagement at the venerable New York club — full circle. The lively 90-minute set drew material from all three of the band’s albums. The show was presented as part of Montgomery County Community College’s Lively Arts Series, currently nomadic while the college’s theater is under renovation.
Looking forward to his first monthlong tour since the onset of the pandemic, McBride said that Inside Straight “feels like home, musically and spiritually.” He gave vibraphonist Warren Wolf credit for inspiring the band, his shimmering expressiveness prompting the bassist to build a band around it. Wolf’s soloing was the highlight of several pieces, including a darting, spirited turn on his own “Sweet Bread” and a swaggering dance atop the funk grooves of McBride’s James Brown-inspired “Brother Mister.”
Wolf shares the front line with the understated saxophonist Wilson, whose playing unerringly opts for tasteful eloquence over pyrotechnics. On “Sweet Bread” he began with sharp, needling jabs that gathered force into a torrent of blistering runs. On his ballad “Ms. Angelou,” birdlike fluttering alternated with caramel-smooth melodic filigrees.
McBride chose the standard “Alone Together” as a showcase for Inside Straight’s deft rhythm section, paring the band down to a trio of himself, pianist Peter Martin, and drummer Carl Allen. The bandleader began the tune solo, spinning a stunning tapestry of variations from the song’s familiar melody. Allen finally entered with subtle, chattering cymbals; his use of brushes throughout the song brought lovely, dynamic accents to Martin’s lyrical keyboard work, then transformed into a mesmerizing soft shoe routine for the drummer’s solo. McBride’s bold solo spurred the trio into a fervid finale, quoting Miles Davis’ “So What” to a ripple of appreciation from the now vocal crowd.
That early silence had been long forgiven if not totally forgotten by the time the set ended with trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem.” Pointing to one woman seated at a table near the stage, McBride expressed his gratitude for her enthusiasm: “I never once looked up and didn’t see you smiling,” he said, then singled out another audience member for his air drumming during Allen’s more explosive moments.
To another enthusiastic listener he offered that highest of compliments, “I know you must be from Philly.” The reward was a breakneck encore rendition of “Patterns,” a piece by drummer and Chester native Joe Chambers, ending the evening with a standing ovation.