It isn't easy to make an impression as an acoustic bassist. Axe-warrior heroics - indeed, movements of almost any kind - are all but impossible, and the slap-and-spin is older than Bill Haley, and just as dead.
Robbed of pose and gimmickry, many bassists seem to lose their imaginations too. They are content to "walk" - or pick out the bare rhythmic pulse - through tune after tune. There are some bandleaders who even value this tendency: Thelonious Monk was notoriously fond of "walkers", and on one recording, in the middle of a more adventurous bass solo, appears to have become bored and sat loudly on his piano.
Other musicians have a higher opinion of the person on the big fiddle. Charles Mingus became a superstar, an inspiration for and a magnet to instrumentalists of all kinds. And the saxophonist Art Pepper thought that Jimmy Blanton was "so far ahead of anyjazz musician on any instrument, it was just ridiculous".
The same sort of claim could be made for Cecil McBee. His roots extend back to the Sixties avant-garde and include sessions with the currently fashionable wild-man flautist, Prince Lasha. But although he has played with jazz legends such as Miles Davies,Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, McBee's longest and most prolific musical partnership began in 1976 when he met Chico Freeman. For more than a decade, in styles from funk through jazz to bossa nova, his arcing bass lines variously drove, partnered, accented, underpinned, commented upon and ornamented Freeman's saxophone.
Then, for some reason, he seemed to drop out of sight. Even seasoned jazz fans didn't know what he was up to. The only two recordings that I can find with McBee as leader, Mutima and Flying Out, are more than 10 years old. If he has recorded anything under his own name in the Nineties, it is an extraordinarily well-kept secret.
I ran across him by accident, just before Christmas, after wandering into a small jazz / supper club in Greenwich Village. He was leading a quintet, performing mainly his own compositions. Despite a show-off saxophonist, a trumpeter and pianist who were both really good, and a drummer who was almost a maniac, McBee was clearly still in charge. Just as on his recordings with Chico Freeman, he controlled the direction and the pulse of the music effortlessly, through a brilliant use of silence as much as by anything he actually played.
Like all great musicians, McBee understands the importance of the space around the notes, space which he can manipulate to give his instrument an articulate, flexible melodic voice, as well as a rhythmic impetus. The audience in Greenwich Village was knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, but far too small to do justice to a player like Cecil McBee.Reuse content