Christian McBride Big Band / Barbra Lica

Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON, June 23

Photo: Kevin Jones

BY Kerry DoolePublished Jun 24, 2015

The choice of a vivacious and sweet-voiced young jazz-pop singer to open up a big band show may have been unorthodox, but local songstress Barbra Lica seized the moment with authority. She mixed breezy original tunes with such standards as "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," the latter confirming she can convince in delivering deeper emotions, not just light tunes about food, sugar and dating. Helping her cause was an ace band featuring keyboardist Lou Pomanti and guitarist James Bryan. The latter found pop success in Philosopher Kings and Prozzäk, and he impressed here with tastefully melodic playing. A charming performer, Lica is one to be watched.
Christian McBride gave something of a master class in how to pace a big band performance. All too often, the strength in numbers of a large ensemble can result in something of a sonic horns-led bludgeoning, but McBride and his ace accompanists (17 in total) struck just the right balance between restraint and power. As a bassist, the four-time Grammy winner has shone in a wide variety of musical settings, but it was his skill as a composer, arranger and bandleader that shone through here.
The 90-minute set featured both fresh arrangements of standards and original McBride compositions, and it was the latter that most caught the ear. One tune was dedicated to James Brown, with McBride noting that "even if I'm playing Dvořák or with Ricky Skaggs, I still have 'Sex Machine' in the back of my mind." Cementing the JB connection was the presence of Brown's long-time MC and cape-man, 80-year-old Danny Ray, who introduced the bandleader in time-honoured fashion. Punctuated by sax and trumpet solos, the number sounded like the theme of a Blaxploitation movie.
McBride's tribute to Cedar Walton, "The Shade Of The Cedar Tree," was more lyrical in tone, and it featured a fine tenor sax solo from Toronto's Kelly Jefferson, as did another original, "Shake 'N Blake." Reportedly a last-minute sub, Jefferson shone in his solo segments, showing why he's so highly regarded on the local scene. Most numbers featured solos from two or three players, with McBride providing both rhythmic pulse and nice shadings in his fluent playing.
Adding further variety on four tunes was Melissa Walker, an Edmonton native (and McBride's wife) who added plenty of home country shout-outs to a song that praised big city life. She shone on much-covered jazz standard "I'll Close My Eyes" and returned later in the show for two tunes taken from the films One Minute To Zero and Diamond Horseshoe. T
The longest, most dynamic and best-received number of the night was "Science Fiction," a McBride original that he introduced as being inspired by all the film and TV themes he devours. In his introduction, he joked that, "I hope you have fire insurance, as Todd Bashore is about to burn the place down." Sure enough, Bashore's alto sax solo was a fiery affair, though extended a fraction too long. Another highlight was the penultimate tune in the set, a tender and delicate rendition of the classic "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," featuring McBride bowing his bass to fine effect.
The highly versatile McBride has only been leading his own big band for five years, but this superb show confirmed that it's a role in which he excels.

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