'Color of Water' author McBride presides over swinging, soulful jazz concert

Friday, March 11, 2005
Special to the Gazette

A large crowd at the First Baptist Church on Thursday night came out to the one Reading Together event that was to be more like Swinging Together, a concert by James McBride and his band.

McBride, author of "The Color of Water," was a Washington Post feature writer when he was in his 20s, but quit to pursue a jazz career, only to later become a best-selling and critically acclaimed writer.

At First Baptist, McBride clearly showed that he loved both music and words.

He clearly loves the give-and-take jazz discourse of the players in his band, where everyone got a solo and a chance to state their piece.

He also is energized by the give-and-take of public discourse on subjects of the day. Before beginning the concert, McBride wanted to clarify what he had said at the Fresh Fire AME Church the day before.

After thanking the city for making him feel welcomed, McBride said, "I see my comments about the war made the paper," referring to the coverage of the talk in Thursday's Kalamazoo Gazette. The audience at First Baptist interrupted with a round of applause.

McBride had been critical of the war in Iraq and also said that "the black church's lack of respect of gay people is an utter disgrace" at Fresh Fire AME.

"This is a nation built on reason and discourse," McBride said at First Baptist.

We should respect freedom of speech and people's right to express their views, but, he pointed out, with freedom there's responsibility. "I don't want it to seem like I'm some irresponsible dude," he said. "Words are powerful things."

McBride wanted to make clear that he respects those who support the war, he respects President Bush though he doesn't agree with him and he respects the troops who are serving in Iraq and their families.

But as far as his comments on the church and gays, "I do stand by that," he said, getting more applause.

"I just think it's time to grow up when it comes to our gay brothers and sisters. If they want to be married and miserable like the rest of us, then God bless 'em!'"

McBride also talked about his childhood and gospel music, "the stuff that had swing." He demonstrated at the piano how he would add more swing as he played for church services when he was a teen, jazzing up "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," until his mother would make threatening motions from the pew.

Playing at the grand piano, McBride segued into the swingin' section of the program, introducing his bassist Calvin Jones, pianist Sarah Jane Cion and drummer Charles Hopkins.

McBride took up his tenor sax and led the group into a straight-ahead set with touches of bop, Latin and funk, all infused with soul.

His subtle style came through in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The standard can easily slide into the realm of syrupy sweetness, but McBride played the melody with deep, yearning soul, before swinging it out into improvisations.

McBride would state his piece, then stand aside to let the others reply -- he wasn't a stage-hog.

Cion, who has a career as a solo recording artist and composer of TV music ("All My Children"), got the spotlight with her "Walking On the Moon," a piano piece of dappled sunlight, its mellowness hiding complexities.

Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" started as a showpiece for Hopkins, who began it with a cacophonous solo of fractured rhythms before solidifying into a samba beat. Then all got to shine. The piano and drums took the Brazilian parade feel into a hot and funky duet, then sax and bass joined forces to give the parade a New Orleans beat.

"I'd like to see next year's author top this!" McBride said near the end of the set.

He then turned to words, more about Iraq. As the soldiers come home, he said, "It's our job to let them know that we'll be there for them."

As he then gave some statements on the state of the United States in the world, Cion began to plunk out "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The rest of the band joined in, and McBride stopped talking and picked up his sax. They sounded at first like a sincere Salvation Army Band, then jazzed it up into a rousing, swinging piece.

After a standing ovation, McBride and his group gave a quick and smooth version of Miles Davis' "There is No Greater Love."

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

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