Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer: Low End Liaison

The Two Upright Masters Move the Art of Bass a Giant Step Forward with But Who’s Gonna Play the Melody?

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer: Low End Liaison

The Two Upright Masters Move the Art of Bass a Giant Step Forward with But Who’s Gonna Play the Melody?

Photos by Anna Webber

Some things are worth the wait. After more than a dozen years of periodic performances together as a duo, Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer have committed their doghouse dalliance to vinyl, and the results are seismic. But Who’s Gonna Play the Melody? [Mack Avenue] has all the virtuostic and surprise moments one would anticpate, including mind-blowing arco and precision pizzicato moments, plus the pair taking to the piano to support each other on four of the fifteen tracks. Likewise, the material covers the wide range of styles where the two can be found operating at the leading edge: jazz, classical and chamber music, bluegrass, funk, and the blues. But what truly makes the record the joyous, feel-good outing it is dwells in the brotherhood of the bottom. Each musician takes great care to support the other, leading to relentless grooves, clearly framed melodies and solos, thoughtful arrangements, and an acute level of listening and reacting.

It was none other than the late, great Ray Brown who is at the roots of this union. McBride recalls, “Ray was the first person to tell me about Edgar. He connected us and I began following Edgar’s career. The first time we met was at a Victor Wooten bass camp, circa 1999. Edgar teaches at Aspen in the summers, and 2000 was my first year as the director of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. We figured out we were there at roughly the same time, so the two programs co-promoted an event with us in 2007, and that’s the first time we played together. We kind of did for that show what we did for this record; we each came up with some material and it went very well. Then around 2013 we did a mini-tour with dates in the UK and the U.S. After a few more spot dates we thought it was about time we did some recording. We began in 2019 but the pandemic put the brakes on, and we picked back up in 2022.” Edgar concurs, “I met my wife in Aspen, in 1982, and I’ve since been back almost every summer. Seeing Christian there several times, it was natural to talk about doing a concert while we were both appearing. The first time was in 2007 and we enjoyed it so much we kept doing it. 2019 is when we finally got around to recording, but the pandemic and other circumstances delayed us for about four years.”

When it came to the concept for the record, McBride admits that preconceived notions about the instrument were a factor. “Even with all the bass virtuosos that currently walk the earth, there’s still this idea that two basses can’t do very much as compared to two guitars or two pianos. But when one of the bassists is Edgar that’s not a problem. He can play violin concertos on the bass, in violin range, plus he has great rhythmic and bass line creation chops. Still, when we first started doing dates together, Edgar felt that a 90-minute concert of bass duets might be a bit much, so he had the idea that we would accompany each other on piano for a song. We retained that for the record.” He adds, “Ultimately, our goal was to give the listener as much variety as possible. Edgar and I come from two vastly different backgrounds, which gives us a lot to draw from, but our common ground is the blues language.”

For Meyer, the reason to do the record was more simple. “To have a chance to play with Christian,” he laughs. “There’s not a lot more to it. It’s such a pleasure to interact with him. He’s the easiest person to play with there is. If you can’t get with Christian’s rhythm then you can’t with anyone’s. He’s also very unprescribed. He doesn’t say it has to be this or that. He just comes in and he’s waiting to find out what’s up—very much a jazz mentality. There was no recipe for the album. We did some things instinctively and other things were more thought out. On the instinctive side, from the first minute we played together, without talking about it, we understood that a bass accompanying another bass needs to keep it very simple. If two acoustic bassists are going left all the time it’s going to sound like a jumble. On the more thought-out side, we acknowledged that the sound of two basses can get boring, so the fact that we both play piano seemed useful to vary the texture and get another look. And we knew we wanted original music plus a few covers.”

The two-bass stigma even creeps into the humorous album title, as explained by Meyer. “We were on tour and as we often do, we bought airplane seats for our basses. Christian tweeted a photo of us going through TSA, and [saxophonist] Joshua Redman responded with, ‘But who’s gonna play the melody?’ I thought that was funny and would make a good title.”

Hybrid music called for a hybrid recording process, as the two gathered inside Ingram Hall in the Blair School of Music, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. McBride, who played his main, no-name, 1920s carved German bass with D’Addario medium Helicore Hybrid strings and a Raposo Brazilian-made, French-style carbon fiber bow, reveals, “Most engineers close-mic acoustic basses right in front of the bridge or f-hole, but Edgar discovered there’s an effectiveness of putting the mikes both further away and overhead, like classical music engineers do. Our mics were about six feet away in front and seven feet high, pointing down, so what you’re hearing is 50% of the instruments and 50% of the room, and the results sound incredible. Close-miking when playing with a bow can sound too harsh and unforgiving, and simply miking the room can result in the bass being too muddy. Edgar’s approach was the best of both worlds.”

Meyer credits engineer Todd Whitelock, who has recorded with both gents in the past. “Todd’s ear is the secret. He’s worked a lot within classical and jazz, and he knows how to make us each sound right. He used DPA 4006TLs, which are scientifically-oriented mikes more often used in classical music, into a Millennia HV-3D preamp. He had some Coles 4038 Studio Ribbon mikes for the close miking, but it’s a 90/10 balance between distant and close. Also, in the mix he has me always on the left and Christian always on the right.” Meyer then explains his instrument choice and unique tuning, “I played my 1769 Gabrielli acoustic bass with a French bow reconditioned by the great bow maker David Forbes, in Gainsville, Florida. The instrument is one my father fell in love with in 1958 and he helped me get it when it became available in 1983. I was happy on the bass I was playing but he talked me into switching and he was right. It has enabled me to do certain things that I wouldn’t have been able to do on the other bass.” As for his string choice and tuning, he relates, “I used standard tuning until I was 21, when I was scheduled to play a Bottesini piece and realized the only score parts for the orchestra that were available would require that I tune the top three strings up one whole step for the solo part. From that point on I’ve tuned my bass E-B-E-A [standard tuning with the top three strings up a whole-step], and I later added a Cextension on the E string. The E and the B are medium Thomastik Spirocore strings and the E and the A are Pirastro Permanent strings.” Of the tuning choice, he adds, “It has it’s limitations. On the bottom it’s difficult to play anything in flat keys or something that’s very busy. But almost everything I play is designed around the tuning. It’s a little brighter and clearer, and it’s the voice I want.”

Cue the Needle

The album opener, “Green Slime,” finds the two meeting in their comfort zone. “It’s an eight-bar blues in G by Edgar,” notes Christian, “and when it moves to the IV chord, instead of the expected C7, it goes to a C#dim7. I bow the melody and take the first solo, and then Edgar solos and plays the melody out.” Meyer adds, “It’s a tune I’ve had laying around since I was 20, so it’s had four decades of use. Having Christian and his generous support allowed me to play a freer solo than I might play in other situations. It’s a good opener for us both live and on record; a way to get warmed up and get to know the audience a bit.”

Meyer’s “Barnyard Disturbance” is up next, a favorite of McBride’s and a tune Meyer recorded with Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall on Uncommon Ritual [Sony Classical, 1997] that draws from several styles. “There’s an element of fiddle music and also an earthy funk that was never as apparent until Christian played it with me. So he brought something out that no one else has. He also takes a pizzicato solo in B; not easy to do, but he prides himself on being equally strong in all twelve keys. My arco solo is written out, the result of too many unhappy attempts at soloing in Ebminor. It’s based on what I use to try to improvise.”

“Barnyard Disturbance”

McBride’s first composition is “Bebop, of Course,” which follows the alternate blues changes inspired by Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” He allows, “It can be daunting for me to write in this setting because Edgar is such a prolific composer in numerous styles. So instead of being intimidated, I thought, Why don’t I just write what I do well? When I wrote the melody, the first thing that came to mind was that title. We each solo and do some call and response. With each song we tried to change up the arrangements so we would never fall into a pattern the listener expected.” For Meyer, the song addressed improvising with the bow in a jazz setting. “Early on I learned how to take a jazz pizzicato solo, but I didn’t know how to improvise with the bow. The key for me was hearing great violinists from outside the classical world, like Mark O’Connor and L Shankar, and what they could do with a bow improvising in rhythmic music. Over time you learn what works and it’s not, for example, trying to play like Charlie Parker. Arpeggiated figures don’t tend to lend themselves to the long string length of an acoustic bass using the bow. So I listen to the changes and try to play more linearly, with the occasional big intervals. It’s not a horn-based or piano-based way of improvising, per se; there are some vocal-like moments and some technical moments, and you can always play the blues. I’m just trying to find a way through that fits my personality on the instrument.”

Compositionally Speaking

 The untethered compositional side of Meyer comes forth on five pieces he composed for the record: “Bass Duo #1.” “Bass Duo #2,” “Interlude #1,” “Interlude #2,” and “Canon.” McBride observes, “‘Bass Duo #1’ has some very challenging passages fingerings-wise because Edgar wrote them around his tuning. And the melody has some atonal parts which sound improvised but are not. As for ‘Bass Duo #2’ that’s a funky jam tune; I call it ‘Tennessee grease.’ It has some intervals that made us think Ray Brown would have dug it. I learned that Tennessee grease makes you shake your head in approval as much as Philly grease does!” Meyers follows up, “‘Bass Duo #1’ is written in groups of five or ten bars. I don’t write on bass much anymore, it’s mostly in my head, with a little help from the piano or computer sometimes. If I write on bass I tend to get the same song again. Coming up with ideas away from the instrument keeps it varied. Also for me, I look at writing as improvisation at a much slower speed.” Regarding “Bass Duo #2,” he comments, “The A section is in C and the B section is in A, and it feels like Christian is referencing his James Brown roots, with all the offbeats. I take a pizzicato solo, which is much more limiting for me agility-wise than soloing with the bow, but that’s probably good for me.”

“Bass Duo #1”

The striking, sparse tone poems, “Interlude #1” and “Interlude #2” are different sides of the same coin, with McBride on piano for #1 and Meyer on piano for #2. Edgar details, “All the measures have the same rhythm. In #1 the two lower voices move chromatically from a fourth to a fifth, while in #2 the two upper voices do that. #1 unfolds three bars at a time, while #2 is more irregular, but both are 12 bars in total. I do very little improvisation in #1, playing sparsely and trying to set a mood.” McBride adds, “I see the two pieces as musical shapes with moving tonal centers, so for my pizzicato solo in #2 I’m not improvising over changes. I’m thinking of the mood they set and playing freely, which is refreshing.” Finally, “Canon” is a strict canon with no improvisation, according to Meyer. “We’re both bowing. I start and everything I play Christian plays seven eighth-notes later and down a minor sixth. And even when it sounds like we’re slowing down and speeding up, we’re actually staying in metronomic time.”

Ex. 1 shows the first page of “Canon” used for the recording. Meyer notes that both parts are written an octave lower than they sound and that he did some slurring in the top line not marked here. 

Miles Smiles (and Ray Does, Too)

The album’s first cover is a brilliant reconstruction of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” with furious arco and pizzicato solos from McBride. He relays, “Edgar’s arrangement starts off slow, with elongated phrases. Then when we get to the melody, it’s much faster than Miles ever played it. Plus we’re in E minor instead of C minor, to accomodate Edgar’s tuning. When I have to solo at a tempo that fast the only word that comes to mind is ‘clarity.’ I try to play lines and phrases that are succinct, that people can understand. Playing fast is not hard, but playing fast and having the lines be comprehensible for the lay person is a much bigger challenge.” Meyer allows, “I wanted to give the song another wrinkle or layer. It holds its form, the trick is the melody is pasted onto the form in different lengths. It’s both deceptive and evocative because you recognize the melody but it’s stretched out in different ways.”

Ex. 2 contains the chart for “Solar” used on the recording, which is heard in the first 47 seconds of the track. The asterisks indicate the start of the song’s 12-bar form, however the first appearance of the melody in its elongated form can be heard from McBride in measures 33-60.

In an homage to his hometown roots, McBride serves up the funky “Philly Slop.” He states, “It’s a groove tune in 3/4 similar to a song I wrote and recorded with my qunitet and big band called ‘Used to Could,’ and I also took some inspiration from Cannonball Adderley’s ‘This Here.’ It’s my answer to Edgar’s tunes like ‘Green Slime’ and ‘Barnyard Disturbance.’” Meyer, who plays some false harmonics towards the end of the track by placing his right thumb an octave above the note his left hand is fretting, offers, “Christian wrote it in Bb and was kind enough to move it to D for me, to better fit my tuning. This tempo and vibe is one of the most natural places for us.”

Staying in said comfort zone, Meyer revives his “FRB” from Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile [Nonesuch, 2008], which stands for “for Ray Brown.” Here he modifies it to “FRB 2DB,” to acknowledge this two-double-bass version. McBride laughs, “When he sent me the demo track and I saw the ‘2DB’ part of the title I thought it was a note for the engineer that he accidently left on there. Then when I saw the notation for the insane unison four-bar bowed passage eight bars in, I kind of panicked. Like, I’m gonna need a moment, pardon me!” Meyers relates, “I wrote it based on the changes to Sonny Rollins’ ‘Doxy,’ but we’re in G instead of Bb. My version with Chris is quite different. The bowed passage is grouped three notes at a time but the actual subdivisions per beat are crazy, starting with a five-note pickup, followed by groups of six, four, five and three in the first measure.” He adds, “One enduring memory of Ray Brown is that growing up I would always tell my dad, I can almost get Ray’s sound, but I need a different bass. And then Ray played my bass and I found out I was wrong!”

Ex. 3 has the second 16 bars of the melody of “FRB 2DB,” starting at 0:31. Meyer bows the melody on the top line while McBride supports with pizzicato on the lower line. In the almost identical first 16 bars that start the track, the pair play in unison, seamlessly and impressively handling the furious passage in bars 8-11.



Two standards covers reveal more of the dynamic duo’s dimensions. First, Meyer accompanies McBride on piano for the Rogers and Hart gem, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” He relates, “Christian asked me to learn the Ella Fitzgerald version, which has Hank Jones on piano. I listened to and learned from Hank’s voicings, but I didn’t play his exact part because he had a rhythm section and I was on my own. I was more focused on trying to be the bass player on piano and make sure Christian was supported. It’s the lyric side of Christian with a bow, and he improvises an amazing cadenza at the end.” Then for Henry Mancini’s “The Days of Wine and Roses,” both bassists trade melody, solo, walking, and arco and pizzicato roles on the hard-swinging effort.

Lullabye and a Tennessee Good Night

The final piano appearance by McBride is as accompanist on his “Lullabye for a Lady Bug,” and it’s powerful, as his left hand supports and engages Meyer’s bowed melody and solo. He says, “Edgar heard the tune on my album Sci-Fi [Verve, 2000] and he really liked it. I told him I’d love to hear him play it, and I brought it for one of our live shows.” Meyers agrees, “It’s a fairly perfect piece of music. Having the two blowing sections be completely different from the main melody and changes makes it a wonderful long-form piece. We recorded it in our first sessions and I was disappointed, so I practiced it some more and we recut it in later sessions.” He adds, “I realized that playing with Christian on piano is not entirely different than playing with him on bass. I could tell it was the same brain that drives his bass lines.”

The record-closing cover of Bill Monroe’s “Tennessee Blues” is a standout on numerous fronts. McBride enthuses, “We have so much fun playing this; I feel like a true bluegrass player when we do. When we first started rehearsing it, Edgar wanted to check on the form, so he called up [mandolin master] Sam Bush. It was one of those surreal, pinch-me moments: Edgar calling up a legend on the phone to confirm something. We played it at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2019, right before going into the studio, and Sam sat in with is. I was like, Wow, I’m in with the cats!” Meyer confirms, “Sam knew the original, which is not easy to dig up. My son and I researched a number of live Bill Monroe versions and even he would play it differently. I wanted to figure out what he was really going for, and we came up with a version after I consulted Sam. In 4/4, it’s four bars of A, then a D chord for six beats, then A for three beats, then an E chord for five beats, and then back to A for two bars. Christian and I added a II-V (B-E) on the last two beats of the D (IV) chord, to make it our own. I’ve played this with my son playing violin and I adapted the harmony parts. There’s a lot of twin and triple fiddles in Bill’s music, so at times we’re hinting at that, with me playing a double-stop and Christian playing a note along with that.”

With the release of the record to critical acclaim and a rousing set at the Big Ears Festival in March, will we see more of this pliant pairing? McBride surmises, “We will definitely do more live dates and I look forward to recording some more. It’s always a joyous and incredible learning experience.” He continues, “In 2024 I’m going on road with my New Quintet, my first all-millennial band, with saxophonist Nicole Glover, guitarist Ely Perlman, keyboardist Mike King, and drummer Savannah Harris. It’s a hybird band, from acoustic jazz to electric funk, so I’ll be bringing my bass guitar, too.” Meyer has his usual crush of dates and composing comissions but assures, “We’ll find a slot to go out at some point over the next year, and I’d be thrilled to do more recording. It’s always great to interact with and learn from Christian. Someone once told me, Never turn down a breath mint. Well, never turn down a chance to play with Christian, he’s someone who can make you that much better.”


Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi