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music: Musical Melange

The Modlin Center gives renowned bassist Christian McBride free rein.


He also gets to invite his choice of guest artists; this year’s selections are innovative vibraphonist Stefon Harris and emerging Latin jazz vocalist Claudia Acuna.

McBride’s ability to assemble a program of this quality is a testament both to his stature — he has been one of his instrument’s leading players since his emergence as a teenage phenomenon in the late ’80s — and the range of his musical tastes. As a longtime member of rock superstar Sting’s band he is literally a bassist’s bassist. His virtuosity is featured on more than 180 recordings; he’s worked with such diverse artists as Linda Ronstadt, Kathleen Battle and James Brown.

The 2003 series opens June 11, with Stefon Harris, a dynamic young player whose recordings as a leader reveal a player of energy, intelligence and humor. His recent “Grand Unified Theory” is named after the Holy Grail of modern physics, the fundamental explanation of existence.

“It’s based on the theory that the four major forces [electromagnetic, gravitation, strong and weak] only appear to be different, but are in fact the same,” Harris says. “I took the same concept and applied it to my life, uniting classical, African, jazz, Latin music, and poetry and physics.”

The CD’s suite of nimble, large-ensemble compositions can be appreciated without understanding the abstruse ambiguities of quantum mechanics, but Harris sees a connection between math and music. “I love mathematics because the more you study it, the more you can see that you couldn’t see before,” he says. “It’s the same with music. Right now I am working with simple intervals, combining them in different ways and discovering new sounds within them.”

Appropriately, given the central role of uncertainty in advanced physics, the details of the performance are unresolved. “We’ve played live together before,” Harris says. “First-time collaborations are always exciting; you never know what is going to happen.”

On June 13, McBride joins the Shanghai Quartet, and acclaimed pianist Lydia Artymiw, for Franz Schubert’s “Trout” quintet. McBride welcomes the challenge.

“It’s like the difference between living in New York and L.A.” McBride says. “They are both great cities, but they have totally different rules and attitudes.” Creative expression within a composer’s text requires a different discipline from jazz’s approach of spontaneous invention. “But a lot of composition is just extended improvisation written down,” he says.

The Christian McBride Band (CMB), which takes the stage Saturday, June 14, has been having a “great time” touring in support of “Vertical Vision,” recorded just after last year’s Modlin performance, McBride says. The CD reached No. 1 on the Jazzweek charts after its February release and is still in the top 10.

The sophisticated electric funkiness of its compositions draw comparisons to Weather Report, the premier band of the ’70s fusion era. McBride sees the parallel with that band, and it’s great bassist Jaco Pastorius, as inevitable. “We play open, improvised music, without a guitar,” he says. “And I play a fretless bass. He was such an innovator that even a polka band with a fretless bass would be compared to Jaco.”

The series closes with Claudia Acuna June 16. When she arrived from her native Chile, Acuna was unable to afford the steep tuition for a musical education, so she earned her career the old way, from other musicians in late-night sessions.

“I wanted to see everything,” Acuna says. “I would hang out all night, sometimes go alone.” To make ends meet she worked as a hat-check girl and in the upstairs gift shop at the famous Blue Note club, but was fired when she left her post to sit in on a late-night jam session.

McBride applauds Acuna’s direct approach. “That’s how you get to the next level,” he says. “And look where she is now.”

The musicians she sang with became her champions, leading to a major label recording contract with Verve. Her first two releases, featuring an effortless blend of standards and sambas, won worldwide critical acclaim.

“Everything changed,” Acuna says. “Now I travel a lot, to clubs and festivals around the world. I’ve been extremely blessed. It’s amazing how you can unite people from different countries, with different languages. They don’t need to understand the words, they just need to feel.”

Acuna says she loves McBride’s band and musical approach, an admiration McBride enthusiastically reciprocates.

The show, like the others, promises to be an illustration of the brilliant simplicity of the Modlin Center’s strategy: first enlist the musician of your dreams, then grant his or her wishes. S

Modlin Summer Nights runs June 10 through June 21 at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts. Ticket prices vary. Call 289-8980 or visit for information.

Style Weekly is a media sponsor of Modlin Summer Nights.

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