Interview: Talking Story with bassist Brian McCree

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Bassist Brian McCree was a pillar of the Boston music scene for decades, performing with Bobby Hebb, Alan Dawson, Jackie Byard, Pharoah Sanders and a long list of others. In 2003, he moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, where he’s played with many people including The Slippersons and The Castaways (aka Ricardo & Friends). His first album as a leader, Changes in the Wind, features McCree and some of his favorite partners playing a set of originals and a couple of standards.

McCree is a top-call bassist for the best bands on the island, as well as a teacher, bandleader, and composer. You might have seen him perform at the Red Water Café in Waimea as part of the Red Water Trio.

How did you get started with music?

Way back when, before dirt was invented (laughs), I was in second grade, and a teacher asked me if I wanted to be in a band. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I said sure. That’s pretty much how it started.

Was there a particular moment that convinced you to follow music?

I got laid off (laughs). I did this thing the other way around. I don’t think I made the decision to be a musician until I was in my late 20’s or early 30’s. I thought I was supposed to be a responsible person, and that art was just something to enrich yourself.

I was working in high-tech, and the economy took a downturn, and I got laid off. I started driving a moving truck to survive. They promised me bonuses, but never did, so I quit. I was on my way to becoming a hermit. I started playing music on the weekends and realized I was starting to make some money at this. I had a steady career from that point on. It’s been 29 years now. My record of number of gigs per month was 57.

I’d used music emotionally from since the time I was little, and never really connected it, until later. It occurred to me that you could use those intimate parts of yourself in life as you become an adult. That was probably the greatest gift that ever came to me.

I see you’ve played with a lot of great jazz musicians. Is there any particular moment you’d like to recall?

I went to University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the one group that I vibrated with was the avant-garde jazz scene. It didn’t seem to matter where you came from, the color of your skin, or what instrument you played, the mood was, “Bring what you got – put it on the table!” It was a great feeling. My earliest mentor was Professor Archie Shepp.* In my junior year I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to continue as a physics major and was ready to take a year off from school. When professor Shepp learned about this, he hooked me up with Dr. Wiggins, and I was able to graduate with a music degree.

What brought you to the Big Island?

When I first arrived on the Big Island, you know that moment when they open the door and the wind hits you in the face, I realized there was something here for me. I met my wife here too.

What are some of the challenges of being a musician here?

On the mainland, my territory was from Pennsylvania to Maine, and if the gig was 90 minutes from the house, that was a close gig. It’s different here especially with an upright bass and doing a gig on another island.

It’s pretty much impossible trying to make it as a jazz musician on this island. You have to supplement it with other things. I’ve found some great support through the Hawaiian community. When I got here 20 years ago, pianist Bernie Halman hired me for a steady three-to-five days a-week gig.

There’re only a few upright acoustic bass players here on the island, right?

There’s Gregg Shirley (Getrude’s Jazz Bar co-owner), Jimmy Shank, Brian Crist, and Matt Spencer is over in Hilo.

How can folks find out more about where you’re playing on the Big Island?

Right now, I’m playing with Jesse Snyder and Richard Russell as the Red Water Trio at the Red Water Café every Friday. We also have an off-shoot band called The Castaways. We used to be the Slippersons. I’m on a new CD that came out in May called, Ricardo & Friends: Live At The Church. That release introduced us to music scene in the Seattle area. Periodically I’ve been playing at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in Kona with various people. I’m also working with Big island guitarist Larry Dupio, and Teri’i Holzgrove and Kevin Haleamau . It seems like in the last few years, more opportunities are presenting themselves.


* In 1971, Archie Shepp was recruited to the University of Massachusetts Amherst by Randolph Bromery, beginning a 30-year career as a professor of music. Shepp’s first two courses were entitled “Revolutionary Concepts in African-American Music” and “Black Musician in the Theater.

For more info on the Red Water Trio, visit: http://www.redwatertrio.com

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