By Jeff Cebulski
The veteran bassist Christian McBride has probably replaced Wynton Marsalis as the center personality of the popular jazz milieu. With his long-standing radio show for NPR and becoming the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, McBride has been able to expand his role as jazz advocate and broaden his contributions via the Mack Avenue label.
It certainly helps that McBride is a world-class player, at ease in several genre; his recognizable deep tonality lifts most any proceeding. As the new artistic director l of the Newport festival, McBride straddles the crucial line between bourgeois preferences and tangential, cross-cultural art, fashioning something more like Montreal’s festival while still appealing to those who crave more strictly jazz fare. His leadership of ensembles like his trio, big band, and the band Inside Straight pleases audiences that gravitate toward standard performances. But it also gives him space to venture into something more postmodern, like his hip hop-influenced Situation and his New Jawn, whose recently released second album Prime should turn a few heads. (The band will play a one-nighter at Constellation on March 23, at 7:30pm & 9:30 p.m.) The music of New Jawn is something between a mashup of modern jazz styles and post-bop reconstruction, with McBride giving his veteran mates—Marcus Strickland on saxes and bass clarinet, Josh Evans on trumpet, and Nasheet Waits on drums—plenty of room for angular improvisation while keeping the swing and traditional motifs intact. While their first album, Christian McBride’s New Jawn, revisited post-bop forms with new spirit, the new album radiates a growing collective confidence and caution-to-the-wind approach, as typified by the first selection, “Head Bedlam,” which begins as an Ornette Coleman blowout but then settles into a funk bop groove before returning to the initial cacophony. The title cut sounds like a modal homage to Miles’ second great quintet but with a deeper pocket, as McBride and Waits percolate under Strickland’s deep solo. The tone poem “Moonchild” follows in a more abstract vein, before a showcase performance, “Obsequious,” pronounces the ensemble’s growing genius. Starting with Strickland and Waits’ energetic, prophetic introduction, Evans and McBride move the pace along with a dizzying flourish of bop pleasure before they push the rhythm into warp speed, with Waits reaching into his inner Elvin while Evans and Strickland ride the wave. This piece, which demonstrates the jazz paradox of individuality and cohesion, rewards several listens. Then, “Lurkers” returns the band into abstract mode, again a la Coleman, as McBride applies his bow and the horns get into a conversation while Waits pounds in the background. “The Good Life” is a more conventional Latin-rhythm excursion, while the classic modern jazz vibe rules in “Dolphy Dust,” which lives up to its title. The album ends with a swinging, slightly fragmented treatment of Sonny Rollins’ “East Broadway Rundown,” as Strickland and Evans again stretch out over the insistent rhythm section, which gets a chance to solo and duet. Essentially, New Jawn serves as McBride’s tribute to his modern jazz predecessors while demonstrating that still-enticing music can be created off of their legacy. Some might crave something more original from these veterans, and clues to that possibility reside in Prime. Still, as McBride walks the line between popularist genre and new, peripheral ventures, his ability to pull disparate tastes into a central meeting place only bodes well for the future of Jazz. Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue, 2023).
Personnel: Josh Evans, trumpet Marcus Strickland, saxophones Christian McBride, acoustic bass Nasheet Waits, drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org