“I like keeping myself sharp and my fans on their toes,” says bassist Christian McBride, reflecting on his newest musical experiment. “I didn’t want to have another trio playing the same kind of stuff. So I said let me do a quartet that’s a little… it would be considered out. Or progressive.”
It’s hard for artists to continually broaden their horizons, even in the nominally inventive world of jazz. This holds especially true during extended runs of commercial and critical success.
McBride has been on such a streak for at least three decades. At 51 years old, his resume is a revelation.
After rising to fame in the early ‘90s with Joshua Redman’s quartet, playing alongside fellow luminaries Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade, McBride started rolling and never stopped. Acclaim as a bandleader? Check. Grammys? Eight of ‘em. Sideman credits? Over 300, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and Chick Corea, not to mention out-of-genre greats like Paul McCartney, Sting, and Queen Latifah. Oh – he’s also the artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival and the host of NPR’s Jazz Night in America. Phew.
Never content to sit on his laurels, McBride in 2015 set his celebrated trio aside and constructed a jazz oddity of double bass, drums (Nasheet Waits), saxophone (Marcus Strickland), and trumpet (Josh Evans). The abnormality here is a lack of any chordal instrument, i.e. piano, organ, guitar. Without an organizing harmonic backdrop, things get a bit looser – especially when you force the matter via syncopation and diminished melodies. Which these guys do.
McBride named this quartet New Jawn, “jawn” being a Philly term used as a placeholder for something above or maybe below immediate naming. Curious about its grammatical use? The Internet Provides. “Pass me that jawn.” “This jawn is packed.” In Hawaii they have a similar term, “Dakine.” Perhaps we need a Seattle variation.
McBride brought his New Jawn to Jazz Alley for two nights this week and also emceed a benefit for Seattle jazz legend Julian Priester, who suffered a heart attack in July of this year. (For more information on Priester’s recovery, see his GoFundMe campaign.) This feels like a lot of Northwest gusto for a guy from Philly, particularly one with McBride’s international bona fides. He explained that Seattle has backed him ever since his first show at Jazz Alley 32 (!) years ago, this very same week in September, which happened to be the week that Miles Davis died.
When the first New Jawn album dropped in 2018, McBride heard folks comparing it to Ornette Coleman. To use his own descriptor, “out.” The group has settled down a bit since then, releasing their follow-up Prime earlier this year. This isn’t to call it a straight-ahead jazz record – take a listen to opener “Head Bedlam” and you’ll get a sense of McBride’s risk-taking. Don’t shut it off too quick! At 0:43 he dials up a bass groove that steers things toward pleasant pastures.
The interplay of deep pockets and arrhythmia was on full display at Jazz Alley. The New Jawn hit Josh Evans’s “Pier One Import” and McBride’s “John Day” off the old album, and Sonny Rollins’s “East Broadway Rundown” off the new one. Heavy dissonance funneled into precision melodies and splintered back apart, Nasheet Waits smoothing out transitions with some grade-A drum solos.
McBride, who spent the day hanging with his buddy Sting at Climate Pledge, more than delivered on his reputation, holding down the stage energy, key changes, and banter. When he starts walking on that double bass, you can’t help but walk along with him. The group wrapped things up with “Prime,” their new title track. After which I said, dang, this jawn’s over already?