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Small groups devoid of keyboards, guitars and other instruments that provide full chordal accompaniment can often sound vacuous and unbalanced. It’s a dangerously revealing format that requires tremendous skill not only to make the sound cohesive and satisfying but, on a full album, to vary the group dynamic from tune to tune. The fact that bassist Christian McBride’s New Jawn overcomes such technical challenges helps to explain why the album deserves accolades, but the real triumph, of course, is the music itself, which ranges from avant-garde exploration to lush balladry.
McBride’s quartet features two horn players — Josh Evans on trumpet and Marcus Strickland on tenor sax and bass clarinet — as well as the very textural drummer Nasheet Waits. The first two tunes sound most in keeping with Ornette Coleman’s free-jazz aesthetic: a short performance with dramatic angularity (“Walkin’ Funny”), followed by a far lengthier piece (“Ke-Kelli Sketch”), which begins with evocative rumbling from Waits and McBride, transitions into an express-train rhythm, slows to a dirge, evolves into a medium groove and concludes with a note of somber reflection. At this point the album changes completely with “Ballad of Ernie Washington.” Backed by McBride’s sirloin tone, Evans plays the theme as though performing in an empty piazza, and then, to marvelous effect, Strickland joins with harmonized lines. Romantic and subtle, it’s the antithesis of free jazz.
The rest of the CD provides similar variation and surprise. In the middle of Waits’ “Kush,” for example, it sounds as though McBride’s solo is accompanied by a bowing bassist, but it’s Strickland on bass clarinet. On “Pier One Import,” active drum rhythms get pierced by sparse melodic lines that flash like an electrical storm. The album concludes with a vivacious rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Sightseeing," solidifying the fact that this new jawn is jumpin’.—Sascha Feinstein