What's a jawn? Well, it's Philly slang for something that you cannot name yet, or do not see the need to name. In Christian McBride's case, jawn refers to his immensely talented ensemble of fellow jazz musicians on his engaging 2018 album, Christian McBride's New Jawn. A titanic presence on the jazz scene since arriving in the '90s, McBride spent his early years playing propulsive neo-bop before re-engaging with his hip-hop, funk, and R&B roots on a series of genre-bending fusion albums. He then delivered two knockout big-band recordings, while concurrently stripping his ideas down to the essentials with a handful of sophisticated trio albums. With New Jawn, he interpolates that stripped-down vibe once again with a daring pianoless quartet featuring trumpeter Josh Evans, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Nasheet Waits. The lineup (all serious players with a wealth of improvisational ideas) brings to mind both the Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan group of the early '50s and Ornette Coleman's classic quartet of the late '50s and early '60s -- though New Jawn leans more heavily toward Coleman's mutative, confrontational free jazz group than Mulligan's cool chamber swing. That said, it's the rub between lyrical accessibility and atonal adventurousness on display throughout New Jawn that makes it so compelling. Cuts like the aptly titled "Walkin' Funny," with its off-kilter walking bassline, and "Ke-Kelli Sketch," with its scratchy opening volley of bowed bass and drum, speak to McBride's deft ability to balance cheeky humor with commanding group leadership. He remains a magnanimous maverick, jovially sparring with his bandmates and pushing them toward the less obvious choice at any given moment. The main theme to the Latin-infused "Pier One Import" threatens to explode with hard bop dynamism just as Waits pulls the band back from the brink with his impressionistic drum solo. Conversely, McBride and Waits' pulsing minor groove on "Seek the Source" leads to extended solos from Strickland and Evans, as they both dance and crash against the rhythmic caravan swell. Yet there are still languorous, thoughtfully composed moments here, like the noir-ish "Ballad of Ernie Washington," where Evans sinks into the melody with closed-eye warmth. Similarly, on the cinematically hard-boiled "John Day," Strickland's woody bass clarinet works to magnify the tune's dusky mystery. With New Jawn, McBride has put together a band with a well-defined artistic aesthetic that still sounds fresh. If, as "jawn" implies, he can't exactly name his band, the vibrant music and virtuosic playing certainly speak for themselves.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar