In 2007, Christian McBride put together the first all-acoustic unit he’d led since the late 1990s. That band, which eventually became known as Inside Straight, featured saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibist Warren Wolf, pianist Eric Reed, and drummer Carl Allen, with McBride himself on bass. Reed was eventually replaced by Peter Martin, but the rest of the lineup has remained intact. They released their debut, Kind of Brown, on Mack Avenue in 2009. This long-awaited follow-up was recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York five years later.
The opening number, Wolf’s bop-tinged and richly melodic “Sweet Bread,” sets the tone of free-swinging liberation that McBride says he felt upon returning to the kind of instrumentation and playing that had been his métier during most of his pre-2000s professional career. Throughout this set, Allen propels things with understated but energetic drive, layering between-beat spaces with richly textured fillips while maintaining a relentlessly exuberant sense of swing. Wolf skips adroitly on vibes, adding both rhythmic and melodic impetus, ascending through variegated angles and then plunging into a deeply resonant midrange. Wilson, on both alto and soprano, is rich-toned and sonorous, his lines linear and unforced but bristling with exploratory brio; there’s a slight astringency to his attack, occasionally flattening out into smears and elisions, adding a touch of playful hipster irony to the proceedings. Martin’s execution is impeccable and his imagination unbound, whether he’s dancing with arabesque litheness or spreading out expansive aural landscapes for the others to dance on.
McBride, as always, is strong-fingered and nimble, attaining a remarkable variety of tonal colorations while maintaining his rhythmic sureness even as he bends, twists, and contorts the tunes’ metric structures to his own ends: a paradigm of unforced, unselfconscious virtuosity.