Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Advent of Jackie McLean: The Blue Note Years

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“He patented a sound that was compounded equally of bebop and the new, free style. Raw and urgent, no one else sounds quite like him.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“McLean's mix of plangency and something inscrutable is very striking.”
- Richard Morton, Jazz writer and critic

“...there aren't more than a handful of jazzmen ... who sound as passionately involved in their music.”
- Michael James, liner notes to Jackie McLean: Capuchin Swing

In a recent posting on the Texas Tenor Sound, I quoted the late Cannonball Adderley description of a key aspects of this blues-drenched, wide-open style of playing as a sound that had a “moan within a tone.”

Cannonball’s tonal characterization reminded me of the plaintive wail that I always associated with Jackie McLean’s alto saxophone sound, especially when I first encounter McLean's on the recordings he made for the Blue Note label in the 1950s and 1960s.

Richard Morton and Brian Cook in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD 6th Ed. offered this explanation of Jackie’s uniqueness:

“He patented a sound that was compounded equally of bebop and the new, free style. Raw and urgent, no one else sounds quite like him.”

Like Messrs Morton and Cook,  I always thought that Jackie was “straining at the boundaries of the blues” as though he was always poised between “innovation and conservatism:” “an orthodox bebopper who was deeply influenced by the free Jazz movement.”

His playing could range between “complex, tricky and thoroughly engaging” to “diffident and defensive.”

Impassioned, fiery, full of brio, the sound of Jackie McLean during his Blue Note years was, to my ears, the personification of what was referred to at the time as “East Coast Jazz.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to recount some of the highlights of Jackie tenure with Blue Note on these pages with some selected excerpts from Richard Cook's history of Blue Note Records.

© -  Richard Cook, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Of all the new signings, the most important individual was Jackie McLean, an alto saxophonist from - a local man at last! - New York, who had been on the city's scene since the beginning of the fifties. McLean had had a difficult few years. Despite several high-profile stints with other leaders - including Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus - McLean had made no real headway as a leader himself. His records for Prestige were mostly spotty, unconvincing affairs (he later rounded on the company, comparing working for them to 'being under the Nazi regime and not knowing it'),5 and trouble with the police over his use of narcotics had led to the dreaded loss of his cabaret card, the same problem which had afflicted Monk's progress. Yet, in 1959, he signed up with Lion and also began working with the cooperative Living Theatre, a freewheeling stage group which staged various 'events' from poetry to performance art, culminating in the production of a play by Jack Gelber, The Connection, which dramatised aspects of the jazzman's life.

McLean's first Blue Note as leader was New Soil (BLP 4013), made on 2 May 1959 (material from an earlier session was subsequently released out of sequence).
Although pitched as a typical hard-bop quintet session (with Donald Byrd, Walter Davis, Paul Chambers and Pete LaRoca), the music might have puzzled the unwary. McLean brought two pieces to the date, 'Hip Strut' and 'Minor Apprehension' (often better remembered as 'Minor March', which was the title used by Miles Davis in his recording of the tune). 'Apprehension' is a useful word to describe the music. Although 'Hip Strut's structure eventually breaks out into a walking blues, its most striking motif is the suspension on a single, tolling chord, over which the soloists sound ominously trapped. In this one, McLean suggests the patient, rather effortful manner of one of his acknowledged influences, Dexter Gordon, but in the following 'Minor Apprehension' he sounds like the godson of Charlie Parker, tearing through the changes with the scalded desperation of the bebopper locked in a harmonic maze. The rest of the record, dependent on several Walter Davis tunes, is less impressive, but McLean's mix of plangency and something inscrutable is very striking.

Not always, though, particularly likeable. McLean is a player whose music has often aroused admiration over warmth. The sense that he is always playing slightly out of tune lends an insistent sourness to the tonality of his music, and it is the recurring problem within a diverse and often fascinating discography for the label. His fellow alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who has also been accused of playing sharp, remembers a session with himself, McLean, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster: 'After the session I shook Jackie's hand, thinking how nice it was to play with him, and then it occurred to me I was thanking him for playing sharp!'6

Swing Swang Swingin' (BLP 4024) gave McLean the limelight as the sole horn, with Walter Bishop, Jimmy Garrison and Art Taylor behind him. This session tends to restore the emphasis on McLean's bebop origins, with big, powerful improvisations such as those on 'Stablemates' and let's Face The Music And Dance' - a standard which very few jazz players have chosen to cover - suggesting that he still had a lot of juice to squeeze out of his bop sensibilities. But McLean began to change, in part, perhaps, because of his experiences with the Living Theatre, and his Blue Note albums would come to document a personality with a high degree of artistic curiosity. …

Jackie McLean might have shared a similar fate [to that of pianist Sonny Clarke who died from complications of heroin addiction], but his stint with the Living Theatre had stabilised his professional life and he eventually overcame his addiction. McLean's Blue Notes are a sometimes problematical lot and the string of dates he made for the label in the sixties continue an intriguing if often difficult sequence. Capuchin Swing, made on 16 April 1960, is a sometimes rowdy affair which shows up how awkward it could be to accommodate McLean even within a group of his own leadership. His solos on 'Francisco' (named for Frank Wolff) and 'Condition Blue' make a glaring contrast to those of his bandmates. The tension in McLean's records from this period lies in a sometimes aggravating contrast between himself and his fellow horn players in particular. Michael James is quoted on the sleeve note to Capuchin Swing to the effect that 'there aren't more than a handful of jazzmen ... who sound as passionately involved in their music', but McLean's passion often seems to have more to do with being outside, rather than being involved. Mclean himself later said: 'A lot of my performances have been very emotional because I wasn't putting any work into it.' Bluesnik, recorded the following January, has some of the same intensity, though apparently under more control: in what is actually a rather dull programme of blues pieces (the title track must have taken all of five minutes to 'compose'), the saxophonist's fast, biting solos shred the skilful and comparatively genial playing of Freddie Hubbard.

A Fickle Sonance, recorded the following October, assembled the same band which would record Leapin' And Lopin', with McLean in for Charlie Rouse. It is, again, the trouble-making McLean who makes all the difference: where Clark's session would be elegant and composed, this one seems taut and angular. 'Five Will Get You Ten', once credited to Clark but now thought to be an otherwise unclaimed Monk tune, and the chilling title piece, where the alto leaps and twists against a modal backdrop, are strange, rootless settings for playing which can seem by turns anguished, stark and sneering. McLean's next record, Let Freedom Ring, would make a more explicit pact with matters removed from his bebop history. ...

Jackie McLean had become as much a Blue Note regular as Hank Mobley (by the end of his tenure with the original company, he had played on nearly fifty sessions), but he was one hard-bopper who had begun to question his own ground. For the sleeve of his 1962 Let Freedom Ring album, McLean asked to write his own notes: Jazz is going through a big change, and the listener or the fan, or what have you, should listen with an open mind. They should use a mental telescope to bring into view the explorers who have taken one step beyond, explorers such as Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Ornette and, of course, Duke Ellington.'

McLean doesn't choose to be very specific about how he feels his own music is changing, other than expressing a general dissatisfaction with chord-based improvising, but earlier in the essay he does say: 'Ornette Coleman has made me stop and think. He has stood up under much criticism, yet he never gives up his cause, freedom of expression. The search is on.'

What was this search? Perhaps McLean himself was not so sure, since most of Let Freedom Ring is a frequently awkward truce between his bebop roots and the new freedoms which Coleman had been putting on display in his music. But Coleman, too, had a debt to Charlie Parker and to blues playing. Why does
McLean sound, in comparison, to be struggling with his 'freedom'? It may be that he is, in effect, trying too hard. Listening to Coleman's music of the same period, one is constantly taken aback by how unselfconscious the playing is, as if the musicians in Coleman's famous quartet were free-at-last. McLean takes a much sterner route: if his earlier records sounded intense, this one is practically boiling. He seems unsure as to how best to use his tone, whether it should be flattened or made even sharper than normal, and there is both overblowing in the high register and a deliberate emphasis on oboe-like low notes. His three originals are open-ended and exploratory, but the one ballad, Bud Powell's Til Keep Loving You', is a distinct contrast, with the saxophonist playing it in a way which sounds in this setting weirdly direct and unadorned. Although the pianist, Walter Davis, was a near contemporary of McLean's, the other players were young men: bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins.

McLean's decision was not so much a conversion as a progression. Many of his generation had been scathing about Coleman's new music, while at the same time being uneasily aware that the Texan saxophonist was on to something. No experienced musician who heard the music of Coleman's first Atlantic recordings of 1959 could have been under the impression that the guiding hand was some kind of charlatan, even if they didn't agree with his methods or his way of expressing himself. At this distance, it seems odd that Coleman's music could even have excited so much controversy: not only does it sound light, folksy and songful, its accessibility follows a clear path down from bebop roots (a point best expressed in Coleman's first two recordings for Contemporary, with 'conventional' West Coast rhythm sections. The music there gives drummer Shelly Manne no rhythmical problems at all, but the two bassists involved, Percy Heath and Red Mitchell, both later remembered asking the leader about harmonic points which Ornette more or less waved aside).

In 1963, McLean built on the work of Let Freedom Ring by forming a new and regular band, with players who could accommodate what he saw as his new direction. Three of them were individuals who would have their own Blue Note engagements soon enough: vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Tony Williams. All three featured alongside McLean on his next released session, One Step Beyond (although three other sessions which took place in between were shelved by Lion at the time). What is awkward about One Step Beyond - and the subsequent Destination ... Out! - is that McLean is the one who sounds like the backward player. Just as Miles Davis found himself initially perplexed by Williams (who joined the Davis band in 1964), so did McLean struggle with the language of his younger sidemen. …”

To give you an opportunity to listen Jackie’s playing from The Blue Note years, the following video tribute features him on Walter Davis Jr.’s Greasy from McLean’s New Soil LP with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Walter on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Pete La Roca on drums.

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