Jackie McLean

An intense personal sound and artistic progression define alto saxophonist McLean. In his early days, he cavorted with the likes of Miles and Bird, soaking in the language of bop and developing his own approach to same. By the time of his Blue Note contract, he had widened his vision to include new ideas from the nascent avant-garde. (Meaning, he was as enthralled as anyone was by Ornette.) His alto tone grew tart, and the notes veered slightly off-pitch, making for an abrasive, piercing sound that by itself set him apart from his peers. Funnily enough, alto sax is at times an irritating instrument to my ears - something in the timbre grates - and yet, I dig one of the most consistently caustic altos on record. Must have something to do with the music.

All of the titles below were recorded for Blue Note, and they have been reissued in either the RVG series or the Connoisseur series.

Jackie's Bag
Jan. 1959 - Sept. 1960

Split sessions - the earlier has Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones, and the latter has Blue Mitchell, Tina Brooks, Kenny Drew, PC, and Art Taylor. All together, it’s a solid menu of ‘50s finery (“Blues Inn”) and progressive jaunts like “Isle of Java”. Not that this music qualifies as free in any way, but it addresses Jackie’s upbringing and primes him for the future. From the early session, “Fidel” is a blowing vehicle with nifty rhythm kicks, and Jackie’s solo is full of recast vintage licks, making the old sound new. “Quadrangle” offers a quick glimpse into the ‘60s. The later “Appointment in Ghana” sounds sort of like a Freddie Hubbard or Herbie Hancock tune, uptempo with a chordal hook. “Ballad for Doll” is lovely without being sappy. Three solid bonus tracks come from the later session. A very enjoyable disc, and a great introduction to McLean in general.

Capuchin Swing
Apr. 1960

On this album, McLean stretches out on some boppish material, and in the process, half the tunes sound longer than they are. “Francisco”, “Just For Now”, and the title track each have decent themes, and a couple of them alternate rhythms from both sides of the equator, but McLean doesn’t take many soloing chances, and neither Blue Mitchell (trumpet) nor Walter Bishop (piano) stray from the usual bebop vernacular. The standard issue “Condition Blue” and the happy Bishop line “On the Lion” don’t develop into much, and Bishop, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor take “Don’t Blame Me” as a piano trio feature. To be positive, Capuchin Swing is an archtypical Blue Note jam session, guaranteed to get some toe taps, but no hoots and hollers. Jackie’s just missing an edge on this one, although his rhythms are right on (“Francisco”).

A Fickle Sonance
Oct. 1961

The title track dives headlong into the “new thing”: a stop time bass/piano figure is overlaid with an unusual horn theme, then the backdrop for all soloists is swinging freedom. McLean leaps into his solo with one of the most confidently held tones you’ll ever hear, bettered only perhaps by Tommy Turrentine’s successive entrance on trumpet. Pianist Sonny Clark takes his turn next. “A Fickle Sonance” breaks new ground and is the most memorable track, excepting “Five Will Get You Ten”, a catchy Monk creation (originally named “Two Timer”) that Clark claimed as his own after adjusting a bar or two. Why didn’t Monk ever record this? My guess is that he wouldn’t have made it sound as optimistic as it does here. Elsewhere, “Sundu” sounds like a sped-up “Blue Train”, and Jackie plays elegantly on “Subdued”, the slight reverb on his horn evoking loneliness. Bassist Butch Warren contributes “Lost”, another accessible tune, and drummer Billy Higgins drives the whole date. McLean’s enthusiasm is notable, especially in the free pastures of “Fickle Sonance”, and the blend of flavors is maybe more geared to the bop fan than the avant-garde fan.

Let Freedom Ring
March 1962

Despite the grand title, this isn’t a hard left turn into Lights, Audio, Freedom! The intention seems to be to ride in the wake of Ornette Coleman’s liberated swing, and McLean does so backed by Walter Davis Jr., Herbie Lewis, and Billy Higgins. The basic blues “Rene” comes closest to sounding like Ornette’s music, thanks to Higgins’ snare chatter and the singsong head arrangement. McLean puts a lot of thought into his phrases throughout the album, mixing traditional syntax and a freer melodic giddiness. The only real extreme is the high-pitched squealing he injects into all his solos, and speaking of pitch, this is where he starts to really depart from the tuning fork. It’s most noticeable on Bud Powell’s “I’ll Keep Loving You”, a ballad that Jackie reads with ache. It’s least noticeable on the modal “Melody for Melonae”.

Davis sticks to straightahead piano, minus a few out moments here and there. (Like an obvious instance in “Rene”, which is then followed by a standard sax-piano exchange.) The music scales part of the new mountain but doesn’t plant the flag on top. Over time, this record has lost some shine for me, but I still like the bass hook and emotional alto calls of “Omega”.

June 1962 - Feb. 1963

The 2000 Connoisseur issue contains two sessions. The ’63 date is with Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Butch Warren and Tony Williams, while the ’62 date has Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Mr. Warren again, and Billy Higgins. Two sides of different coins.

The later session isn’t as adventurous as one might expect, considering the personnel and some of the freer music Jackie was making this year. Only “Vertigo” enters the avant-garde area, a vortex of chromatic cells, dissonant harmonies, and free-falling swing. Equally vital are the hardbopping “Marney” (driven by Hancock’s urgent piano) and the groove piece “Dusty Foot”, potentially a recipe for cliches, but Byrd and McLean play it smart and sophisticated. “Cheers” is amiable enough, while Herbie’s “Yams” sinks to the lowest common blues denominator.

The earlier session is straightforward and high quality all the way. McLean’s solos infuse bop stylings with lessons he’d learned on the other side of the fence. “The Three Minors” is a typical modal Jackie tune, stated by alto then trumpet, with a Latin bridge, and the solos travel the modes four bars at a time. “Blues in a Jiff” and “Blues for Jackie” are both very enjoyable pieces. Sonny Clark wrote the former and it has a Monkian cast to it. Higgins contributes “Marilyn’s Dilemma”, maybe the catchiest tune of the day, and the perky “The Way I Feel” comes from Butch Warren.

Overall, the CD has a lot of bang for the buck. Best tracks: “Marney”, “Vertigo”, “Three Minors”, and, oh, I could say anything else, except “Yams”.

One Step Beyond
April 1963

Dave Holland would use the same format decades later: sax, trombone, vibes, bass, drums. In this case, the personnel is McLean, Grachan Moncur, Bobby Hutcherson (who else?), Eddie Khan, and Tony Williams. The band had already club-tested this material, which is startling progressive stuff written by and for the players. If Let Freedom Ring was McLean’s coming out party, then One Step Beyond intends the liberation of a whole quintet. Moncur contributes the tricky “Frankenstein” and the desolate “Ghost Town”, both slightly unusual blowing scenarios. McLean’s modal swinger “Saturday and Sunday” takes formal cues from Miles’ “So What”, although it sounds nothing like it. The peppy “Blue Rondo” entwines sax and trombone in a staggered line. There aren’t many precedents for these compositions or how they’re delivered.

Solowise, Jackie gets his bearings in unfamiliar terrain, occasionally grating with pitch fluctuations. Moncur reveals some limitations, such as grabbing a target note and repeating it tediously. Hutch and Khan play key roles, and Tony Williams serves notice of new possibilities for modern trappists. His solo on “Saturday and Sunday” is unreal for an eighteen-year-old, and his haunted house decorations are the most memorable element of “Ghost Town”. Tony doesn’t yet have the authority of a Higgins or Haynes, but he’s not short of ideas at all.

So the album swings and halts and brays and charges and the listener is challenged, to say the least, to make relative sense of it all. It’s the complete opposite of easy listening. McLean and his group had taken the step beyond established forms into something new, if only for their own edification. Though not a broadband milestone for jazz (you won’t hear these tunes called at a jam session), it gets four stars for creativity.

Destination Out
Sept. 1963

A veritable sequel to One Step Beyond, as the opening “Love and Hate” picks up exactly where “Ghost Town” left off. The rhythm section is different - Larry Ridley and Roy Haynes replace Khan and Williams - while the front line of Jackie, Grachan, and Hutch remains in place. When Moncur names a composition “Esoteric”, he provides an adjective for the whole album, and this like its predecessor takes a few listens to get into. Moncur writes three of the four tunes here, of which “Esoteric” moves in fits and starts; “Love and Hate” is pensive and heavy-minded; and “Riff Raff” is a catchy blues based number. Jackie’s “Khalil the Prophet” is an uptempo piece where he gets off the solo epiphany he’s been after - a stimulating balance of tradition and free expression. He’s also quite direct in his “Love and Hate” statement. In contrast, he sounds stifled on “Esoteric” by the vacuums in the form.

Roy Haynes doesn’t grab as much attention as Tony Williams did, but he plays better overall. His swing is less fussy and his drum commentary is slicker, which makes the album sound slightly more mature than One Step Beyond. The challenging music sits somewhere between post-bop and abstraction, and it’s an acquired taste.

It’s Time
Aug. 1964

Six tracks of modal hardbop and choice blues, with McLean and Charles Tolliver (trumpet) atop the spry rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Cecil McBee, and Roy Haynes. It’s not a totally adventurous record, though neither does it concede any ground. The spontaneous suggestions of Herbie and Roy spike the punch, especially in the opening “Cancellation” and the call to arms title track. Tolliver’s “Revillot” has an open-ended vibe, and the players assume an elegant posture for the ballad “Truth”. Meanwhile, McLean’s “Snuff” is the uptempo sister of “Iddy Bitty” from Vertigo. To McLean’s credit, he uses linear patience within the modal tunes instead of falling into easy licks. In the blues “Das Dat”, he retrofits classic ideas that never left his system. On the downside, his pitch can be bothersome. Tolliver makes his debut on this album, and his robust trumpet straddles the past and present. In the end, though, It’s Time really comes down to the piano, bass, and drums. Hancock keeps everyone alert, and some of his comping steals the show.

Sept. 1964

Maybe the reason McLean didn’t have the large persona of a Miles or Coltrane in the ‘60s is because he didn’t present a particular working band on a series of albums, which would have helped cement his identity as leader and icon. Or maybe it’s because listeners and musicians were still digesting a certain alto player of a few years back. But Jackie has as singular a style and as much commitment to new experiences as Miles and Coltrane do in this time frame, and Action is a great place to hear it, what with the advanced solos and the material. It begins with the agitated freebop of the title track. The head makes contrapuntal use of the alto and trumpet (Charles Tolliver), Jackie’s solo splays in multiple directions, and Bobby Hutcherson is in strong form. The very sound of his vibes gives any album a hip atmosphere, and his presence links this album to the experimentation of the earlier works from 1963. (Billy Higgins is back, too. Jackie’s rosters may have changed from album to album, yet there are key recurring characters.) McLean never hesitates to include sidemen’s tunes, so Tolliver contributes the heavy classic “Plight” and the ballad “Wrong Handle”, which one should listen to with a splash in hand, looking out a high rise window at a nocturnal cityscape. The standard “I Hear a Rhapsody” is almost bizarre in this context, but it ultimately fits in. Then there’s “Hootnan”, a bass-driven bluesy groove, totally unexpected and such fun. All five pieces are different, yet they work well together. Highly recommended.

Right Now!
Jan. 1965

The exclamation mark fits the urgency of this quartet date with Larry Willis on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Clifford Jarvis on drums. Willis claims Hancock as an influence in the liner essay, though he sounds more like a Tyner disciple. Jarvis drives the band with powerful strokes, and McLean feeds off the din with a lot of sharp playing. It can be heard as a belated sequel to Let Freedom Ring; if you like that album, chances are you’ll love this ‘un.

The first two tunes are aces. “Eco” might be called avant-hardbop, with an unsettled plateau in the bridge. “Poor Eric” is for Mr. Dolphy, a mournful elegy in alto and bass unison (almost!). Jackie takes a solo of personalized remembrance, and the track itself suspends time and bleeds emotion. Then we’re hammered by “Christel’s Time” and “Right Now”, where the energy level pegs out and Jackie struts his uptempo stuff. Both of these tunes get a little tiresome with the way the constant rhythm figures are maintained throughout the entire piece, removing their dynamic effectiveness. It’s nice to have those punctuated accents in the theme statements, but underneath every solo chorus, it becomes overbearing. Nonetheless, McLean cooks up meaty solos, and Jarvis recalls Elvin Jones - drumkit as hard hat area. This lean, mean album is worth it for the first half alone.

Sept. 1965

The original Jacknife double LP was released in 1975 and contained two different sessions; this 2002 BN Connoisseur presents only the earlier of the two sessions, with Lee Morgan, Charles Tolliver, Jackie, Larry Willis, Larry Ridley, and Jack DeJohnette. Why the music initially waited ten years before being released is a mystery, as the quality is very good. Maybe McLean’s ’60s studio productivity exceeded the label’s need for more titles.

The program leads off with “On the Nile”, a very Coltrane-ish waltz/dirge with dark modal movement and expressive solos. Composed by Tolliver, the tune also sounds like a slowed down “Teo” by Miles, but much more dramatic. Jackie adapts some of Coltrane’s worldly language in his solo, while the rhythm section keeps a spacious groove. After this fantastic 12 minutes, the material alternates between post-bop at burning tempos (“Climax”, “Jacknife”) and hip bluesy pieces. Morgan’s “Soft Blue” features both trumpeters (they alternate tracks otherwise) and manages to make a tired format sound fresh again. Much of the appeal of this track has to do with Ridley’s bassline and the way Jack hangs off the beat. And that piano trill from Willis - ever since “All Blues”, no one’s underestimated the power of a good trill. McLean’s “Blue Fable” isn’t really a blues at all, rather a chameleon of unexpected harmonic colors and rhythmic shifts. This amazing tune belongs on Blue Note’s 1960s desert island jukebox.

The two boppish pieces race along without leaving much afterglow. In “Climax” (composed by DeJohnette), staccato accents give way to flat-out swing for the solos. “Jacknife” is so insistent that you forget what it said once it’s over, but it burns as it plays. On both of these, Jackie’s got his new school swing chops in order. Overall, Jacknife is an outstanding disc with lots of range.

Dec. 1965

Powerful hardbop with Lee Morgan, Harold Mabern, Herbie Lewis, and Billy Higgins. Morgan is virtually a co-leader, given the watertight alto-trumpet ensembles, his extroverted solos, and his exchanges with McLean. “Consequence” and “Vernestune” (a remake of “The Three Minors”) are hard driving tracks with focused McLean solos. “Bluesanova” blends the elements of its title into a unique groove propelled by Lewis’ bassline. Dig how Higgins’ snare cuts across the meter in the theme statements - I love tension generating drumming like that. And the horn exchange near the end makes a perfect climax. The moody chord changes of “Slumber” are another highlight. The whole quintet is on fire in the modal “Vernestune” and detours into a sultry sway for “My Old Flame”. The only objectionable number is “Tolypso”, a fairly annoying calypso where even the solos seem automatic. But that hardly lessens the effect of the album’s four best tracks. Yet another McLean album worth acquiring.

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