Perfect Sound Forever

Jackie McLean
A personal view on the great man

Photo courtesy of Masaki's bluesnik hard bop page

by Graham Wood

It all started with Pithecanthropus Erectus. No, not the history of man but the history of my jazz record collection. When I first started to get into jazz as a 16 year old, I tried to start with an album that wasn't as obvious as Kind Of Blue or A Love Supreme. I had heard those around and knew I liked them, but I wanted that first purchase to be something esoteric and off the wall. Charles Mingus fitted the bill perfectly, having read about him a little in some magazines and heard his amazing track "Better Git It In Your Soul" on a compilation. So Pithecanthropus Erectus it was, by a hair over Mingus Ah-Um. My ongoing obsession with Mingus began right there, but so too did my appreciation for the alto man on that album, one Jackie McLean. As much as Mingus' compositions and all around explosiveness was a revalation to me, the sinuous sound of his sideman was equally fascinating. Until I read the album credits I couldn't make out what instrument he was playing , it just didn't sound like an ordinary saxophone. Now, a decade on and scores of alto players later, I have yet to hear anybody come near his sound and attack. Yet although Jackie is a universally respected elder statesman of jazz, he has never really been given the credit he deserves as an innovator and individualist. His recorded output between 1959 and 1967 for Blue Note records constitutes one of the greatest string of albums in the jazz canon, his bravery in rejecting convention was almost unique among musicians of his generation and his uniqueness as a pure player is bettered by no one.

I don't really want to talk about Jackie McLean's life here. There are plenty of fantastic sources to find out more about the man himself. A.B. Spellman's landmark 1966 book Four Lives In The Bebop Business is the perfect place to start. The 1975 Ken Levis documentary Jackie McLean On Mars picks up where Spellman left off. The liner notes of his albums, many self penned, are essential reading. He is also a fleetingly prominent figure in Miles Davis's autobiography and Brian Priestley's bio of Charles Mingus. For my own "Profile Of Jackie," read on.

Jackie McLean was for the first part of his career a superior post-Parker bopper, a sharp suited hipster. His music was decent hard bop, a cut above most others but ultimately inconsequential compared with the innovators of the time. It was only when he joined Mingus in 1956 that the real Jackie McLean came into being. His time with Mingus was brief and predictably volatile but without Mingus constant criticisms of his Parker copying, career may have turned out very different In a sense, Pithecanthropus Erectus was the first post bop jazz album. The compositions are long, impressionistic, violent, socially aware. The playing makes full use of dissonant passages to dizzying effect, with Jackie's alto alternately throwing off bluesy phrases and jarring high register screams. When Jackie exited the Mingus band after a suitably raucous confrontation with the bassist, he filed away Mingus' teachings and went about his business again playing hard bop as before.

 When the free jazz revolution led by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor came to prominence, the jazz establishment effectively drew a line in the sand. Longtime innovators like Mingus and Miles remained suitably distant from either side of the divide, but for the gigging pro it was a choice that had to be made. Jackie McLean was the first of his generation to cross that line. Slightly younger musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy led a large group of their generation across, but Jackie was unique in his choice. He did not make the choice immediately, but after careful evaluation of his integrity as a musician and remembering the teachings of Mingus and recognising their relevance. The music of Ornette Coleman was the major catalyst for his transformation, but for me, Mingus was the real father of freedom in jazz and Jackie's true inspiration.

 When I first heard Jackie's playing on Pithecanthropus Erectus, it was the sound that hit me before all else. The tone is chainsaw sharp, he seems to be playing a miniscule fraction out of tune and his attack is far harder and more in tune with the music than the other horn, JR Monterose. When I listen to the album now, the edginess of the pure sound remains despite the ultimately conventional nature of the solos. I was inspired by this album to go out in search of Jackie's own music.

After a couple of fallow months, I found a copy of the 1963 Blue Note album Destination Out in a second hand store. It had a cut out corner and the record was a little scratched, but one look at the awesome Reid Miles designed sleeve with it's little photo of a whacked out looking Jackie told me I had found something special. By the time I found this record, I had bought many other jazz albums. When I put on 'Destination Out' for the first time it just blew me away. It just didn't sound like any jazz I'd yet heard. It wasn't free jazz, it wasn't boppish or funky, it wasn't a Kind Of Blue soundalike. The first track, "Love And Hate," is so sinister and beautiful I listened to it ten times before letting the needle run on to the next track. It is the atmosphere of the band that is special. The beat is slow to the point of arrhythmic, the sparse vibraphone accompaniment spine tingling and the alto drifting through it is too much. I recognised that sound immediately, but what he was playing bore no relation. The phrasing is more emotionally involved, the fluidity of the ideas infinitely superior. The beauty of the tone is enhanced by the context of the music.

This is also true of the other two albums recorded by Jackie in '63 with the same core of muscians, One Step Beyond & Evolution. The last was recorded under the leadership of trombonist Grachan Moncur III, who joined Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and Tony Williams on drums to create the spine of the band. Although each of these three albums were recorded with slightly different personnel, they really do feel like a trilogy. The earliest, One Step Beyond established the band's rhythmic uniqueness, Destination Out explored the subtlest elements of the sound and Evolution concluded the experiment with a monumental blow out. Moncur was the major composer for the group, but it was Jackie's alto which really made the music as beautiful and unique as it is. Williams circles the beat like a vulture, striking briefly and unexpectedly. Hutcherson is the Banquo's ghost of jazz and Moncur's less is more style compliments Jackie's naked emotion.

On the Evolution album Lee Morgan joins the band for his greatest ever recorded performance. His sparring with Jackie is inspiring to hear as Jackie's ferocious attack cajoles Morgan out of his Sidewinder style and into a series of great ripostes. Morgan himself went to his early grave, telling anyone who would listen that this was the best music he ever played. The influence of this music is blatantly clear on Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch album, which used Williams and Hutcherson in a very similar role to that which they filled in Jackie's band. Out to Lunch is a classic to be sure, but One Step Beyond and Evolution are just as good, and Destination Out (which loses a little without Williams on drums) is not far behind.

Amazed as I was by the Destination Out album, it was only when I had managed to collect all of Jackies Blue Note albums that the scope of his achievement became apparent. The band with Moncur lasted barely a year, and there was great music before and after it. The early Blue Note period consisted of some hard bop albums with hints of freedom, such as Jackie's Bag and A Fickle Sonance. Isolated tunes such as "Appointment In Ghana" were explicitly Ornette Coleman influenced. Even the more traditional hard bop outings like "Bluesnik" were laced with Jackie's individual magic. 1962's Let Freedom Ring is the turning point album. Jackie's liner note is celebratory about his new musical path, an pays tribute to Mingus, Ornette and Bud Powell in equal measure. The music is very Coleman influenced compositionally, but without another horn to play the Don Cherry role Jackie cuts loose for four of his greatest solos. After the 1963 band split, Jackie returned to the Let Freedom Ring blueprint for Right Now. This album is probably my favourite outside of the three 1963 records. In terms of assessing only Jackie's performance, these are the greatest solos he ever put down on wax.

His 1964 - 66 Blue Note period is often referred to as his 'acid' period. No, he didn't turn into some sort of Charles LLoyd jazz hippie, this music was Jackie's most dissonant, harsh music with his tone almost burning up the turntable. Listen to the albums Action and It's Time for the best examples of this period. Finally, he wound up his Blue Note period with a trio of albums which manage to combine out and out gospel and blues with his most explicitly free playing. Making a unique guest appearance on New And Old Gospel is Ornette Coleman, in one of his rare appearances as a sideman. Sadly for Ornette, he chose to play the trumpet on the album and is subsequently blown off the record by Jackie. Then, Blue Note became a jazz funk label and Jackie was cut loose. I think Jackie lost a lot of heart around this period, as did many great jazz musicians (including his mentor Mingus). He nevered really recovered from this period as a musician, but continues to this day to play his beautiful horn unlike anyone on earth.

 Why is Jackie McLean not given the credit he deserves for his legacy? While I would accept that he does not qualify as one of those who changed the face of jazz a la Parker, Coleman or Davis. No one has come close to replicating his sound, only Eric Dolphy among post-Parker alto saxophonists is in his league ffor individuality and beauty of expression. He embraced free jazz but played it his way. He discovered great musicians like Tony Williams, Charles Tolliver and Jack DeJohnette, and nurtured their compositional and playing talents as opposed to smothering them beneath his own genius. His recorded legacy is littered with classics of originality and depth. He is one of the most lucid commentators on the jazz life there is. He is just THE MAN.

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