(Editor’s Note: This post originally came several weeks ago but due to technical problems – on my end – and the fact that I’ve been on the road so much, I wasn’t able to get it up until now. This tribute to the late, great Jackie McLean, comes to us from David A. Jaffe. Much thanks for his patience. – O.W.)
On March 31, the great alto player Jackie McLean was lost. McLean, who was 74, is better know to jazz heads than hip-hop nerds, likely because he occupies the space in the jazz spectrum somewhere between the high bop of Charlie Parker and the out new thing of late period John Coltrane. This is not to say that McLean wasn’t funky as other boppers like Gene Ammons (think “Black Cat” on Prestige), Les McCann (think “Swiss Movement” on Atlantic), or Bobby Timmons (think “Moanin'” on Riverside), rather it is just that McLean’s soul was more in line with bassist/band leader/enigma Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach.
McLean recorded with Miles Davis (“Dig” on Prestige), Charles Mingus (“Pithecanthropus Erectus” on Atlantic) and Art Blakey (including the classic Columbia LP “Hard Bop”) before moving on to the Prestige family of labels. At Prestige, McLean recorded on some sought after hard bop sides including Gene Ammons’ “Funky” and his own “Makin’ The Changes.” However, McLean’s first long-player as a leader is the obscenely rare outing with trumpeter Donald Byrd on Ad-Lib. Later, McLean’s most important and arguably best sounds, came from his work for uber-label Blue Note in the ’60’s.
McLean fit in perfectly at Blue Note as part of the label’s regular roster and house sound in the decidedly hard- and post-bop directions. While some readers may cringe at the thought of honking and squeaking instruments, and drum playing that seems to keep no time signature recognized on this planet, McLean’s style incorporated a tone that owed a tip-of-the-hat to Parker, yet was as distinctive as more well know players in the pantheon. Take for example his recording of “Soul” with Grachan Moncur III on the 1967 Blue Note LP “‘Bout Soul.” The orchestration and pace owes more, from my point view, to Mingus and his style as a composer than to the squawks of other out sax players such as Joe McPhee (best known for his well sampled “Nation Time”). Readers of Soul-Sides may think of Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” when hearing the spoken wordy chant of poet Barbara Simmons (whose work was published by author/poet/jazz freak Amiri Baraka, nee LeRoy Jones, in “Black Fire”). Among the amazing things about “Soul” isn’t just how easily it slips from an almost soul-jazz spoken word piece to a free jazz composition in several movements, but the fact the song was composed on the spot – pure improvisation.
Diggers may be familiar with the McLean LP “Demon’s Dance” for its Bob Vanosa cover (see Miles’ “Bitches Brew”), although those in search of the more conventionally funky can check out “Cornbread” from Lee Morgan’s 1965 Blue Note album, and “Wigglin'” from Jack Gelber’s play about junkies waiting for a fix, “The Connection.” The music from the play (later made into an experimental film) was actually played both on stage and on celluloid by the musicians, most or all of whom had been or were actively using heroin. McLean acted in both the stage and cinema versions. Music from “The Connection” is noteworthy for the bluesy bop playing of the two principles McLean (ala Bird) and Redd (ala Monk). Somewhere between the free of “Soul” and the blues of “Wigglin'” is the (sorry) free soul of “Hootman” from McLean’s classic Blue Note title “Action” (1964). The cut has Bobby Hutcherson’s smooth vibe playing and solos with progressions that are jagged and unpredictable for what outwardly appears to be a bluesy, straight ahead tune.
Jackie McLean had a long, distinguished career, which I’ve only hinted at here. Besides his exciting
recording career and his canonical albums for Blue Note, McLean was also the artistic director and program founder of the African American Music Program of the Hartt College of Music at the University of Hartford, a program that eventually bore his name. A quick look at the message boards is indicative of how much this man’s music moved people, and McLean’s music it is definitely worthy of being played out on the decks. In memory of the man, drop the needle in the groove and soak in the free soul of Jackie Mc, in loving memory, y’all.