Friday, April 07, 2006


Friday shuffle

This week's Friday Shuffle is dedicated to the memory of Jackie McLean, who died a week ago at the age of 73. (Or 74? Media reports have been curiously divergent on this point.) McLean plays alto sax on all of these tracks.

1. "Francisco," by Jackie McLean, from Capuchin Swing (1960)
2. "Kahlil The Prophet," by Jackie McLean, from Destination Out! (1963)
3. "Nakatini Suite," by Lee Morgan, from Lee-Way (1960)
4. "Enitnerrut," by Jackie McLean, from A Fickle Sonance (1961)
5. "Fidel," by Jackie McLean, from Jackie's Bag (1959)
6. "Cryin' Blues," by Charles Mingus, from Blues and Roots (1959)
7. "I Hear a Rhapsody," by Jackie McLean, from Action (1964)
8. "Omega," by Jackie McLean, from Let Freedom Ring (1962)
9. "Sippin' at Bells," by Sonny Clark, from Cool Struttin' (1958)
10. "Eco," by Jackie McLean, from Right Now! (1965)

Even devoted fans of McLean concede that his tone is not for everyone, as this column by Mark Stryker points out. (Hat tip: Rifftides.) It certainly took me a while to acquire the taste for McLean's slightly sharp sound, which often veers from the tune as if it were, like the title of one of his early Blue Note albums, a "fickle sonance." On his early albums recorded in the heyday of hard bop--albums like Capuchin Swing or Jackie's Bag--this sharpness was not quite as pronounced as it would later become, in part because you're usually too busy tapping your foot and nodding your head during McLean's solos to care how they would stand up to the unforgiving sternness of a tuning fork. Anyone who likes Art Blakey or Lee Morgan or Horace Silver can easily like the Jackie McLean of A Fickle Sonance or Cool Struttin'.

But McLean's later albums, which fused his hard bop instincts with a burgeoning interest in "free jazz," do not always offer you an immediate invitation to tap your toes. And since some of these albums--like Let Freedom Ring and Right Now!--featured McLean as the lone horn with a rhythm section, the listener is forced on every track, for virtually every minute, to confront his cutting sound and his tendency to reach for the highest registers. I have to confess that these albums, and tracks like "Omega" and "Eco," made me distinctly uncomfortable when I first heard them.

But they have grown on me. And far from getting on my nerves, these albums have now gotten deep under my skin. The reason, I think, is that McLean's music is clearly motivated by deep and purposive feeling. I never get the sense, as I do with some "free jazz" musicians, that McLean is running aimlessly up and down his instrument just because he can't decide what he wants to say. Instead, he seemed to value the free expression of free jazz only when he had something to express that could not be said in an orderly, harmonious way. McLean's solos are not exercises in expression for the mere sake of expression (which by definition express nothing). The solos have an object to express; their intent is to communicate. To be sure, it's not music that is always easy to listen to, because of the occasional screeching, the sharpness, the bitterness of the tone. But perhaps listening to McLean is challenging because what he wants to say is not always easy to hear. There should be a place in music for the expression of hard things and hard emotions, and McLean found that place--without, I should add, ever ceasing to swing. Even at his freest and most out of tune, he remains impossible to tune out.

After last Friday's news I've been listening to McLean all week long, and a few days ago I pulled out the liner notes to Let Freedom Ring, which McLean wrote himself. Forms of the word "expression" appear no fewer than half a dozen times in the short notes. The key paragraph, I think, is the following one, when McLean writes:
I feel that emotion has taken an important step in expression on the horn. Emotion has always been present, but today it has a new importance. Toward the end of Lady Day's career, her voice was just a shadow of what it had been, yet she still put a song over; her singing voice was gone, leaving emotion her only tool of expression.
McLean's voice may also be gone now. But as far as I'm concerned, he can still "put a song over." Before you tell me I'm wrong, put on Destination Out! or Action and listen to the emotion. Listen to "Poor Eric," the elegiac second track on the classic Right Now! and try not to be moved.

Collective Improvisation:

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter