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Artist Profiles

Jackie McLean: Destination Out

By Published: May 7, 2004
During McLean's tenure with Miles' band, he began working on composition. One that was crucial for both his art and that of Miles was "Little Melonae," an early example of modal playing: "It had bars and bars of the same chord and was built on an AABA structure, but the chords were mostly modal with the turnaround going into the bridge, and half of the bridge was like "A Night in Tunisia" but the rest of it was modal. Miles liked that, and that was a jump right there." McLean recorded this tune (or other versions of it) a number of times, as did his compatriots, and with this piece were sown the seeds of his mature style: modal tunes that acted like they had changes, but were in fact a very different breed of composition. Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, and others in the Blue Note stable were most certainly keen on McLean's developments.

After his contract at Prestige ended, McLean signed to Blue Note in a rather prophetic move that resulted in well over 30 recordings over a 10-year period: "It just so happened that Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff came to the club one night and asked me if I would be interested in the possibility of recording at Blue Note. It was just the right time, so I went up there and they said "Jackie, you would be in charge of all your recordings and have the people you want play the music you want. You can write your own music. As long as it's not something that we would hate - and we doubt you would write something that we would hate" So I went ahead and started recording with them." After an abortive session that later turned up on Jackie's Bag (and which included a rare piano-less McLean quartet on "Quadrangle"), he recorded New Soil in 1958 with pianist Walter Davis Jr., trumpeter Donald Byrd, the ubiquitous Paul Chambers on bass, and a young Pete La Roca Sims on drums.

A mix of stunningly angular modernism and greasy Silver-isms, this first release is nothing like any other hard bop records of the period, even including a lengthy unaccompanied and non-isometric drum solo on "Minor Apprehension." Around this time, McLean also began working with pianist-composer Freddie Redd, who wrote the music for the Living Theatre production The Connection, an existential drama concerning musicians awaiting their heroin fix in a Harlem apartment. Redd and McLean co-wrote much of the score and also acted in the play.

McLean has always had a knack for bringing up younger musicians in his bands, mentoring them much the same way Bud Powell did for him. Tenorist Tina Brooks is one example; the saxophonist's understudy in The Connection, Brooks quickly began recording with Jackie and Freddie Redd for Blue Note as a result of his easy facility and fleetness with the not-so-simple compositions. McLean went on to mentor musicians such as composer-trombonist Grachan Moncur III, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Larry Willis, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams.

Though only making two recording dates with McLean, Williams provides an interesting anecdote: "Tony Williams I brought down from Boston when he was 16 or 17. I couldn't believe what I heard, someone that young playing so much music. Of course I talked to his mother about him coming down. That's how he came to New York, and [eventually] his mother said it would be all right if he wanted to move in with some other musicians in the Village, and as long as his mother said it was okay... Then one night we were playing The Diplomat and Miles came by with Philly Joe Jones to hear the band, and I'm sure he came to hear Tony too because he was making people's hair stand up on end. He asked me 'hey Jackie, why don't you let me have that kid, man.' I said 'I don't care, Miles, I think that would be great.' I had already met another young drummer from Chicago that really excited me just as much, and that was Jack DeJohnette. It all happened at the perfect time; Tony went with Miles and Jack came into my band."



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