Jackie McLean: New and Old Gospel
After Jackie Mac praised Ornette to the skies for a few years, pronounced him his new inspiration, and started tending toward the free thing on his own albums, their fateful meeting finally occured in 1967: Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman together, with Lamont Johnson on piano, Scott Holt on bass, and the redoubtable Billy Higgins from the original and legendary Ornette Coleman Quartet on the drum kit. Ornette, of course, hadn't recorded with a piano since he was forced to on his first recording for Contemporary eight years before; he wouldn't again for almost thirty years. Still, with Higgins propelling the two alto masters, it promised to be a fireworks display of major proportion: the sequel and apotheosis of McLean's earlier alto pairing, Alto Madness with John Jenkins. The catch was that no Alto Madness II was planned at all; instead, Mr. Free Jazz brought along his trumpet only.
Primitivism worked for Henri Rousseau; why not for Ornette? The previous year (1966), Ornette had recorded The Empty Foxhole for Blue Note with, besides three alto workouts, two tracks on trumpet and one on violin. By most accounts, Ornette took up trumpet and violin during his "retirement" of 1964. He began performing in public on trumpet and violin in 1965, and immediately received criticism. Miles Davis attributed his new instruments to jealousy of other musicians, and called his playing of them an insult to musicians who had devoted years to their craft.
So what was and is Ornette up to? Most of his own comments seem to point to freedom from licks. No doubt any front line jazz instrumentalist has a considerable amount of finger memory that he sometimes resorts to to fill a bar with derivative, uninspired cliches. Ornette took up the trumpet and the violin to free himself from his personal alto cliches. On New and Old Gospel he certainly wouldn't make anyone think of Miles, Lee Morgan, or Freddie Hubbard. But it isn't fair either to say that he sounds like a beginner, or a high school trumpet player, because any high schooler who plays the way he does, especially on the brooding "Strange As It Seems," would be on the cover of Down Beat in no time. He is a master improviser and melodicist on trumpet as he is on alto. Perhaps the best verbal analogy to Ornette's trumpet playing would be the Peanuts character Schroeder's playing Beethoven on a toy piano: impressive, but what would it have sounded like in its proper setting?
McLean, meanwhile, plays beautifully as usual, and contributes some challenging material in the suite "Lifeline." But he is thoroughly overshadowed here by a Catch-22: If he had had Ornette play alto, the session might have degenerated into a "battle"; with Ornette playing trumpet, all attention is drawn away from McLean anyway. It's as if a concert pianist were trying to play right next to a performing seal: the guy can play, but look at that seal walk! I only mean here to convey some sense of the attractions and distractions here, not to insult Ornette's trumpet playing. Actually, for all his well-noted limitations he continually produces interesting effects and rewarding music. On his "Old Gospel," the only other cut on this album, the two virtuosi play with a rare joy, well worth catching.