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Jackie McLean: New Soil

Greg Simmons By

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Jackie McLean's New Soil, is not the most acclaimed album in the classic Blue Note catalogue, but this 1959 release deserves more attention that it gets, being supremely well-played, well-written and—within the limitations of its time—well-recorded. This vinyl reissue, remastered from the original tapes by the good folks at Acous-Tech, is part of a series of albums—fifty titles in all, so far—that includes some of the most well-known Blue Note recordings from the 1950s and '60s, and may well represent the finest production runs of these albums ever, though that come at a price: fifty dollars each, for two 45 RPM LPs.

At this time, McLean was still feeling his way between Charlie Parker idolatry and finding his own sound. He's about half way there on this date, even as he admits his stylistic debt to his master in the liner notes. McLean's playing is solid and assured throughout, and his two writing credits on the album reveal a musician capable of complete statements.

Trumpeter Donald Byrd steals the opener, the softly swinging blues, "Hip Strut," with his gorgeous, burnished lower-register solo, slowly working it over the staccato theme. Pianist Walter Davis Jr..—an unsung keyboard hero if ever there was one—carries the tune through with a bluesy workout, before comping Paul Chambers bowed bass solo to wrap it up.

McClean's "Minor Apprehension" is as close to a penultimate hard-bop song as you'll ever hear: fast, hard swinging and aggressive, with standout turns from the frontline. It's Drummer Pete La Roca who turns it upside-down, when he drops the melody, rhythm and pace from his solo, to play a series of abstract triplets, only to recapitulate the theme with the horns for a final bar before it's over. Davis' "Greasy" opens with a boogie-woogie piano line that would be right at home on a Bull Moose Jackson platter, setting up some fine straight-ahead blues playing.

Of course, all of these basics can be heard on ten dollar CD version of this album, without breaking the bank, which begs the question: What are you getting for your fifty dollars, and is it worth it? Rudy Van Gelder—in whose studio this and most other Blue Note records of the era were recorded—has a mixed legacy as an engineer. His best quality recordings—and New Soil is among them—capture the horns with all of their overtones and shadings intact. Byrd's solo on "Hip Strut" is perfect example of capturing not just the notes, but his horn's gorgeous and distinctive bronze tone. The drum solo on "Minor Apprehension" reveals the kit in natural space and depth. Even the piano—the perpetual RVG Achilles Heel—sounds passably good (not great, but decent enough).

For the collector who loves this record and has the equipment to hear all the detail that it has to offer, New Soil is worth hearing.

Track Listing: Hip Strut; Minor Apprehension; Greasy; Sweet Cakes; Davis Cup.

Personnel: Donald Byrd: trumpet; Jackie McLean; alto sax; Walter Davis Jr: piano; Paul Chambers; bass: Pete La Roca; drums.

Title: New Soil | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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