Ron McClure: Lookout Farms and New Moons


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Bassist Ron McClure has a practical philosophy about what he does. "Making music begins with doing your job," he says. "It's nice if you can be a hot soloist, but do your job first and do it well." These are words that the bassist has lived by for over 40 years in the jazz music business. McClure has done everything from playing with saxophonists such as Charles Lloyd to being part of pop recordings by the Pointer Sisters and Blood, Sweat and Tears. In between he has played on countless jazz recordings, including 33 sessions and counting for SteepleChase, both as a leader (13 including his most recent release New Moon) and sideman, composed a large number of tunes and even played piano at a New York McDonald's! McClure appears at Birdland in February, 2010 for the reunion of celebrated '70s group Lookout Farm, working with saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Richie Beirach and drummer Jeff Williams.

Ron McClure

All About Jazz: How did you get started in music?

Ron McClure: I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and played music from the time I was five years old. I played accordion, a little piano and bass. A teacher from high school basically talked me into following my dream and going into music as a career. I don't push my students now but I do tell them to think about their lives when they're 40 and what it would be like then to have not done what you wanted to do. I went to the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut. My private teacher Eddie Miller had been teaching me about jazz harmony. I remember that the school did not really encourage jazz—once, when I was playing in a room with Houston Person, who was also a student there, we were reported for playing that "evil body music." But I had been listening to jazz since I was a kid and that's what I wanted to play. I was a bass major at Hartt and while I was still there I met musicians who came to Hartford to play—people like [vibraphonist] Mike Mainieri, [pianist] Dave Mackay and [drummer] Joe Porcaro. Mainieri got me to play with Buddy Rich and I also met Mike Abene who got me to Maynard Ferguson, with whom I did my first recordings for Mainstream.

AAJ: Tell me a little about your time with Ferguson.

RM: There were good arrangements by people like Willie Maiden and Chuck Mangione was in the band; we did his tune "Between the Races." Maynard was great—he let me play and I was featured more in that big band than I had been in smaller groups. Maynard was great to work for because he made everybody feel at home. You know, while I was still with Maynard I got to work with the Wynton Kelly/Wes Montgomery group!

AAJ: That was the Smokin' at the Half Note (Verve, 1965) group with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb?

RM: Yeah, Maynard opened for them at a club in Atlantic City. When it came time for them to play one night they couldn't find Paul. He was not so well then—in fact it was shortly before he died. I'd met Paul before and all he could say to me then was "You're the cat, man." Anyway, the music that Wynton and Wes did was joyous and truly timeless. Talk about a time feel and a groove! Jimmy did a couple rim shots and signaled for me to come up. I knew the tunes pretty much and when I started to play, Wes just looked around at me and beamed, grinned from ear to ear. So I did the set and then about a month later, the same two groups were paired at a club in New York. Ron Carter had replaced Paul for that gig and he was late because he was doing a record date, so they asked me to play until Ron got there. The same thing happened the next day—Ron was still doing the recording and said, "I'll give you 20 bucks to do the first set." In July of that year—I think it was 1965—I was in my apartment on a horribly hot day, when the phone rang and it was Wynton asking me to go to the West Coast with them for nine weeks! I'll never forget that. I got to make a record with Wynton from that!

Ron McClureAAJ: Isn't there a story about playing with the Miles Davis group?

RM: Herbie Hancock called me on a Saturday night, 8 pm. Says there's a gig at the Village Vanguard at 10, pays $37.50, union scale. I think it was 1968. I was playing with Charles Lloyd and Wynton then so in one week I played with three generations of Miles rhythm sections—Wynton and Jimmy, Herbie and Tony Williams and Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette! You know, I thought about the significance of it later—not for my career, really, but for the fact that I was there and could do it. Anyway, I get to the gig and it's Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Tony and Herbie. No Miles. To this day, I didn't really know what tunes we were playing—they were really taking them out. Same kind of freedom that we had with Charles Lloyd.

AAJ: Tell me about San Francisco, The Fourth Way and Joe Henderson.

Ron McClure Quest, from left: Ron McClure, Dave Liebman, Billy Hart, Richie Beirach

RM: In 1970, I was living in San Francisco and playing with the Fourth Way. It was one of those '70s jazz/rock/alternative bands with Michael White on violin, Mike Nock on piano and Eddie Marshall on drums. In San Francisco I was working with Bobby Hutcherson and through him was recommended to Joe. Joe was brilliant—a great writer and great improviser.

AAJ: Would you agree then that you're comfortable playing a wide variety of things?

RM: I take the music seriously. I played electric bass with Blood, Sweat and Tears—I got a Grammy nomination for a tune from the album New City—and later I played, with Herbie Hancock, on a Pointer Sisters album.

AAJ: What about the Charles Lloyd experience?

RM: Steve Kuhn hooked me up for an audition and Charles hired me. It was a great learning experience; we went all over the world. Charles said to me at one point, "You don't even have to play the bass, if you don't wanna. If you can think of something else to do on the bandstand, go ahead." It was that free. But really, it was tight too because we played everything.

AAJ: And the group playing at Birdland?

RM: It's the 35th anniversary of the group that [saxophonist] Dave Liebman and [pianist] Richie Beirach started—Lookout Farm. Frank Tusa was the first bassist and so I came later. But Dave and Richie created this group that kind of pushed the limits but also had a strong, individual personality. For the reunion, Jeff Williams will be playing drums. After Lookout Farm, they formed Quest—in 1983—and I played bass with them after Eddie Gomez and George Mraz. The music was and will still be free but also structured and a beautiful expression of the visions of Dave and Richie. They're like soul mates. I had played with Dave Liebman and his quintet on recordings for Timeless.

AAJ: Who are the musicians—bassists and others—who've most influenced you?

RM: I'd say Herbie Hancock would have to be at the top of the list. He can play any style and he's played with everybody. He's been part of so many of the great recordings. Then, of course, there's Bill Evans and Miles and Wayne Shorter. I learned more about music from Richie Beirach than from anyone else. He's so knowledgeable and generous with his knowledge. When you play with people like Richie or Jack DeJohnette, they're in your blood. They make you play in the here and now. For bassists, it's Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Albert Stinson, Steve Swallow, Jaco Pastorius... And of course Charles Mingusbecause he represents a body of music, which I am trying to do.

AAJ: And your latest recording for Steeplechase?

RM: It's called New Moon (SteepleChase, 2009) and has Rich Perry on tenor, George Colligan on piano and Billy Drummond on drums. Rich Perry is the best-kept secret in the world. He is the best saxophonist anywhere right now. He plays my melodies, takes artistic license with them and makes them better! Colligan is another genius. He sees what your music is about, plays it, swings and is totally supportive. Billy is as clear as a bell, he's the nicest cat and plays brilliant solos. I love this record!

Selected Discography:

Ron McClure, New Moon (SteepleChase, 2009)

Ron McClure Sextet, Double Triangle (Naxos Jazz, 1999)

Ron McClure, Tonite Only (SteepleChase, 1991)

Quest, Midpoint: Live at Montmartre (Quest III) (Storyville, 1987)

The Fourth Way, The Sun and the Moon Have Come Together (Harvest, 1969)

Charles Lloyd, Soundtrack (Atlantic-Rhino, 1968)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of The Bird's Eye Jazz Club

Page 2: Courtesy of Dave Liebman

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