Sunday, January 8, 2017

Jackie McLean: Gettin' Inside the Song!

Nat Hentoff Original Liner Notes: Jackie McLean's Action,1964

One of the consistently intriguing characteristics of Jackie Mclean's jazz is that while he continues to explore new directions, he is also clearly rooted in the fundamentals of modern jazz. Or, as he would put it, "I never want to go 'outside' for too long a time without coming back ' inside' again."

This album reveals Jackie both "outside" and "inside" and is an absorbing illustration of how the past, present, and future intersect in his compasing and improvising.

Jackie's Action received its title from the way it sounds. "The way the melody moves," Jackie explains, "is the sound of something happening." 

The composed parts do not follow usual harmonic patterns except for the building passages where you hear long tones that are harmonically based in the traditional sense. But as for its basic structure, Jackie - who composes in his head, never with instruments - built the harmonies from note to note . "I mentally selected four saxophone notes," he points out, "and those are the first four notes of the melody. Then, I thought chromatically of the best possible notes for Charles Tolliver, and that became the rest of the melody. Another thing to listen for is that if I were to play my part separately, you'd hear a separate tune. And the same is true of Charles's part."

From the start, the piece crackles with the challenge of the unexpected. Jackie's solo is marked by its searing intensity, blistering beat and the cuttingly clear logic of his ideas . Twenty-four-year-old Tolliver (who can be heard on Jackie's It's Time, Blue Note 4179) is crisp, intense but disciplined in the shaping of his emotions, and possessed of a flaring brass tone. And the rhythm section cooks with steaming zeal.

Plight is by Tolliver who, Jackie emphasizes, has "made remarkable strides as a composer in a very short period of time."The piece was first tried out by Jackie and Charles on a bandstand in Boston. "He told me," Jackie recalls, "to picture someone with a huge boulder on his back. Now, having played it a number of times , I also see a dirt road along which a lot of people are struggling along with burdens."

Jackie is characteristically forceful and incisively assertive - despite the burden on the back. Tolliver discloses his capacity for yearning lyricism. Bobby Hutcherson, who built a seizing mobile of tension in Action, turns reflective in his Rowing improvisotion in this piece.

Wrong Handle is also by Tolliver. Originally it was written for a young lady. The relationship, however, didn't work out, and so Tolliver changed the title from her name to the presently appropriate Wrong Handle. "Listen" counsels Jackie, "to the very definite style Tolliver is getting as a ballad writer. The way I hear it, for example, there are dark colors in my mind when I listen to one of his ballads- purples, blacks, dark blues: No light greens or yellows."

I Hear A Rhapsody is one of the tunes Jackie plays when he wants to come back "inside." He remembers hearing Charlie Parker play it in the early 1950s. "For years after that, I never could get inside the song. I kept trying, putting it in different keys and things, and still I couldn't play it. I guess it was the effect of having heard Bird with it. He had played it so completely, as if there were no more rhapsodies to listen for after that experience. He really tore it up. But one night a couple of years ago at the Coronet in Brooklyn, someone requested it, and I went up to the mike and stated the melody. I played that melody over and over again until finally it came to me and I got inside the song." How far inside Jackie got is revealed in his passionately plunging solo on this track.

The folk-like Hootnan is described by Jackie as "a blues without being a blues. I mean it's in a b-flat minor mode with twelve-bar phraseology but without actual blues changes. The blues feeling is there, however." Its line is infectiously kinetic, what used to be called toe-tapping music. Again Jackie's playing brings to ear and feeling the word that was once a major accolade in jazz - "hot." No one can ever charge Jackie with sounding detached or abstract. And the absorbing fact is that the older and more experimental he gets, the hotter he plays. Tolliver also is far from "cool," and Hutcherson, as throughout the date, is a distinctive combination of clarity, grace, freshness - and heat.

Among the more enthusiastic admirers of Hootnan are some of the youngsters in the HARYOU youth band in Harlem -a band that is part of Jackie's current responsibilities as supervisor of HARYOU's music department. He not only oversees the 18-piece jazz band of that community action program out is also developing classes in music theory, a choral workshop, a percussion division, a Latin band, and a concert band.

"Working with these kids," Jackie notes, "is a gas. And it helps me in my own music. Hearing them I'm able to see the whole cycle of jazz - from the beginnings to the 'outside' we're now exploring. And there's a great deal of satisfaction in watching the kids develop. A while ago, in a club on long Island, there was a Charlie Parker memorial session . A number of very good professional alto saxophonists were there, but do you know who turned the place out? A sixteen-year-old youngster from HARYOU. These kids are something else."

And so are McLean's own youngsters. His son, Rene, is in the HARYOU band and another son, Vernon, will join it on trumpet. So there is now a Jackie Mclean family tradition in jazz while the head of the family continues to grow in his work - both "inside" and "outside,"  as is invigoratingly evident in this durable album.

-Nat Hentoff
original liner notes published with permission

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