By Devon Wendell
When I think of Jackie McLean; the word modern comes to mind. Jackie was always beyond hip. His slightly pitchy alto sax tone, daring compositions, and that unrelenting energy (quite often driven by the blues) made him one of the most original artists to stem from the bebop era.
His earliest recordings with Miles Davis and Charles Mingus show off a young and cocky McLean who sounds as excited as a kid in a candy store to be playing with these giants. But he took risks even then. He was trying to escape the looming shadow of Charlie Parker’s influence, both personally and musically. He was one of the first post-Parker alto players to find his own distinct style during a time when players of all instruments were copying Bird’s every lick.
McLean produced some of the most brilliant and exhilarating albums in the entire history of Blue Note Records.
One of his greatest achievements with Blue Note was Jackie’s Bag; which consists of two separate recording sessions. The first dates from January 18, 1959; it features McLean joined by Donald Byrd, trumpet, Sonny Clark, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. On the second session from September 1, 1960, McLean is accompanied by Tina Brooks, tenor saxophone, Blue Mitchell, trumpet, Kenny Drew, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Art Taylor on drums.
On “Quadrangle,” “Blues Inn” and “Fidel” from the first session, Mclean and the band sound as if they’re walking a very thin and tight rope between hard-bop and the avant-garde. And it sounds like they could land on either side of that rope at any moment. McLean’s alto lines are bold and swinging. His sense of spacing and creating tensions between each phrase adds a powerful energy that is infectious to all of the other band members. McLean would play slightly behind the beat the way Dexter Gordon did on the tenor sax, or in the style of a truly great blues singer.
At one point, Donald Byrd takes the lead and plays some truly soulful and imaginative trumpet solos. Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones come off more aggressively than usual, but the rhythms they lay down fit the mood of each composition perfectly. Everyone is playing above and beyond their comfort zones and pushing the music to new heights. I could write an entire piece just on Philly Joe’s incredible polyrhythmic drumming on “Fidel” alone. And let’s not forget Sonny Clark; one of the tightest and most inventive piano accompanists of that entire era. On this session, Clark’s accents around Philly Joe Jones’ drumming are syncopated, sparse, and phenomenal on every level.
On the second session; the band swings just as hard. Art Taylor’s drumming is more subtle and melodic than that of Philly Joe Jones’. Kenny Drew’s playing is more subdued than what Sonny Clark laid down on the first session but the music is equally as engaging and energetic. Blue Mitchell’s trumpet lines on “Appointment In Ghana” and “A Ballad For Doll” are both thematic and lyrical. Tina Brooks’ tenor work swings harder than life itself. “Isle Of Java,” “Melonae’s Dance,” “Medina” and “Street Dancer” (written by Brooks) feature some of Brooks’ most stellar tenor work of his tragically short career.
McLean’s playing is both humorous and wildly adventurous. The melody lines on these compositions are unique, modern, and at times very funky. Nothing sounds like the music produced on this album.
Jackie McLean: Jackie’s Bag is the perfect example of what made Jackie McLean one of the most important voices in the history of post war jazz. The album also demonstrates why McLean’s modernist approach to composing and improvising are still extremely influential to jazz musicians of today. McLean’s wonderful audaciousness, wit, and soul make this album a musical journey to experience again and again. Do not go without this masterpiece.