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The Boston Phoenix Old Master

Jackie McLean's new "Nature Boy"

By Richard C. Walls

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean is 67 now, and that's getting up there even when measured in jazz years, which dictate that if you don't die ridiculously young you tend to live to be absurdly old. This is particularly true of musicians of McLean's generation, the immediately post-Bird one, which had a fair share of dangerously bohemian types. I once remarked to a friend that jazz was much more exciting when it seemed that half its practitioners were junkies, and though that's a cruelly outrageous thing to say, I was only half joking. Because nowadays even the more interesting players sound as if they still have all their buttons neatly sewn on, the eclectic have replaced the eccentric, and only in the permanent ghetto of the avant-garde will you hear traces of what was once a more pervasive madness.

Of course, all this has less to do with junk or booze per se than with a musical form's progress through its inevitable developmental curve; or, as someone once remarked, "Jazz isn't dead, it's just over." Which isn't as grim as it may sound; it merely recognizes that there aren't going to be any more Ornettes or Coltranes, in terms of formalist impact. Instead, there's going to be an indefinite period of revisiting past achievements, refining or at least tweaking the old conceptual breakthroughs -- a project that takes a lot of honest hard work and attendant sobriety.

Meanwhile, we still have players like McLean, a musician whose sensibility was formed and re-formed during post-bop's period of peak vigor and the avant-garde's first wave of dismantling intrusion -- and whose newest release, Nature Boy (Blue Note), a likably low-keyed quartet date of pop standards, is offhandedly idiosyncratic in a manner that marks him as an old master. McLean came up through the ranks, was hanging out with Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins while still a teenager, recorded with Miles in the early '50s in a style still more Bird-like than not, and had arrived at the first version of his personal voice by the mid '50s.

He was one of those musicians who, in the wake of Charlie Parker's incredible virtuosity, seemed to intuit the wisdom of embracing his limitations, of purposefully disconnecting the Parker-esque flow, of harvesting silences and an aggressive tentativeness appropriate to the age of anxiety. McLean started the '50s as a Baby Bird but by decade's end had a strikingly original style -- harsh, exhorting, bluesy, and very tense. In a just-play mode, McLean was rarely less than the biggest introvert on the block. When inspired -- by what seemed to be some tumultuous heartache -- he came on like a drunk who grabs you by the collar and shouts accusations in your face while dripping tears on his thumbs.

In the '60s, as he was touched by the avant-garde, his ferocity became more arabesque. The turning point was his '62 Blue Note release Let Freedom Ring, on which he introduced an ear-splitting squeal, saved for climactic moments and abandoned after a few albums, and a penchant for downward runs that would land on a disgusted "fuck it all" honk. Between these two extremes he prowled over a modal terrain, sounding more trapped than freed, flirting with atonality but drawn to a very satisfying ritual of tension and release.

McLean's seriously experimental phase lasted for only a few more albums, but he came through to the other side -- and back to more conventional hard-bop and modal material -- with a hardened, assured sound that rarely flagged during the next four decades. Like many much-loved jazz musicians, McLean has made a kajillion records but rarely sounds less than ready-to-rumble. If anything, you might want to wait till you feel a little rested before you put on a new McLean disc.

Even Nature Boy, obviously intended as a relaxed outing, is a long way from being dinner music. True, the downward phrases no longer end in rude raspberries, and the bludgeoning attack of old has yielded to an almost friendly grace. But even when dancing through the hallowed changes of "Star Eyes," McLean occasionally manages to slow down his momentum and a play a hesitant note that suggests he might just jump the tracks. He doesn't, though -- that's kid stuff, and besides, the historical moment has passed. No longer a collar-grabber, he's become a witty conversationalist at home with his elegant peers -- pianist Cedar Walton, bassist David Williams, and drummer Billy Higgins -- undaunted by the hokiness of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and genuinely moved (but never to the point of sentimentality) by the beguiling lilt of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." It all sounds real good -- pretty near perfect, or at least like something the new guys are going to have trouble improving upon.

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