Saturday, April 02, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 177: Jackie McLean

This was the beginning of a very busy summer in Mr. and Mrs. Van Gelder's living room. Let's hope they'd gone to Grossinger's for a summer vacation.A core group of musicians was constantly in and out of the studio in shifting combinations--Friday at Rudy's.

The festivities started on Friday the 13th--July 13, 1956--with two separate sessions. Jackie McLean was the nominal leader on the first one, though he played on both.

McLean starts the session with "Sentimental Journey," an interesting choice in that bebop's journeys were rarely sentimental. And it was a tough one to unsentimentalize. Written by dance band leader Les Brown and his arranger Ben Homer, recorded by Brown and Doris Day, it had been a huge hit in 1945, as ir became a sort of unofficial theme song for returning GIs. Only a decade later, as veterans were still having a painful time readjusting to civilian life (and this was not really recognized back then), the painful, bittersweet (at best) nature of that sentimental journey was still very real.

McLean's take on the song isn't sentimental, but it isn't exactly unsentimental, either. He plays it with a feeling for the melody that's not ironic. The improvisations are a little more hard-edged, but still in keeping with the feeling. McLean would have been 14 when the war ended, an age when boys are romantics and secretly hope the war will go on a little longer, so that they can get into it. You outgrow those feelings, but they're always part of you.

Two members of the rhythm section were to become no strangers to the Prestige studios. Art Taylor
already wasn't, having made his label debut in 1954, and having played on nine sessions already. Mal Waldron was making his Prestige debut. Both would go on to appear on a plethora of Prestige albums. In recent biographical material, they are often referred to, respectively, as the"house drummer" and "house piano player" for the label. It's not altogether clear what this means. Alan Dawson has been described as the house drummer for Prestige during part of the 60s, but he says this is nonsense -- they called him for a lot of gigs, but he was never the house anything.

Doug Watkins rounded out the rhythm section, and he was very much a presence on Prestige recordings in those days, too.

Bebop altered the concept of the rhythm session, as drummers like Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey took the beat away from the bass drum and shifted it to the lighter ride cymbal. The bass took over the principal responsibility for keeping the beat, and jazz singers learned to listen to the bass, not the drums, as their guide for keeping the beat. As drummers became virtuosi, bass players like Curly Russell and Tommy Potter, who could provide a solid foundation for the shifting intricacies of bebop, were in demand.

By the 1950s, bass players, though still anchoring the rhythm section, were becoming virtuosi too.
Players like Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Oscar Pettiford soloed as Russell and Potter never did.

How much could you do with a bass solo? Listen to Doug Watkins on "Sentimental Journey" and
you'll hear just how much. Watkins's career was cut short by the auto accident that claimed his life in 1962, but he made a lasting mark.

Donald Byrd joined the group for "Contour" (and stuck around for the afternoon session with Gene Ammons, and changed the mood dramatically. "Contour" is full-out bop, with the two horn almost percussive as they chop away at notes.

This session would be part of a McLean album called Jackie McLean -- 4, 5, and 6, covering both the 4 and 5 parts. It was issued on both Prestige and New Jazz.

No comments: