Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige 209: Jackie McLean

We've heard a lot of Jackie McLean through 1956 and early 1957, sometimes with Gene Ammons, sometimes with his own group, or with the ubiquitous and amorphous Prestige All Stars, always in an ensemble. There are a couple of quintet sessions, but more often he's favored a sextet or septet. Here is our first chance to hear him carrying a whole session, and he is more than capable. His set list is mostly standards, mostly on the brooding end of the spectrum, and he has the sensitivity to make them cut through to the heart.

Reflections on a couple of the cuts: "These Foolish Things" has always been a favorite of mine. It turns out the Beatles weren't the first musical British Invasion -- Londoner Jack Strachey made a minor sortie into the Great American Songbook with this tune and a couple of others, including the closer to home-themed "A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square." McLean gives it a sensitive rendition that stays close to the melody and the words, but it's definitely an instrumentalist's reading, not a line that a vocalist would take. It's very much his own--his and Mal Waldron's. Waldron contributes a solo with commentary by bassist Arthur Phipps, and McLean answers him with a concluding solo that's even more beautiful than what's gone before.

"Old Folks" has become a jazz standard, ever since it was recorded by Bird. That was on his ill-fated album Charlie Parker with Voices, but nothing done by Bird is ever totally ill-fated, and many others have been attracted to its haunting melody, including Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, Pat Metheny--and Sonny Rollins, for his Prestige album Rollins Plays for Bird. The melody is by Willard Robison, and as a composer he was drawn to the melancholy--"A Cottage for Sale," "Don't Smoke in Bed." Lyrics to the tune were written by Dedette Lee Hill, and they capture the poignance of the melody, but the song hasn't been as widely recorded by vocalists. Carmen MacRae has a lovely version; so does Etta Jones. Hill was a professional songwriter, and racked up a lot of credits, but this is her only really memorable effort. Her husband, Billy Hill, was somewhat more successful, and he had his own rather different vein of melancholy: one of his hits was "I'm Headin' for the Last Roundup."

Arthur Phipps is the newcomer to Prestige here, though not unknown to McLean--they were both from the same Harlem neighborhood He had a solid career, and a varied one: in addition to the cream of the boppers, he also played with David Amram.

Jackie and his men cut eleven tunes on this session, but there was no Contractual Marathon about it. They just must have hit a groove, felt good, and kept going, Its release history, however, was more speed bumps than grooves. It ended up, like a corporation taken over by Carl Icahn, being carved up and distributed in pieces. "Strange Blues" was the first to make it to vinyl, and actually the only cut to  to be released on the Prestige Label -- all the rest bore the New Jazz imprimatur. It became the title cut of an album cut on three different dates and released in late 1957. McLean's Scene combined "Our Love is Here to Stay," "Old Folks" and "Outburst" with three cuts from the second session with pal Bill Hardman, and it came out from New Jazz in 1959. 1960 saw the New Jazz release of Makin' the Changes, which conflated tunes from this and an August '57 session, and included "Bean and the Boys," "What's New," "I Never Knew" and "I Hear a Rhapsody." I also learned a new word from this bit of research. A tune based on the chord changes of another tune is called a contrafact, as in  "Bean and the Boys" is Coleman Hawkins's contrafact of "Lover Come Back." Finally, A Long Drink of the Blues, using the same two sessions as the previous album, with Embraceable You." "I Cover the Waterfront" and "These Foolish Things" from the February session, was released from New Jazz in 1961.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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