Thoroughly modern Jackie

Urgent and angular, bebop was as quintessentially modernist as a Picasso painting. And age has not softened the edges of one of its finest exponents, Jackie McLean
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It always used to be said that when the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young played, you could hear the words of the songs he'd used as a basis for the improvisation. It's anice testament to Young's controlled fluency, and a nice definition of "lyricism" in instrumental jazz. Young is also the player least likely to be confused, even on The Fast Show, with the altoist Jackie McLean, who has never been nice.

McLean stands huffily at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from "Prez" - all hard angles, sharp intonation, booting swing; an acid blue feeling under a hipster hat. Sonny Rollins apart, he is the last surviving hardwire connection with Charlie Parker's bebop, and bebop was not in favour of lyricism for all kinds of reasons. It was as functionally "modern" in aspect as a tank. It was belligerent, difficult to play, difficult to listen to, and unreceptive to the blandishments of the unhip (if it gives you a headache, tough). There were too many notes. It was fast, loud, masculine, competitive. And, of course, you couldn't hear the words.

Nowadays, McLean wouldn't hear of such language being used to describe what he once did as a young man (and still does, but with half a century's experience under his strap). He is only conscious in his career of having "been on a road, forever climbing up and developing in the search for beauty". He is, on the other hand, not conscious of being "in a particular crib", which is a reproachful jazzer's way of saying "don't fence me in".

And he has a point, of course. McLean has never exactly stood still. From his earliest Fifties bop knock-off sessions for Prestige, through his Blue Note heyday in the early/mid-Sixties, when he played a key hand in at least a dozen great recordings, to his current, still-active status as the modern jazz saxophone's co-elder statesman, he has ducked, weaved, zigged and zagged as diligently as any in any field of modernist art; as tough-mindedly, indeed, as one of his snortier solos. The single factor, however, that has remained constant throughout is the sound of his voice: his tone.

Jazzers are big on tone. They don't come of age in the eyes of their peers until they "get a tone". They certainly aren't distinguishable from one another in modern jazz's cat's-cradle of influences without a highly individual one. And without tone, it's fair to say that modern jazz would have no colour. Tone is the bit you "see" in jazz. It was the complex tension between Lester Young's tone and his line that enabled him to "play the words" of all those songs. Tone is the element that transforms the science of improvisation into an art.

And in Jackie's case it has been a curiously robust art, magnificently resistant to the influence of fashion, splendidly detached from the "literary" sensibility that makes you want to hear words in instrumental improvisations. So although McLean may take umbrage at the thought of being "cribbed", you could argue that it's the rigidity of his connection to his roots in bebop, and by extension the blues, that makes him both self-sufficient as a player and also emblematic of another time. McLean is what modernism sounds like.

Modernism is, of course, an aesthetic, not a historical phenomenon, in much the same way that classicism is. In the case of jazz, modernism can be dated fairly precisely. It began with tank-tracked bebop in 1941 and ended in the middle of the Sixties with the ascension of John Coltrane into outer space.

During that period, the modern jazz aesthetic demanded that modern jazz musicians pursue a fiercely "modernistic" agenda. Accordingly, experimentation was deemed more important than refinement; harshness was never to be excluded from music simply on the grounds that harshness made life less pleasant; and personal psychology was the vessel of all useful meaning.

"Go forth, young man, and play thyself," was the law. And so it followed that the less you sounded like everyone else, the more you sounded like yourself. It was all a bit like modern art, really.

McLean never sounded like anyone else at all, once he'd got over his Charlie Parker phase in the mid-Fifties (he's always cited pianist Bud Powell as his deepest influence anyway). And by the early-Sixties he was making absolutely scintillating records on the leading edge of the hard-bop hoofprint. The records were teak-hard, shrill, bluesy, cold-eyed, studiedly unpretty and passionately emotional in a strange, grimly contained way - as if to have poisonous feelings were one thing, but to let them corrode the cool lines of your articulacy were quite another.

Swing, Swang, Swinging, Bluesnik, New Soil, Capuchin Swing, Jackie's Bag, A Fickle Sonance, Let Freedom Ring are all albums released under McLean's leadership in the first three years of the 1960s. They're all fabulous to one degree or another and, taken collectively, they form a perfect description of McLean's developmental "road". Refinement never stands in the way of an experiment. Harshness is integrated into the overall pattern. The overall pattern is patently to be taken as an extrusion of McLean's being, or something of that order. The records are a microcosm of the modernist ideal.

He has two fresh albums out this spring. One is a second issue of an album from 1963 that was not put out at the time. The reasons for that omission are straightforward. By the time the spring of that year had arrived and Vertigo was safely in the can, McLean had taken a further step by recording One Step Beyond, his first full address on the subject of the avant garde. The tapes of Vertigo must have suddenly sounded a bit old-fashioned.

Actually, it's a terrific record, notable partly for the inclusion in the rhythm section of studio debutant Tony Williams (who soon became the polyrhythmic genius behind Miles Davis's "second great quintet") and partly because, well, McLean is magnificent on it - sharp, oblique and tumblingly fluent.

Thirty-seven years on, he has absolutely no recollection of the sessions that produced the album, or of who played at them (Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock and Butch Warren, in fact). He prefers to consign the whole experience to the narrative sump marked "the search for beauty" (he is much wafflier on the telephone than on the saxophone).

He is also slightly reserved on the subject of his new new album, Nature Boy, recorded at the behest of his Japanese producer as a sort of ballad primer, with tunes such as "You Don't Know What Love Is", "I Can't Get Started" and - would you believe - "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". They are all songs with lyrics. But the gratifying thing is that when Jackie McLean plays them, you don't hear the words. You hear some weird geometry, the odd uncalled-for gurgle and rasp, an occasional and judiciously placed chromatic cadential flutter, a good deal of discreet bopping and, like a colour field, McLean's vast, unyielding tone. It's great. It is certainly beautiful, it's terribly old-fashioned and it's perfectly modern.

'Vertigo' and 'Nature Boy' are both on the Blue Note label