Some Respect for Jackie McLean

A tribute to the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean on Saturday night at Alice Tully Hall really began two songs in, with the arrival of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Mr. Marsalis and Mr. McLean seared the melody of Mr. McLean’s ‘‘Bird Lives,’‘ tearing through the tune with two impressively assured improvisations so bursting with ideas and momentum that the piece barely held them. The excitement was what the audience at the Classic Jazz festival wanted, and a sense of anticipation spread through the crowd.

For the next several songs, the excitement was warranted. Mr. McLean, playing with his typical austerity, pared away notes to leave perfectly balanced phrases and ripped open the wide spaces of his compositions. Backed by a quartet, which included Arthur Taylor on drums, Mr. McLean brought out a series of musicians, inlcuding Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wallace Roney on trumpet, and Benny Golson on tenor saxophone to play a set of Mr. McLean’s more famous works, including ‘‘Minor March,’‘ ‘‘Little Melonae’‘ and ‘‘Quadrangle.’‘

But as well as the guests played, it was Mr. Taylor who defined this section of the concert. Mr. Taylor is among jazz’s finest drummers, and he made every soloist better, making sure they arrived at logical peaks during their improvisations, urging them on, dictating the form of the pieces, using his bass drum to comment on the action, creating a narrative that constantly unfolded. It was the sort of virtuosic performance that seemed heroic, and the concert achieved an intensity it never recaptured and probably couldn’t have sustained.

But the second half of the show was less about improvisation than composition. Mr. McLean, who anticipated several currents of innovation in jazz in the 1950’s, is a wonderful composer who has written his share of hard-bop masterpieces. The concert made a point of highlighting his compositional achievements by orchestrating the works, something that has never been done. The orchestrations, by Mr. Fuller, Larry Willis and Slide Hampton, made it clear how willingly Mr. McLean’s compositions lend themselves to a bigger treatment. Mr. Fuller’s arrangement on the rhythmically succinct ‘‘Appointment in Ghana’‘ added broad harmonies to the piece, recalling the better arrangements on John Coltrane’s ‘‘Africa Brass’‘ album. Mr. Hampton’s arrangements, harmonically rich, added sweeps of texture to the pieces.

Through it all, the musicians, with the exception of the young trumpeter Mr. Roney, who seemed to be the only person onstage who was not emotionally affected by the tribute, charged into their improvisations with glee. In Mr. Golson, who played his startlingly complicated and ornate improvisations, Mr. McLean had his perfect opposite, balancing his own clean, but almost unbearably emotional statements. The audience responded to Mr. McLean’s orchestrations with two standing ovations, giving him the respect he should have had long ago.

by Peter Watrous
Source: New York Times

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