Graded on a Curve:
Jackie McLean,
Lights Out!

Since 1991, the Analogue Productions label has been doing a dandy job in reissuing music from a variety of genres in editions designed to surpass the quality of their often elusive originals. They are currently offering a superb slate of releases from the vaults of Prestige, the storied jazz imprint that captured so many of the form’s most important names. One such figure was the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and if his reputation deservedly rests upon his copious recordings for Blue Note, by no means should the ins and outs of his early work be ignored. Lights Out!, freshly available in a 180gm edition, would make a fine introduction to the rewarding apprenticeship of this true giant.

Spending time investigating the selections in a second hand record shop’s well stocked jazz stacks can result in a vinyl-loving aficionado of improvisation-based song-form commiserating, sometimes even cursing aloud (I’ve seen it) that they’ve been dealt a cruel hand by time’s tough circumstances. Oh, to be born too late. High-dollar values abound, and when combined with the deluge of choices, the tide can certainly prove more than a bit disconcerting. Yes, the digital age has made it so much easier to at least hear the music (indeed, the most important part) that resides in those very expensive grooves, but for those of us who value the full experience, great jazz and a well-made LP go together like rich, thick peanut butter and lovingly made homemade jam.

The music of Jackie McLean has landed on a formidable number of records over the years. He cut over twenty albums for Blue Note alone, most of them in the ‘60s, and if I had to own only one it would surely be from that period. But thankfully the prospect of only owning one is something I don’t have to consider. And if the ‘60s stuff brings McLean his biggest accolades, his youthful work both as a sideman and in the leadership role not only provides valuable insight into his later studies in advanced bop (which frequently sought a productive dialogue with free jazz), they also stand up as highly enjoyable sessions in their own right.

McLean made his first major recording at age 19 for Blue Note on Miles Davis’ 1951 album Dig. An auspicious start, and after further work with Davis he made his debut as a leader for the Ad Lib label in ‘55, a date released alternately as The New Tradition and Presenting Jackie McLean. He then began playing with such august names as Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Gene “Jug” Ammons, and Charles Mingus, while continuing to record as a leader for Prestige. In ’56 he rounded up a quintet and ran through the six tunes collected via Lights Out!

And that band’s lineup features some unimpeachable vets. First, there’s Donald Byrd, a trumpeter whose talent, like McLean’s, also flourished in the ‘60s via Blue Note, where he was nearly as prolific as this album’s leader. Many might know Byrd for his slew of fusion and funk/soul outings from the ‘70s, but previous to that he staked out a claim as one of the preeminent trumpet men of post-bop. Some quibble that he was a bit too polished and professional, but I and others disagree. The group he co-led with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams was especially noteworthy, with both volumes of their live recording At the Half Note Café enduring as classics.

Though he’s not as well remembered today as Max Roach or those Joneses Elvin and Philly Joe, Art Taylor was one of the busiest drummers on the scene throughout the second half of the ‘50s and well into the next decade. Along with three early dates as a leader (two for Prestige, one for Blue Note, quite a feat for someone not named Art Blakey) he served as the sticksman on all sorts of worthy sessions from the period. That includes Miles, Sonny Clark, a bunch for Red Garland, and a whole big hunk of the early Prestige dates of one Mr. John Coltrane. And anybody that’s heard Coltrane’s masterful Giant Steps has absorbed the high quality drumming of Art Taylor.

If it seems today that Taylor has lost some stature amongst post-bop drummers, bassist Doug Watkins is even more under-discussed amongst his peers. Which is weird, since not only was he a founding member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but the man also played on some massive recordings from Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Kenny Burrell, Hank Mobley, Mingus, and even a pair from Sonny Rollins, one being the absolutely mandatory Saxophone Colossus. And through the fertile onslaught of post-bop, he even managed two dates as leader, ‘57’s Watkins at Large and ‘60s Soulnik. Dying in ’62 in a car accident (age 27) cut short his legacy, but it’s a stumper why Watkins has become such an uncelebrated figure.

But pianist Elmo Hope is maybe the most interesting name in Lights Out!’s lineup. He’s an intriguing player that’s sorta comparable in cult stature to the great Herbie Nichols, though Hope fortunately recorded a lot more. Drug-related problems slowed him down in the ‘60s, though he did cut some very nice stuff for Riverside, particularly Hope-Full, a solo album where he was assisted on a few tracks by his pianist wife Bertha. Sadly, he also died young, felled by pneumonia in ’67. Along with his own unique, very valuable leadership dates which commenced with Blue Note’s Introducing the Elmo Hope Trio in ’53, he worked in the groups of Clifford Brown, Coltrane, and Rollins.

With all this firepower, it might seem that Lights Out! is a stone cold cinch for the category of masterpiece. Well, it’s not. The jazz milieu just doesn’t work that way. In this case, it’s important to remember that hard-bop was still coming into its own in ’56 and that in addition Prestige owner Bob Weinstock was noted (and to some, notorious) for not paying for rehearsal time. This is a big part of why so many of the label’s releases radiate like jam sessions that were heavily reliant upon standards and blues charts. Toss in McLean’s youthful inexperience and it’s easy to see why this disc falls a little short of top tier.

But if not a masterwork, it does have plenty to recommend, opening with the title cut, an extended slow blues that gives the horns and Hope’s piano ample space for soloing, and while casual in intent the ambiance is also quite far from uninspired. The first thing heard is Watkins, his fingers providing a big loping bedrock that never falters throughout the song’s thirteen minutes. Taylor rides with him and accents with skill, never becoming too busy. And all three solo flights are quite successful in working up the sophisticated soul-grease that was just starting to define the hard-bop form at the time this recording was made. I especially enjoy how towards the end McLean’s and Byrd’s horns tangle around in loose dialogue, offering summation after Hope finishes his superb solo.

The next track “Up” greatly increases the tempo. Indeed, its rapid fire nature is clearly in the tradition of earlier bebop’s often breakneck pacing. The tune is credited to McLean but it’s really just a platform from which to launch some solid if not mind-blowing solos; first Byrd, next McLean, then Hope and finally a short burst of creativity from Taylor. Along the way nobody loses focus and succumbs to mere velocity. And since the briskness of “Up” was heard less frequently as the decade progressed, it becomes a swell glimpse of the music’s evolution.

The Byrd composition “Lorraine” is a ballad, which has a couple benefits; first, it brings out the qualities of Hope, who sounds best, at least here, at slower tempos. Second, its six minutes and change gives both Byrd and McLean ample room to stretch out. Again, nothing breathtaking occurs, but it is a pretty little study in improvisational tactics.

The rich mid-tempo atmosphere of the group’s “A Foggy Day,” a study of a Gershwin chestnut, is a fine example of the mainstream sound of the period. While nothing particularly challenging develops, it does hold up as a deep study in melodic form that possesses the requisite flights of accessible abstraction. The song is a good representation of the very likable if somewhat minor nature of the whole record and makes a strong case for its contents as a quite worthy of not essential addition to any well-rounded jazz record collection.

For a well-rounded set of shelves holds more than just masterpieces. Being conversant with the music’s greatest achievements is surely a must, but having a familiarity with those moments alone is like a diet of only champagne, caviar, and filet mignon. Lights Out! is a hearty aural meal prepared in a thriving musical kitchen where the head chef is still learning the vastness of his art. He’s smart enough to employ some fine assistants, works to his strong suits and doesn’t take foolish chances. In the end he acquits himself quite nicely.

Both “Kerplunk” and “Inding” do well at rounding out the LP’s charms. Not only does its current availability make it a prime place to begin appreciating McLean’s work in an at least somewhat chronological manner, but it also sits nicely between Davis’ abovementioned Dig, a pretty good but formative and lesser entry in the master trumpeter’s discography, and Sonny Clark’s truly sublime Cool Struttin’, a flawless artistic statement where McLean contributes with growing aplomb.

These three records provide a great capsule narrative of the glorious growth of Modern Jazz during that decade, and that Lights Out! (along with a slew of other worthwhile recordings) is back in the racks (and in fabulous mono!) is truly cause for celebration.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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