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Jackie McLean: Nature Boy

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illustration of Jakcie McLean

Too often, new jazz releases merely evoke the past and send one running for the real thing. New recordings by true greats, however, just as frequently prompt hours of culling albums to see how their tone or phrase shapes have been incorporated into the work of successive artists. Those intimate with Jackie McLean’s classic recordings of the ’50s and ’60s know well how the one-two punch of envelopment and timbre that is the Jackie Mac Attack has been distilled by stylists as disparate as Gary Bartz and Roscoe Mitchell. Yet, Nature Boy is cause to repeat the exercise, as the alto saxophonist’s first all-ballad program casts his art in a distinctive light.

For all the praise heaped on McLean over the years, subtle phrase shading has not been the accolade most consistently employed. Usually, it is McLean’s hard edge that is commented upon, but usually in a way that inadvertently suggests it to be one-dimensional. From the opening strains of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” however, it is obvious that McLean has more shades of edge than Eskimos have words for snow. There is one edge that winks at the wistfulness of his “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” another that grates at the vulnerability of his “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” and another that gives “Star Eyes” an offhanded lyricism. McLean’s many edges convey undercurrents of conflict and bittersweetness that makes these performances more compelling with each listening.

McLean’s performances are expertly underscored by the work of pianist Cedar Walton, bass player David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins. This long-standing rhythm section has an uncanny sense of when to nudge and when to lay back in supporting McLean, so that his lines lunge more unexpectedly across the bar lines and his rests are more tension-filled. Also, early in the program, Williams’ pungent solo on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and Walton’s fine turn on the title tune, which builds on the contrast between large ringing chords and snaking right-hand lines, serve notice that this is an ensemble effort-a promise that is kept throughout the album.

Nature Boy is as bold a statement as McLean’s recent solo concert at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, in that it goes against the grain of the decades-held image of McLean the swing-swang-swingin’ hard bopper. Jackie Mac the balladeer: believe it.