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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.

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