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Jackie McLean: New and Old Gospel

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Here are four more limited edition Blue Note reissues. When these titles were waxed in the late ’60s, Blue Notes were seen as records, not holy grails, and the music was thought of as verging from ’50s hard bop towards modalish pieces or strongly R&B-or Latin-flavored tunes with hopes for radio play. There were also a few terrific avant garde dates by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams, Don Cherry, etc. All these trends are reflected in this offering.

No doubt Lee Morgan’s success with “The Sidewinder” caused musicians and A&R types to think about funky follow-ups, and many of the trumpeter’s subsequent sessions featured a tune or two aimed at airplay interspersed with solid hard bop. Caramba is in this category. Morgan and his front line partner Bennie Maupin don’t do that much with the title track but the rest of the date ranges from good to excellent. The rhythm team of Cedar Walton, Reggie Workman, and Billy Higgins is spectacular.

The Spoiler features a wonderful line-up with Blue Mitchell, Julian Priester, James Spaulding, Pepper Adams, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Mickey Roker, Joseph Rivera, and of course Turrentine’s tough tenor. Unfortunately the material here leaves little room for anyone’s star to shine, which is frustrating in the cases of the three hornmen who didn’t record that much. Well-played jazz funk with no other aspirations.

Gravy Train would appear to be in that same category but turns out to be the sleeper of the set. Donaldson uses Morgan’s approach-he includes a track or two with a soul/blues head and then just blows jazz. What we have is one of the best alto men of his time flying high over a solid rhythm section (Herman Foster, Ben Tucker, Dave Bailey, Alec Dorsey). He favors the straightforward changes of chestnuts like “Avalon,” “Glory of Love,” the unexpected but very effective “South of the Border” and the Perdido-based “Candy,” which features a solo that goes on and on, each chorus better than the last.

Expectations are important, which is why Jackie McLean’s New and Old Gospel seemed disappointing when it came out. After all, Jackie sharing the front line with Ornette had to be an event, right? The fact that Coleman plays trumpet, not alto, was perceived as a factor in keeping things from taking off, but I think the problem is more subtle. The first track is a four part suite that runs over 20 minutes and is for the most part very successful. Ornette is on sure footing in this fairly free terrain, and Jackie, never the most consistent of jazzmen, sounds great. Pianist Lamont Johnson has some iffy moments but is fine overall. No probs with Scott Holt on bass and Higgins is great as always. But the group seems unable to bridge the gap to “Old Gospel”-the root chords seem to keep things too closely tied down and the attempts by the soloists to move out get bogged down. Too bad, because it’s a nice tune and a good idea. “Strange as it Seems” is better, featuring Coleman sounding like a cubist impression of Miles-with mute. Approach this as a record with one good side with added interest because of Ornette’s only sideman appearance, which he handled with his usual off-center aplomb.