If I had never met the great saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator, and activist Jackie McLean, I suspect he would still be one of the more important musicians in my consciousness. I do not, however, have that abstraction. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time with Mr. McLean, every interaction left a mark (two were particularly life-changing, ask me sometime), as did my time as a student at the Artists’ Collective (the Hartford, CT community organization he co-founded over 50 years ago) and more generally within his musical/spiritual/intellectual orbit (including with my many friends and colleagues involved with the jazz program, now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, at the Hartt School). Even being young and foolish, I appreciated the uniqueness of proximity to such a master and in the ensuing 30 years have only increased my appreciation for that and for the distinctiveness of his musical voice and legacy. Few instrumentalists have had sounds as distinct as his on the alto saxophone, and the seamless way he bounced between blues, bebop, and the most modern jazz (and at times melded it all together) was truly visionary.
Narrowing down selections from his discography (over 50 records as a bandleader, many of them landmark works of art), never mind all the great sideman contributions, from important early-career work with Miles Davis and Art Blakey to important albums by Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Jimmy Smith, and Freddie Redd (among many others, many represented in this list as sidemen on his recordings). I’ll acknowledge that, though his career was vast and long, half the list represents Blue Note recordings from the early-to-mid 60s, and even that was agonizing given the 20 (!) albums he recorded for the label over an eight year stretch, most of them utter masterpieces. So without further ado and with full acknowledgement of the fickleness of personal preferences, here we go.
1 ) “Little Melonae” from New Traditions (1955 – reissued as “The Ultimate Jazz Archive”)
This song, written for his daughter, sits alongside “Dig” among J-Mac’s most often-played tunes – Miles and Coltrane recorded it, Blakey recorded it (with J-Mac), and this is its first appearance on a record, as well as his first session as a bandleader. Trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Mal Waldron are also featured on this relaxed, swinging performance.
2 ) “Profile of Jackie” from Pithecanthropus by Charles Mingus (1956)
It was important for me to include a ballad in here, which this expressive performance mostly is (though it’s not as simple as that – listen and you’ll hear what I mean). This album is also generally a great early example of Jackie’s ability to incorporate highly modern sounds while maintaining his bebop roots.
3 ) “Appointment in Ghana” from Jackie’s Bag (1960)
I’m not sure how much folks play this hip tune outside of the greater Hartford area, but in that setting this is as “standard” a tune as there is. And this original recording of it utterly burns, with Jackie’s own solo giving way to powerful statements from Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Tina Brooks on tenor saxophone, and Kenny Drew on piano.
4 ) “Goin’ ‘Way Blues” from Bluesnik (1961)
I referenced Jackie’s blues bag above, and this album of blues compositions is a great place to hear that in its full glory. This track is the slowest of the set and the wailing gutbucket blues are apparent even within his personal, idiosyncratic vocabulary. Drew is a soloist on this one too, as is trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
5 ) “Omega” from Let Freedom Ring (1962)
This gorgeous, upbeat tune, composed for Jackie’s mother, is a highlight of this beautiful album of tributes to important people in his life. Drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Herbie Lewis, and pianist Walter Davis, Jr. create a a groove that is buoyant and unique (not a word I use loosely) and Jackie flows seamlessly over the chord progression at times while hinting at free jazz at other times, making it all sound organically of a piece.
6 ) “Saturday and Sunday” from One Step Beyond (1963)
It takes somewhere between 7 and 30 seconds to realize this tune has a vibe. Or maybe three seconds if you are already familiar with the distinctive sonic fingerprint of the tandem of J-Mac, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who made two more albums together after this one. 17 year old drummer Tony Williams (who J-Mac “discovered” the previous year) turns the fire up a further notch on this epic performance.
7 ) “On the Nile” from Jacknife (1965)
Somehow this session was shelved for 10 years, but thankfully it saw the light of day and allowed us to hear the incredible synergy and fire from this band, featuring two significant J-Mac collaborators of the period, trumpeter Charles Tolliver (also the composer of this moody waltz) and pianist Larry Willis.
8 ) “Star Dancer” from New York Calling (1974)
I could go on all day dropping the names of jazz royalty who played in Jackie McLean’s bands, but one of the coolest things about legacy as a bandleader is how many comparatively underrecognized musicians thrived under his baton. Ray Draper. Webster Young. Lamont Johnson. This album is a great example of this phenomenon in that the tunes are all written by and feature trumpeter Billy Skinner (the composer of this moody Latin tune) and pianist Billy Gault. This was also the first of numerous J-Mac albums to feature Jackie and Dollie McLean’s son Rene, featured on soprano saxophone here.
9 ) “Minor March” from The Jackie Mac Attack (Live) (1991)
My first introduction to J-Mac’s music came through the music he made featuring the late pianist Hotep Idris Galeta and longtime bassist Nat Reeves, also a longtime (and recently-retired) lynchpin of Jackie’s educational programs. Alongside Carl Allen on drums, this ridiculously burning track displays J-Mac, a month shy of his 60th birthday, breathing fire into a tune he first recorded in 1959.
10 ) “Rhythm of the Earth” from Rhythm of the Earth (1992)
It was through observing Jackie McLean and the community he fostered that I saw the jazz apprenticeship system in full bloom. This funky J-Mac composition features his signature rich-yet-gnarly small-group orchestrational textures and contributions by students-turned-band members Steve Davis on trombone, Alan Jay Palmer on piano, and 21-year-old Eric McPherson on drums alongside Nat, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.