Last night was my only opportunity to take in the Hotplate Festival organized by SFJAZZ in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center. This was a four-evening event with each show featuring a tribute to an album by a major figure in jazz history. The honorees were, in order of the concerts being offered, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, and Jackie McLean.
Last night McLean was recognized with a performance by Jacknife, a quintet explicitly formed as a tribute band for McLean. The concert consisted entirely of the six tracks from McLean’s Blue Note album It’s Time! On that album McLean led the quintet on alto saxophone, joined by Charles Tolliver on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. Of the six tracks on the album, three, “Das’ Dat,” “It’s Time,” and “Snuff” were by McLean; and the other three, “Cancellation,” “Revillot,” and “Truth,” were by Tolliver.
Jacknife was led by its founder, Steven Lugerner, on alto saxophone. Since the group’s formation, there has been a rotation of performers of the other four parts. Last night’s rhythm section consisted of Michael Mitchell on drums, Garret Lang on bass, and Caili O’Doherty on piano. The trumpeter, Tyler Kanashiro, was a newcomer to the group.
Lugerner calls Jacknife a “post-bop” quintet, which is as good a label as any. McLean’s background is practically a survey in jazz history. His father, his first source of music education, played guitar for Tiny Bradshaw. After his father’s death, his education was furthered by a variety of jazzmen who knew his father, some of whom, including Monk, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker, were neighbors. In other words McLean grew up “speaking bebop.” When he was in his twenties, he moved easily into the era of hard bop through his connections to Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey; and his earliest recordings reflected his hard bop experiences.
However, by the time he moved to Blue Note in 1959, the hard bop players were seeking out more adventurous ground. McLean produced a large number of Blue Note albums (one of which provided the name for Lugerner’s group). However, Blue Note was almost a family setting in which McLean was as productive as a sideman for artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, and Mal Waldron, as he was as a leader. Blue Note became the vehicle that transported jazz practices from hard bop to post-bop; and those were good days for both the players and the listeners.
I have to confess that It’s Time! is not part of my personal collection of recordings. The only Blue Note album I have of McLean as a leader is One Step Beyond, recorded in 1963 (the year before the sessions for It’s Time!) and with an entirely different quintet (not to mention instrumentation, with Grachan Moncur III on trombone and Hutcherson on vibraphone). Much of the drive behind It’s Time! comes the energetically eccentric rhythms played with lock-step precision by both saxophone and trumpet (perhaps explaining why the compositions themselves are divided equally between McLean and Tolliver). Lugerner and Kanashiro had no trouble mastering the demands of that precision, convincing the attentive listener that this was just their natural way of speaking.
On the rhythm side O’Doherty’s piano work figured heavily in each of the selections. She had an intriguing habit of playing out a melody line without any accompaniment coming from her left hand. Every now and then a chord might intervene, but she seemed to approach each of the tunes as if her sprit was up there on the front line. One might not have thought of her as a pianist until she summoned up successions of thick chords in an arhythmic sequence suggesting the sort of technique that McCoy Tyner would use behind John Coltrane. Eccentricity of rhythm was also clearly in Mitchell’s comfort zone, while Lang’s bass work was never overly conspicuous but could be relished for the impressive number of octaves across which his bass line would “walk.”
This was a performance that convinced me that I need some more McLean Blue Note records in my collection.