Jan 8, 2011
At the age of 29, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean had already recorded six albums for Blue Note Records, and been a key sideman on sessions for other Blue Note stalwarts like Freddie Redd, Donald Byrd, Tina Brooks, Jimmy Smith and Walter Davis. He had been onstage for the Living Theater’s famous play “The Connection”. He was a member of the late Fifties edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and taken part in the historic Blues and Roots sessions with Charles Mingus.
One reason for this extraordinary amount of recording at a young age was his failure to maintain a New York City cabaret license card due to his heroin abuses. Without the bandstand as a place to earn, he was in the studio constantly.
1961 would prove to be a typically busy year for McLean. Before it was over, he would complete two albums for Blue Note as a leader, and star on albums by Kenny Dorham and Redd. Fifty years ago today, he lead a quintet into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliff, New Jersey to record the album that would become Bluesnik, my favorite of his many releases.
McLean was joined by 22 year old trumpet player Freddie Hubbard for the first time. Hubbard had cut a wide swath through the jazz world since his appearance in 1958, being tapped for session work by John Coltrane, Randy Weston, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, among others. Open Sesame, his first album as a leader had been released to rave reviews the previous year. Joining the two that day were musicians with whom they both had studio experience. Pianist Kenny Drew, who wrote a number of the songs for Bluesnik, had been part of McLean’s sextet three months earlier. Doug Watkins on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums had worked with Hubbard as far back as 1959.
Click here to listen to the final recording made that auspicious day, the title track, “Bluesnik”. Written as a 12 bar blues, the improvisational work after the melody is firmly stated takes the tune to shifting signatures, primarily under Drew’s direction. McLean’s blowing shows his debt to Charlie Parker, but also shows him preparing to leave basic bebop behind for other places. A true classic.