Jackie McLean-A Fickle Sonance.

Label: Blue Note Records.

On October the ’26th’ 1961, thirty year old alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean made the now familiar journey to the Van Gelder Studio, at 445 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record a new album with his quintet. The album became A Fickle Sonance, which was released in late 1962 and was recently reissued by Blue Note Records. It’s regarded as a landmark album where Jackie McLean’s music starts to evolve as he begins to move from hard bop to free jazz. This was the latest instalment in the Jackie Mclean story.

Alto saxophonist, bandleader and composer Jackie McLean was born into a musical family in New York, on May ‘17th’ 1931. His father was a guitarist in Tiny Bradshaw’s successful swing orchestra, and he taught his young son about music. Tragedy struck in 1939, when Jackie McLean’s father passed away when he was just eight. However, his musical education continued.

Jackie McLean was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were immersed in music. This included his godfather and then his stepfather who owned a record shop. However, by the time he was a teenager, Jackie McLean wanted to learn an instrument and decided to learn the saxophone.

He started out playing the soprano saxophone, but after a while, switched to the alto sax. He was fortunate to receive music lessons from some respected teachers and some of his neighbours. This included Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker who were happy to give Jackie McLean informal lessons. 

Charlie Parker proved to be a huge influence on Jackie McLean. Later in his career, Jackie McLean  was described as one of Charlie Parker’s disciples. The two men also shared much in common apart from music. That was in the future. 

Before that, the informal lessons paid off, and by the time he was in high school Jackie McLean was in a band that featured Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins and Captain Kirk, the son of Andy Kirk. Three members of the band would go on to record for Blue Note Records, and in 1951 played alongside Miles Davis.

In 1951, Jackie McLean became a professional musician. By then, the twenty year old was  prodigiously talented alto saxophonist who was already writing his own compositions. The young saxophonist and composer came to the attention of Miles Davis later in 1951.

Jackie McLean and his high school friend Sonny Rollins were invited to join Miles Davis’ band for the recording of Dig. It was one of Sonny Rollins earliest recordings, while Dig was Jackie McLean’s first recording session. He had written the title track, and played on four of the five tracks. While playing on Dig helped launch Jackie McLean’s career, there was a negative side to the experience.

Miles Davis and many of his friends were heroin addicts. This wasn’t uncommon in jazz, and it was seen  by some as an occupational hazard. Sadly, Jackie McLean would become addicted to heroin.

In 1955, he recorded his debut album Presenting… Jackie McLean which was released by Ab Lib in 1956. This was the only album Jackie McLean released for Ad Lib.

By 1956, Jackie McLean like so many other jazz musicians was battling heroin addiction. This included his mentor and idol Charlie Parker. He had died in 1955 aged just thirty-four. Just two years earlier the pair had been walking through Greenwich Village looking for a club where they could play. That was when a frustrated Bird stopped and turned to twenty-two year old Jackie McLean and asked him to give him a public kicking. Bird was frustrated, annoyed and angry that he had squandered his prodigious talent and neglected himself. Now it was happening all over again to Jackie Mc:ean who risked losing everything. 

After leaving Ad Lib, Jackie McLean signed to Prestige Records, and in January 1956, recorded Lights Out! It was released June 1956 and showcased Jackie McLean trademark hard bop sound. Right through to August 1957 he continued to record for Prestige, and by the time he left the label had recorded nine albums.

Jackie McLean also spent much of his time working as a sideman and accompanied some of the biggest names in jazz. He had joined Gene Ammons band and played on four albums he released between 1956 and 1957. This including two of his finest albums, Funky and Jammin’ in Hi Fi with Gene Ammons which were both released in 1957. 

In 1956, Jackie McLean was also a member of Charles Mingus’ band when he recorded his Pithecanthropus Erectus album. However, Jackie McLean left after the album was completed. The bandleader had a reputation as being volatile and difficult to deal with this. That was the case during the session when, he alleged that Charles Mingus had punched him. Jackie McLean fearing for his life pulled out a knife and for a split second thought about using it in self defence. He didn’t and instead, left Charles Mingus’ employ.

Jackie McLean was hired by drummer Art Blakey and became a member of the Jazz Messengers. He played on seven albums between 1956 and 1957 before he decided to leave the Jazz Messengers.

During 1957, Jackie McLean found time to record two solo albums for the Jubilee label, and played on albums by Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, Max Wadron and Ray Draper. However, later in  1957, disaster struck for Jackie McLean when he was arrested on drugs charges.

While he was awaiting trial Jackie McLean played Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ album which was recorded in early 1958. The next eleven months were spent imprisoned on Rikers Island. Jackie McLean had hit rockbottom.

When he was released from prison, Jackie McLean discovered that like his mentor Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk he had lost his New York cabaret card, and for over seven years couldn’t play live in the Big Apple. He knew that he was going to have to rely heavily on session work for the next few years.

On the ‘21st’ of December 1958, Jackie McLean made his return to the recording studio when he played on Donald Byrd’s Off To The Races. It was his first session in eleven months, but over the next few years, the studio would be like a second home for Jackie McLean.

He signed to Blue Note Records in 1959, which was his musical home until 1967. Blue Note Records paid better than other labels and offered a greater degree of artistic control. This was important to Jackie McLean who was about to begin the most productive and prolific period of his career.

Having lost his New York cabaret card, session work became even more important to Jackie McLean. Over the next eight years he played on albums by Bobby Hutcherson, Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Freddie Redd, Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark and Tina Brooks at Blue Note Records. Jackie McLean also played alongside one of the pioneers of free jazz Ornette Coleman who would influence his music. That was later in the Blue Note Records’ years.

New Soil.

This new era began on May the ‘2nd’ 1959 at Van Gelder Studio when Jackie McLean led a quintet that included drummer Pete La Roca, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Walter Davis Jr and trumpeter Donald Byrd. They recorded two compositions by Jackie McLean and three by Walter Davis Jr which became New Soil.

When New Soil was released in August 1959, it was to critical acclaim. The album found Jackie McLean trying to move beyond the boundaries of hard bop. He had been playing hard bop since he released his debut album in 1956 and was already looking to the future, and eventually free jazz.

Swing, Swang, Swingin’.

Two months after the release of New Soil, Jackie McLean returned to Van Gelder Studio on October the ‘20th’ 1959 to lead a quartet that included drummer Art Taylor, bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist Walter Davis Jr. They recorded seven compositions during the session. The majority were  standards, apart from the Jackie McLean’s composition 116th and Lenox. These tracks became Swing, Swang, Swingin’.

When Swing, Swang, Swingin’ was released in March 1960 it featured a newly invigorated Jackie McLean. He plays a starring role in each and every track. Having unleashed the melody, Jackie McLean improvises as if his very life depends on it. He plays with freedom and an inventiveness as he leads a tight and talented quartet. They were the perfect foil for Jackie McLean who for the next few years could do no wrong.

Capuchin Swing.

Just a month after the release of his second album for Blue Note Records, Jackie McLean was back in the now familiar surrounding of the Van Gelder Studio. On the ‘17th’ of April 1960, he was leading a quintet that featured drummer Art Taylor, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Walter Davis Jr and trumpeter Blue Mitchell. They recorded six compositions, including three by Jackie McLean and they became Capuchin Swing.

When Capuchin Swing was released in early December 1960, the album was well received. It was mostly an album of hard bop, albeit with a hint of the freer sound Jackie McLean would later embrace. The tracks were a mixture of blues and mid to fast tempo tracks that swung. They were the perfect showcase for some of the finest purveyors of hard bop. Jackie McLean’s playing was progressive, inventive and sometimes inspirational on an album that is often underrated and overlooked. That wasn’t the case with the followup Jackie’s Bag.

 Jackie’s Bag.

By the time Jackie McLean began work on his fourth album for Blue Note Records, a number of tracks he had previously recorded had yet to be recorded. This included three Jackie McLean compositions recorded at the original Van Gelder Studio on January the ’18th’ 1959. They were recorded by a quintet that included drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Sonny Clark and trumpeter Donald Byrd. However, the three tracks weren’t  enough for an album so Jackie McLean returned to the studio.

On the ‘1st’ of September 1960, led a sextet that included drummer Art Taylor, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Kenny Drew, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks. They recorded two Jackie McLean compositions and Tina Brooks’ Isle Of Java. As usual, Alfred Lion took charge of production of the tracks that completed Jackie’s Bag.

Blue Note Records scheduled the release of Jackie’s Bag in June 1961. When critics heard the album they didn’t think it was Jackie McLean’s most innovative album. It was an album of two sides. 

The strongest material came from the second session, and the addition of Tina Brooks was a masterstroke. He proved to be the perfect foil for Jackie McLean, and the interplay between the pair is among the highlights of the album. It was mostly an album of hard bop but sometimes, Jackie McLean showed his more adventurous side. It was as if he was yearning to break free and try something new.


Just seven months after the release of Jackie’s Bag, Jackie McLean returned with his next album   Bluesnik in February 1962. It had been recorded on the ‘6th’ of January 1961.

Jackie McLean headed to the Van Gelder Studio to record with his quintet. It featured drummer Pete La Roca, bassist Doug Watkins, pianist Kenny Drew and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. They recorded six compositions that became Bluesnik, including three by Jackie McLean.

Bluesnik was released in February 1962 and was hailed not just as Jackie McLean’s most accessible album for Blue Note Records but his strongest. He blew hard on Bluesnik which was an album that swings thanks to the all-star rhythm section. The band blazes their way through Bluesnik which is mostly an album of hard bop and blues. Sometimes becomes more adventurous as Jackie McLean experiments on Bluesnik. This he continued to do on his next album A Fickle Sonance.

A Fickle Sonance.

Nine months after he recorded Bluesnik, Jackie McLean returned to the Van Gelder Studio on October the ‘26th’ 1961 to record what became a A Fickle Sonance. That day he led a talented and versatile quintet which featured some familiar faces as well as a newcomer. 

Joining Jackie McLean was a new rhythm section of drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Butch Warren. They were joined by pianist Sonny Clark. Another newcomer was trumpeter Tommy Turrentine. The band wrote or cowrote four of the six compositions on A Fickle Sonance.

Jackie McLean had written two new compositions, Subdued and A Fickle Sonance. Sonny Clark penned Sundu, Tommy Turrentine contributed Enitnerrut and Butch Warren wrote Lost which closed the album. However, Sonny Clark arrived at the sessions with an exciting find.

He had been at Thelonious Monk’s house when it’s claimed he discovered the lead sheet to Two Timer. Sonny Clark finished the composition which he renamed Five Will Get You Ten. It was credited to Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark and would open the album.

Just like his previous albums, Rudy Van Gelder was the engineer and Alfred Lion produced A Fickle Sonance. The session lasted just the one day, and thirteen months later A Fickle Sonance was released by Blue Note Records.

On its release in November 1962, most critics welcomed and were won over by A Fickle Sonance. It was Jackie McLean doing what he did best, playing hard bop. This was something he had been doing since he released his debut album. However, Jackie McLean was determined to take hard bop in a new direction on A Fickle Sonance. 

Just like on Bluesnik, Jackie McLean’s playing had a swinging, bluesy style and he played with speed, and power. However, this time around, Jackie McLean was accompanied by what was essentially a new band. 

They were the perfect foil for him and he seemed to be reinvigorated. His playing was imaginative and inventive as he showcased his unique sound. It was raw, emotive and piercing almost shrill. Although he had honed a bluesy style, sometimes gospel-tinged was the best way to describe Jackie McLean’s style on A Fickle Sonance. However, the best way to describe him is versatile.

Five Will Get You Ten opens A Fickle Sonance. Straight away Jackie McLean’s alto saxophone has that shrill sound as it swings and quivers. He plays with speed and power and the band match him every step of the way. When the solos come around his playing is aggressive and edgy, while Tommy Turrentine and Sonny Clark’s are much more laid back. Meanwhile, Billy Higgins’ drums add energy and are like a musical spark plug that propels the arrangement along. Although everyone plays their part in the sound and success of the track, it’s bandleader Jackie McLean who steals the show.

The tempo drops on the ballad Subdued, where Jackie McLean’s alto saxophone takes centrestage. He plays within himself and shows restraint. His playing is expressive, emotive and takes on a ruminative sound. It allows the listener to reflect and during this beautiful Subdued composition that shows another side to Jackie McLean.

 As Sundu unfolds, the piano answers the horns’ call. Then when it’s time for Jackie McLean’s solo its simple, unfussy and in a bluesy. Sonny Clark’s piano solo is also bluesy and his finger fly across the keyboard as he plays one of his best solos on this memorable blues.

Dissonant describes the introduction to A Fickle Sonance. This is akin to a curveball because soon, it’s all change as the band moves through the gears into a quick swing. They keep things tight, especially during the main melodic statement. Later, the modal changes result in some of the finest solos on the album. Sonny Clark once again plays a starring role and latterly plays with an inventiveness and power that inspires the rest of quintet to greater heights.  

Tommy Turrentine wrote the funky, minor themed Enitnerrut. It features some of the best soloing on  A Fickle Sonance from every member of the band. The rest of this truly talented  quintet enjoy the opportunity to shine and their fifteen minutes of fame. 

Butch Warren’s Lost closes A Fickle Sonance and is similar to Enitnerrut. It veers between a Latin feel to a swaggering swing. At one point, Butch Warren unleashes a solo and showcases his considerable skills on what’s the perfect way to close the album.

By the time Jackie McLean rebased A Fickle Sonance he had spent a decade forging his own unique sound. Critics and jazz fans recognised Jackie McLean’s alto saxophone whether he was bandleader or sideman. He was by 1962, one of the hardest working musicians signed to Blue Note Records.

He became a professional musician eleven years earlier, and was enjoying the most successful period of his career. He had signed to Blue Note Records in 1959, and three years later, A Fickle Sonance was the sixth album that Jackie McLean had released. It was also one of the best and just like his previous album Bluesnik it was one of his most accessible.

By 1962, Jackie McLean was trying to rebuild his life after a number of years when he was addicted to heroin. It looked as if he was about to follow in the footsteps of his mentor Charlie Parker and waste his talent. However, three years after the death of Bird, Jackie McLean received a wake up call.

He was found guilty of narcotics charges and sentenced to an eleven month jail sentence on the infamous Rikers Island. He spent most of 1958 in prison and only played on two albums that year. 

Four years later, he was still making up for lost time and rebuilding a career that promised so much. He was a prolific musician who spent much of his time in the studio working as a sideman and recording six solo albums. This includes A Fickle Sonance it marked the end of a chapter in his career. He was about to embrace avant-garde and free jazz from his next album. This move would divide the opinion of critics who either preferred his old sound, or his modernist music.

Of the first six albums that Jackie McLean recorded for Blue Note Records, Capuchin Swing, Bluesnik and A Fickle Sonance feature the maverick alto saxophonist at his very best as he rebuilt his career. Recently, A Fickle Sonance was reissued by Blue Note Records on vinyl and ths is an opportunity to discover or rediscover the delights of the album that marked the end of an era for Jackie McLean.

Jackie McLean-A Fickle Sonance.

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