Jackie McLean “Tone Poet”

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After hearing Blue Note’s announcement of its “Tone Poet” series of vinyl reissues before release, I was itching to get my hands on one. Thankfully, the reissue of Jackie McLean’s “It’s Time!” landed in my lap a couple of weeks later for review. Produced by Alfred Lion, “It’s Time!” (Blue Note 84179), and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, with its distinctive graphic Reid Miles cover art this 1965 release, bought Jackie McLean together with Charles Tolliver, Herbie Hancock, Cecil McBee, and Roy Haynes.

The “Tone Poet” series refers to Audioquest’s own Joe Harley’s nickname. Harley is responsible for “cracking the Blue Note code,” according to Dan Was, president of the Blue Note label. Harley’s ear for great sound is legendary, so the task of culling worthy re-issues from Van Gelder’s extensive catalog of historic recordings fell to the Tone Poet himself. Partnered with Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio, who masters this series, and Record Technology Inc (RTI), manufacturer of the final products, well, anticipation was high to hear the grooves Harley chose!

At first handling of the vinyl reissue of McLean’s “It’s Time!,” as it slid from its massive, glossy gatefold tip-on laminated paper over cardboard jacket with Francis Wolffe photography, this pressing made an immediate positive impression as the slab of beautifully-pressed vinyl met my hand. Thick and of outstanding quality, this 180g pressing was gorgeous, its edge lovingly round and smooth to the touch. On my digital scale, this particular sample clocked in at a hefty 195g (your mileage may vary). Sweet!

My table of choice for a first play was the Shield MO-19 idler, a turntable made to compete in the US broadcast market by the Japanese corporation, Neat.  Like the Neat P-58H, this table sports my self-made 3-D printed arm fitted with a Benz Glider M moving coil (M for its .8mV medium output). I’ve not been able to uncover much info about this giant killer of an idler, other than it dates to the early-mid 1960s, so, given that “It’s Time!” hit the store shelves in 1965 (recorded on August 5, 1964, by Rudy Van Gelder), it seemed a perfect pairing. This Shield MO-19 idler is blessed with dead stable speed and fast and snappy delivery that’s both fun and very foot-tapping.

Call Him Jackie

Jackie McLean’s foundation was the hard bop school, though in later years, he did explore modal work. A modernist, McLean played on Miles Davis’s “Dig” at a mere 20 years of age and with the likes of Charles Mingus, Gene Ammons, and Mal Waldron until joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from1956-1958. I wondered if McLean was given a nickname like our Tone Poet,” Mr. Harley and so many of the jazz greats, so I did a quick search and found that everyone just knew him as “Jackie.” 

Like so many other sax players who idolized Charlie Parker, McLean, 11 years Parker’s junior, carried a heroin addiction with him throughout his early career. I read Charlie himself came to Jackie and tried to get him to quit, aware that his bad habit influenced many players, desperately trying to uncover the secret to his craft, leading some to heroin use.

Unable to secure club work after the police took away his cabaret card, Jackie gravitated to the studio for the money and security it offered. Jackie recorded for numerous labels like Jubilee and Steeplechase, secured a contract with Prestige, and, in 1959, signed with Blue Note. McLean recorded for the company until 1967 when many hard bop players were let go (as I assume, musical tastes had changed). In 1968, McLean began teaching at The Hartt School of the University of Hartford and passed from this life in 2006. 

“It’s Time!” is bookmarked by McLean’s other Blue Note recordings, “Destination… Out!” (recorded in 1963) and ”Action Action Action” and considered by those more schooled in his output than I, a bit of a side-step for the progressive and ever-reaching alto saxophonist. Three recordings as leader between 1963 and 1964?” Dependence on session work brought in good pay and exceptional visibility for this seasoned player.

The Reissue

With the first spin of “It’s Time!” on the idler, the music jumped out of the Tekton Double Impacts; I found that Van Gelder’s recording placed McLean’s sax quite far, just inside the left speaker, with Tolliver’s trumpet, McBee’s bass and Haynes’ drums just inside the bounds of the right speaker and Hancock’s piano, at times, the only instrument even approaching the center stage.

I prefer instruments presented between the speakers, not coming so directly from them, and I like drums to be centered regardless. Still, this technique didn’t solidify itself in the industry until the later 1960’s-early1970’s. Perhaps having Jackie positioned left was a producer request to make McLean stand out. Though a bit off-kilter, this didn’t temper my enjoyment, nor did it stop the music from flowing into my loft like it owned the place. The presentation was crisp, brash, and fueled with high-octane, capturing Jackie’s sharp, albeit at times, piercing alto signature. The pressing was noise-free and dead quiet. 

Let’s Try The Other Table, Shall We?

Thanks to the PS Audio Stellar Phono now taking up phono duty, switching between two tables with their different cartridges is easy. With a push of the remote’s mute, a button press went from the moving magnet setting I use for the Benz Glider (its .8mV gain is sufficient for the 47kHz MM input) to the moving coil input. The next moment, my custom loaded Ortofon MC-20 MC and “It’s Time!” was swinging on my modified mid-1980’s Well-Tempered Turntable. The Ortofon MC-20 was my first audiophile purchase in 1979 and still sounds marvelous.

On the Well-Tempered, Jackie was still pretty hard left and the rest of the band pretty hard right. Herbie Hancock‘s piano felt, at times, both centered and, at times, wafted outside of the right speaker bounds, as before. This crisp and vivid performance is assertive and expressive, with a progressive bent. You can hear Jackie emoting as he’s playing. The bass here is a touch soft and lacks a nice edge, although the playing is fantastic. The drums provide drive and dynamics for being a bit too far back. Still, Haynes’ drums offer nice air and add a room tone. The horns are brisk and taught, and, though the piano lacks a bit of body, with this table and cartridge, it is still impactful. The unison playing from McLean and Toliver pushes “Constellation,” the first song, forward. To my ear, Hancock anchored the session, filling the center stage with solid piano lines and inspired responses. The stage has relatively good depth and width, even with three of the four musicians coming predominantly right of center. At times, it was hard to feel the depth unless the drums spoke loud enough.

The second side of “It’s Time!“ feels a bit different. It is driving it’s pushing, with Hancock’s keyboard far outside the right speaker at the time possibly my favorite aspect of this outing is concentrating on the 24-year-old’s piano work, though, again, his piano is a bit thin, but it’s bouncy, attentive and driving. McLean’s sax lines are strong, resonant, and smart. The dynamics on this date were evident on “’Snuff” – they were seriously cookin’! Jackie’s playing and quiet vocalizing remained on the left throughout the date. The horn tone is wonderful, dominant., expressive and visceral. McBee’s bass was climbing up my right wall! Yep, my fav side is side 2. There’s much energy and interest there. “Truth,” a ballad penned and led by Toliver, with this his first session, was one of three songs he contributed to the album’s six tracks. With Toliver playing the melody and Jackie blowing accompaniment, it’s a nice cool down from this set. Everyone’s playing was spot on.

The Wrap

This record is contagious, even with its odd balance. This beautiful, heavy pressing, with its classy gatefold, are a must for any progressively-leaning jazz lover and fascinating documentation of a single Van Gelder session from August 1964.

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greg voth          

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