Tenor sax player Jackie McLean was one of the best players ever to grace a jazz stage. He was born May 17, 1931 in New York City, and died March 31, 2006 in Hartford, Connecticut. His father played guitar professionally, and the residents of the neighborhood McLean grew up in included Duke Ellington, Kenny Drew, Bud Powell, Benny Carter, Walter Bishop, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker.
Living in a neighborhood like that, the boy could hardly not turn to music! When McLean was 15 he took up the alto sax, and a few months later switched to tenor. His early professional work was with folks such as saxophonist Charlie Singleton, with whom he made his recorded debut. He was just 17 years old.
McLean spent time with Charlie Parker, and despite Parker’s fervent advice that McLean should avoid drugs, McLean eventually gave in to the siren call of heroin. Late in life he would finally get his addiction under control, but his life before that was not an easy one.
At one point the drugs were so in control of McLean’s life that the city of New York suspended his cabaret card, meaning he could no longer work in any of the New York night clubs.
That event turned out to be a boon for later fans of McLean’s music, however, because he was forced to seek work as a sideman to put food on the table. The result is a discography that just goes on and on and on.
The album I want to write about today is definitely a classic, the 1956 Prestige release with the enigmatic title “4, 5, and 6.”
There are no sidemen on this album. Oh, there is a rhythm section and all that, but the simple fact is that every musician on this disk is a leader in his own right.
Jackie McLean, alto sax
Hank Mobley, tenor sax
Doug Watkins, bass
Donald Byrd, trumpet
Mal Waldron, piano
Arthur Taylor, drums
Mobley opens the set with the standard, “Sentimental Journey.” McLean soon joins on alto, followed in short order by the rest of the guys. In the wrong hands, this classic from the pens of Les Brown, Bud Green, and Ben Hormer can be a real snoozer. The unknown arranger whose work we are presented with here has my deepest respect for crafting a piece of music that by turns manages to be both mellow and lively by just the right amount. The unavoidable exception to this is Watkins bass solo.
Here are Jackie and the boys doing “Sentimental Journey.”
Another ballad is up next, the Hammerstein/Kern classic “Why Am I Alive?” This song always surprises me. The title leads you to expect a plaintive cry for enlightenment, but the truth is, it could hardly be less plaintive. There is a slight note of melancholy in the opening, but after that this is a nicely animated piece.
Kenny Drew’s “Contour” has the boys jumping from the start. This is a great bop number that gives the whole crew a chance to strut their stuff. This is the shortest song on the album, running just over five minutes. When it’s over, you’ll find yourself wishing they had streeeetched it out just a little more!
One of Charlie Parker’s classic compositions, “Confirmation,” is next. This is pure Parker, and say what you like about McLean being no Parker, you can hear Bird in virtually every note that McLean plays here. McLean the teenage boy obviously picked up more from hanging out with Parker than a penchant for heroin, Anyone who denies it is either deaf or stubborn. Or both! 😉
“Confirmation” runs about eleven and a half minutes, and is the longest song on this album. Drummer Taylor keeps the pace quick and hot, and the guys respond with energy you won’t believe.
Next we find a love ballad whose heat setting has been turned up a notch or so, “When I Fall In Love” from Edward Heyman and Victor Young. This song has been recorded by just about everyone who has ever stepped in front of a microphone, and in just over five and a half minutes these guys more than do it justice.
The album closes with “Abstraction” from pianist Waldron. This is a quiet little ballad that fulfills our appetite for plaintive cries that had gone unsatisfied during the anything-but-plaintive “Why Am I Alive?”
About the album title, “4, 5 and 6.” Some of the tunes presented here utilize a quartet (hence the 4); some employ a quintet format (there’s the 5) and one makes use of a septet (the 6). Ta-da!
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that Jackie McLean’s “4, 5 and 6” will make a superb addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To find out more about Jackie McLean and his music, there is an extensive biography of him available on the jazz.com web site. Likewise, the folks at NPR have a few nice articles about him here.
Thank you for reading this!
Wood Village, Oregon
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