In 1956, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean probably spent more time in the studio than sleeping. Dates supporting Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, and Charles Mingus were the most high profile stops on that year’s recording itinerary, but the 24-year-old was also slotted as bandleader for many of his ’56 sessions. After a decade of tutelage under bebop icons like Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis, the native New Yorker was aching to assert himself as one of his genre’s leading lights, and Prestige was bent on making him a household name, issuing five McLean-fronted albums during his first year in that capacity. The label’s plan succeeded: McLean’s LPs sold well, garnering for the altoist a faithful fanbase that would stick with him through his seminal 1960s forays into the avant-garde and his flatfooted 1970s dips into mainstream pop.
But while his early albums exposed him to a gracious audience, they feel a bit slight in retrospect, less rewarding than his best performances as a sideman and far less mature than later Blue Note titles like Destination Out! (1963) and Hipnosis (1967). So if your jazz collection consists only of certified five-star classics, you can pass over McLean’s Prestige releases — these albums elucidate their creator’s artistic development, but you’ve heard Rollins and Charlie Parker employ similar styles and techniques to richer, more satisfying ends. But to truly love jazz is to take an interest in rehearing, to enjoy 17 versions of the same standard, to chart the way Coltrane’s interpretations of “My Favorite Things” changed throughout his career, to listen to ensemble pieces on repeat so that you can closely follow a different instrument each time. And 4, 5 and 6, McLean’s second Prestige platter, rewards this kind of patient, generous, careful listener.
You can practically hear McLean blossoming in many of these tracks. When he pilots a quartet through a sped-up rendition of the ballad “Why Was I Born?”, he breaks out of the song’s head with a buttery, cyclical solo. But aside from a deft chord change in the middle of his run, McLean sounds at a loss for ways to reinvent his melody; when he cedes the floor to pianist Mal Waldron, he concludes his solo neatly, as if to say “this is all I got”. Waldron’s solo, by contrast, is colorful and energetic, riddled with sharp punctuations and imaginative inversions. And he doesn’t bow out like a gentleman, either, continuing to fire incisive chords at McLean when the saxophonist returns to the fray. The added heat proves beneficial for McLean, however, as he’s more willing during the song’s final leg to test his instrument’s limits, launching into ecstatic upper-register shrieks. These fiery utterances, not the brisk tempo, enliven the ballad.
Turns out that this isn’t the only time the bandleader needs a little cajoling. Whether working with his core quartet of Waldron, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Arthur Taylor, a quintet featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd, or a sextet rounded out by tenor sax player Hank Mobley, McLean soars only when taking cues from his sidemen. Taylor’s filthy, spontaneous bass drum kicks whip the sextet’s 11-minute take on Parker’s “Confirmation” into shape, demanding that the loose-limbed soloists play with a bit more drive. This cut gels when Mobley and McLean lock horns during the finale, trading licks with jubilant abandon and a sense of imagination missing from McLean’s unaccompanied volleys.
Perhaps immaturity only accounts partially for McLean’s spottiness: his style isn’t, after all, particularly well-suited to most of the album’s material. Indeed, he sounds completely at home in the then-modern, Waldron-penned “Abstraction”, the more compelling of the session’s two originals. Emotionally wrenching and formally challenging, “Abstraction” captures with its rhythmic instability a dynamic of real-time exchange that’s absent in the other songs’ steady, lyrical lines. Here McLean’s horn weeps over a funereal march, with trumpet and piano joining the procession just behind the beat; the saxophonist acts as more of an elegiac foil than a reluctant playmate. The piece doesn’t just find McLean at last holding his own — it also foreshadows the rich architecture and avant-garde leanings of the material with which he (and many of his bandmates) would work in the 1960s.
Just don’t focus too much on ’60s McLean while you listen to 4, 5 and 6 — you’ll ultimately end up asking why you’re even bothering with this stuff. McLean himself renounced his Prestige work, in part because the label wouldn’t foot the bill for practice sessions that would’ve greatly improved the albums’ quality. On their own terms, the songs here are very fine — the nagging feeling that these sessions didn’t turn out to be as good as they could have been hinders enjoyment far more than any aesthetic shortcomings.