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Nashville Scene Wild Reeds

Two alto stalwarts reaffirm individual strengths on new discs and reissues

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 10, 2000:  Alto saxophonists were initially stunned, then stymied, by Charlie Parker's radical innovations in the mid and late-'40s. He not only played much faster and cleaner than previously thought possible, he accomplished harmonic inventiveness without sacrificing melodic interpretation or rhythmic intensity.

By the '50s, Parker's domination was so complete that many players were abandoning the alto. But Jackie McLean and Lee Konitz stuck with the instrument and found successful alternatives to mimicking Parker. Each of these men has maintained his skills in the decades since, and both are now celebrated with simultaneous releases of new material and reissues.

McLean's Nature Boy is his first session in almost four years, while Vertigo compiles material from 1962 and 1963. Konitz, who had numerous European and independent releases during the '80s and '90s, returns to Blue Note with Another Shade of Blue, while one of his earliest albums, The Real Lee Konitz, showcases a live concert recorded in Pittsburgh almost 43 years ago. The reissues reaffirm how fresh McLean's and Konitz's music was when it first came out, while the contemporary releases offer current takes on standards and originals.

The son of a jazz guitarist, McLean made his professional debut in 1951 with Miles Davis. He spent his developing years playing in a mid-'50s edition of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers while also cutting several jam-session-styled releases for Prestige with Donald Byrd. Though he has always cited Parker as an influence, McLean had (and maintains) his own immediately identifiable approach. He's among the most forceful alto soloists ever, delivering crisp, razor-sharp lines. He was also among the few hard-bop specialists who willingly joined the avant-garde ranks during the '60s, though by the '70s, he had returned to more standard settings. Over the years, though, his wiry solos haven't lost any focus or impact.

Konitz, at 73 almost five years older than McLean, was among the first proponents of what later became known as the "cool" school. He began attracting attention as a soloist with Claude Thornhill's band in 1947 and was later part of the Miles Davis Nonet that recorded the unforgettable Birth of the Cool dates from 1948-1950. Konitz also studied and played with the controversial Chicago pianist Lennie Tristano, who urged him to keep searching for his own voice and to ignore prevailing trends. The saxophonist subsequently played in another unusual aggregation, Stan Kenton's early-'50s orchestra, before becoming an established bandleader in the mid-'50s.

What makes McLean and Konitz so fascinating is that while both have always been identified with certain styles of jazz, they've also ventured well outside the mold. Besides his free albums, McLean has done concept dates, no-holds-barred sax duel sessions, and even an occasional funk and pop outing. Konitz has issued solo sax works, duets with synthesizer, completely free material, slashing duet encounters, and even a mid-'90s Afro-Latin excursion, Brazilian Rhapsody. While Nature Boy and Another Shade of Blue place McLean and Konitz in familiar compositional settings, there's nothing routine about either CD.

Nature Boy matches McLean's alternately searing and demure alto with Cedar Walton's subtle, endearing piano and some of Billy Higgins' least aggressive drumming in years. Higgins has always been a versatile percussionist; his support on "You Don't Know What Love Is," "I Can't Get Started With You," and the title track perfectly eases McLean and Walton through their paces, while fusing neatly with bassist David Williams' competent colorations. McLean burns on "Nature Boy" and "I Can't Get Started With You," then shows a tender side throughout "What Is This Thing Called Love" and "Star Eyes." The only dud among the eight pieces is "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which never gels during its nearly six-minute duration. Otherwise, McLean has started off the next millennium with a fine entry.

Konitz's Another Shade of Blue is the second live disc to be compiled from a highly praised 1997 trio concert at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. The first, Alone Together, marked Konitz's first recording for Blue Note. On both, he's backed by two stalwarts, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Charlie Haden. But while Haden was more rhythmically adventurous on Alone Together, this time it's Mehldau who boldly matches Konitz's challenging solos on "Body and Soul," "Everything Happens to Me," and "What's New."

The term "cerebral" sometimes gets interpreted in jazz circles as a code word for music that lacks emotion or rhythmic punch, but that's not the case with these numbers. Most are long--one's nearly 18 minutes--and none of them develop quickly, but Konitz, Mehldau and Haden have created truly moving music here. Listeners willing to stay the course will be rewarded throughout Another Shade of Blue.

The older discs, McLean's Vertigo and The Real Lee Konitz, have significant historical interest beyond their basic musical appeal. The first five compositions on Vertigo marked the debut of drummer Tony Williams; the rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Butch Warren, and Williams would go on to fame both in tandem and as individuals. The CD's other six selections were cut in 1962, just months before McLean made the plunge into the outer realm.

The first five dates move from the pseudo-soul of "Dusty Foot" to a straight blues in Hancock's "Yams." McLean displays his customary fire, and Williams reveals some of his budding potential, but it's easy to understand why Blue Note initially chose to shelve the material. Likewise, the other songs include strong work from McLean, pianist Sonny Clark, and trumpeter Kenny Dorham, but they're eons removed from what McLean would offer months later on One Step Beyond. Vertigo's value today is in filling a gap in McLean's discography--and in verifying the wisdom of his imminent shift away from what had become comfortable territory.

By contrast, Konitz was breaking from the pack when The Real Lee Konitz was recorded. Fellow Tristano associate guitarist Billy Bauer kept the harmonic framework intact, while neither drummer Dick Scott, bassist Peter Ind, nor trumpeter Don Ferrara did anything to pull attention away from Konitz's moments. From the opening bar of "Straightaway" right into his final solo on "Midway," Konitz played in a smooth, yet stark fashion. He seldom ventured into the upper or lower register, or varied the tempo, yet in each song he managed to distinguish himself with a slick phrase turn or crafty hook.

Konitz, ever the perfectionist, actually took charge of the record's final editing, trimming any solos he felt were ordinary. He left only the music that met his own standards, and his melodic interpretations on "You Go to My Head" bear witness to his fiery playing. It's good that The Real Lee Konitz is back in circulation--and that Konitz and Jackie McLean haven't yet left the scene. All four of these releases prove they've still got lots to contribute.

Old pros

Guitarist Larry Carlton and vocalist Michael McDonald, both Nashville residents, are among the most accomplished musicians of their generation. A top session man during the '70s and early '80s, Carlton has been a solo artist since 1978, alternating between highly produced "smooth" dates and more challenging, traditional sessions that display his roots in the styles of Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel. Best known for his early-'80s solo work and for his stint as lead singer of the Doobie Brothers, McDonald can be a stirring, soulful stylist, equally adept at funky numbers and compelling ballads. Carlton and McDonald each have new releases; neither is a classic, but both offer enough first-rate moments to outweigh the periods of tedium.

Carlton's Fingerprints (Warner Bros.) includes a solid turn by McDonald on "Till I Hurt You," an effective guest instrumental stint from Vince Gill on "Gracias," and two other explosive pieces, "Slave Song" and "Lazy Susan." On these songs, Carlton's solos are more exuberant and less methodical, and "Slave Song" in particular features his hottest phrasing and most impassioned lines. The disc's other numbers, however, are basic instrumental pop, immaculately engineered and produced but lacking distinctive touches.

McDonald's Blue Obsession (Ramp) is more consistent; he's particularly strong on such ballads as "No Love" (a duet with Memphian Wendy Moten), "All I Need," and "The Meaning of Love." He also demonstrates his facility with up-tempo numbers; he's skilled at either letting the rhythm drive his voice or blending within a funky tapestry. The only curious choice is his cover of "Ain't That Peculiar": He's a fine singer, but anyone's version of this song pales next to Marvin Gaye's extraordinary original.

Both releases feature several first-tier Nashville pros backing the leaders. Carlton's roster includes keyboardist Matt Rollins and saxophonist Kirk Whalum; the Nashville String Machine accompanies McDonald on some cuts, and he's aided by DC Talk, Chester Thompson, and Whalum on others. Many songs from both releases were recorded and engineered in Franklin or Nashville studios. Though neither disc is a complete gem, the hits outnumber the misses on each one.

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