McLean’s “Capuchin Swing” Hard-Hitting, Thrilling

McLean Capuchin Swing

CAPUCHIN SWING / McLEAN: Francisco. Condition Blue. Capuchin Swing. BISHOP: Just for Now. On the Lion. McHUGH: Don’t Blame Me / Jackie McLean, a-sax; Blue Mitchell, tpt; Walter Bishop, Jr., pn; Paul Chambers, bs; Art Taylor, dm / Blue Note 7243 5 4003356

Normally I’m not a huge fan of most Blue Note-style jazz of the 1950s and ‘60s because I prefer jazz with structure and orchestration to straight-ahead blowing sessions, and most (but not all) of BN’s records were open blowing sessions. That being said, there’s no question but that owner Alfred Lion was usually able to coax the hottest and most exciting playing out of the musicians who recorded for him, getting them to “schwing,” as he put it, as if they were in a live gig.

And make no mistake, this session is one of the hottest in the BN catalog. Recorded on April 17, 1960 at the Rudy van Gelder studios in beautiful downtown Hackensack (as someone who grew up in New Jersey, I can attest that Hackensack scarcely registered as a “city”…it was more like a big town, sprawling and spread out, with few buildings taller than three stories), it was a surprisingly intense and creative session.

McLean, originally an acolyte of Charlie Parker (weren’t most of them in the 1950s?), started veering in the direction of Ornette Coleman’s harmonically loose structures by the time this record was made. In time he became even more avant-garde, going off on a deep end like so many other alto and tenor saxists of the mid-to-late ‘60s. This session catches him in mid-style, and is possibly the best introduction to this eclectic, deep-thinking musician. His solos absolutely burst with new ideas; even in the opener, Francisco, he is sometimes locked into a Bird style, sometimes veering off into a free style, but always coherent and interesting.

One of the real surprises (to me) in this session was trumpeter Blue Mitchell, who at this time was quite evidently smitten by the playing of the late Clifford Brown. Though a bit harder-hitting in his drive and less baroque in his excursions, he nevertheless follows Brownie’s patterns of development while still retaining his own identity. I was consistently pleased with everything he played. Walter Bishop is his usual fine self, playing a harder-driving style than Bud Powell but still maintaining long lines in his improvisations, creating entirely new melodies that could easily have been taken out of context to form new pieces to play. He is especially fecund on Don’t Blame Me, taken at a medium fast tempo instead of its usual doleful ballad pace, on which he is the only soloist (not counting breaks by Chambers and Taylor). Most aficionados are familiar enough with Paul Chambers and Art Taylor that they need no descriptions from me.

With Condition Blue, we reach a piece that is more of a composition than the two opening tunes. The stiffly-played opening melody, almost in march tempo, is only loosened up when Mitchell enters on trumpet, but this is one of those pieces in which the solos are meant to complement the structured tune, which they do. For instance, when McLean enters, following Mitchell, he takes pains to reiterate the melodic structure for four bars before taking off on his own. And what a solo it is, going off on tangents not touched by the trumpeter. You can hear someone (Taylor? the voice sounds recessed) shouting encouragement in the background as he goes on. Bishop has quite a chore following this when he enters, but he does a credible job, starting with a few brief quotes from what McLean had just played. He’s not quite as adventurous but equally structured. Following this McLean returns, picking up from where he left off. It’s quite a display of his abilities!

The title tune, Capuchin Swing, has a pseudo-Latin beat in the first four bars, after which it alternates between straight-ahead swinging and back again. This rhythmic pattern continues beneath the solos as well, with Taylor evidently having fun back there. McLean is a bit looser and less structured on this one, yet still manages to make his presence felt in an excellent solo. Mitchell, on the other hand, maintains his Brownie groove in one of his finest solos on the album. Bishop is playful and relaxed, indulging in double-time runs and single-note playing in the right hand that stays within an octave and a half.

On the Lion is evidently titled in honor of the label’s owner. It’s one of the most conventionally constructed tunes on the album but, in keeping with Lion’s dictum, it “schwings.” Bishop responds beautifully to its medium-uptempo with one of his most inventive solos, and McLean plays with space and time in his own solo. Mitchell really flies on this one, sounding evne more like Brown here than anywhere else, and his horn almost sounds as if it’s in the room with you.

A slice of history, a moment in time, but what a slice and what a moment. Capuchin Swing is one of the liveliest and most life-affirming jazz albums you’ll hear in this or any other year.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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