Jackie McLean - Destination Out!

Blue Note

Destination Out Cover

Original release date: September 20, 1963; Re-release date (remastered by Rudy Van Gelder) August 10, 2004

Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, August 5, 1963


Grachan Moncur III (trombone)
Jackie McLean (alto saxophone)
Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone)
Larry Ridley (bass)
Roy Haynes (drums)


Love and Hate, Esoteric, Kahlil The Prophet, Riff Raff


Jackie McLean's life was a life of jazz. His father, John, who died in 1939 when Jackie McLean was just 7, played guitar in Tiny Bradshaw’s orchestra. Raised in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem in New York, Jackie McLean grew up as a teenager with the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk as local role models. His school friend, with whom he formed a band before he was 15, was Sonny Rollins. Jackie's stepfather ran a local jazz record store and it was there that he met and befriended Bud Powell’s brother and through him, Bud Powell himself. He received much informal musical tuition and insights into jazz theory from Bud Powell who along the way introduced the young man to Charlie Parker, then the toast of the New York club scene. Jackie McLean had been bought a soprano sax by his mother at an early age but had traded this up to an alto sax, the largest size that his family could afford. As the all time supreme exponent of alto sax, Charlie Parker was a real idol.

In a radio interview to publicise his 1999 album "Nature Boy", Jackie McLean gave some real insight into these times. While too young to go into the clubs himself, he and a friend would meet Charlie Parker and carry his alto sax to the gig. When Charlie Parker's sax was in hock (to supply cash for a heroin habit), the great musician borrowed Jackie McLean's alto sax. When that sax was hocked by Charlie Parker, the young Jackie would have been left without an instrument but for the generosity of the pawn shop owner. Charlie Parker never repaid the debt; years later Jackie McLean went back to settle it.

Jackie McLean made his first recording at age 16, a two number 78 with Charlie Singleton. By the time he was 19, he had made his first significant recording debut, as member of the Miles Davis All Stars along with Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey on the 1951 Prestige album "Dig". He appeared on further early Blue Note albums with Miles Davis before releasing his own debut as a leader, "The New Tradition" for Adlib in 1955. From 1956 – 1958 he was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, alongside Bill Hardman. Here he played a vital role with Art Blakey in developing hard bop. He also featured for awhile in Charlie Mingus' band. At the same time, as leader and sideman he produced a long run of successful albums for Prestige and other smaller labels, collaborating with Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Art Taylor, Kenny Burrell and Gene Ammons amongst many others.

The transition towards the peak of his career was announced in two great albums in 1958 as a sideman for Blue Note – Sonny Clarke’s "Cool Struttin'"and Donald Byrd's "Off To The Races". By 1959 he had produced his first album for Blue Note as a leader, "Jackie’s Bag". Between then and 1967, he was to go on to produce a further 20 albums as leader for the label and make numerous appearances as a sideman. "Destination Out" from 1963 comes at the height of this Blue Note period.

The jazz life. Jackie Mclean also picked up a heroin addition and that had ruled his earlier years. With the help of his dancer wife, Dollie, he had kicked the habit. He served six months in prison in 1964 for unresolved drugs offences related to that earlier time and many said his music was that harsher on his return. But long before that he had lost his cabaret licence because of the drug offences, which meant that he could not earn a living through live performance, the jazz artist’s staple form of income. Neither could he work out in live performance what he wanted to eventually achieve in recording; getting a line up ready for the studio, rehearsing the material in live performance. This would have finished all but the most creative, the most determined. Yet in the long run this was an advantage. Jackie McLean had to be more creative, more adaptive, more experimental. He had to become adept at finding new talent, bringing them into his music in the studio and then seeing them go to join some more permanent set up that could generate income from live performance. He gave important early breaks to Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur and many others. All three together with bassist Eddie Khan formed the quintet that released the Jackie McLean album "One Step Beyond", the precursor album to "Destination Out!" and Tony Williams' very first recording at the age of just 17. Jackie McLean took in the influence of free jazz from these younger performers but he was always directed enough to channel those innovations back into the mainstream of jazz. In that strong sense, like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, Jackie McLean was the conduit between bop/hard bop and the more fluid, open structures of post bop and modern mainstream jazz.

And he had to record, record, record as virtually his only source of income. His body of work is extensive and remarkable for its vision, risk taking, quality and invention. The work of a driven, inventive man.

With the evolution of the sixties came social activism – he returned to prison to play his music and act as a teacher and counselor. By now he had adopted the mantra "do art, not drugs" and sought to take this message back to the kind of communities that he had grown up in. Also with the sixties came the downturn in interest in jazz that was ushered in by the explosion of the rock music that had begun in Liverpool and with that came the termination of Jackie McLean’s contract with Blue Note in 1967.

Yet from being at one time an almost certain candidate for the long list of casualties of the jazz life, he adapted again, joining the faculty of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut, founding of the school's African-American Music program and Jazz Studies degree programme (since 2001 renamed the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz). In 1970, with Dollie, he founded the Hartford Artists Collective which has the aim of developing involvement in art (music, dance, theatre) amongst young black Americans. The Artists Collective is still successfully functioning in a new architect designed Centre.

Jackie McLean remained active in recording and performance on a reduced scale in the next thirty years, producing intermittent albums for small labels up until his final recording, "Nature Boy", in 1999. He is remembered during this time as a modest and inspirational teacher. He died in Hartford, Connecticut on March 31st, 2006 aged 73. A long and influential jazz life, after all. There seemed little fanfare, little recognition that an artist of tremendous creativity, passion and understanding had passed away.

There is always comment about Jackie McLean’s pitch. He played sharp, there is no doubt about it. It gave his playing that urgency and aggressive penetration that is so associated with his sound. It is perhaps interesting to note that many singers (Frank Sinatra for example) have achieved distinctiveness by singing flat, or by being flat for longer than might be expected before reverting to pitch. Yet few, singer or instrumentalist, has achieved acceptance by being sharp. It turns out that what we accept as “in tune’ or “in pitch” is something that each of us needs to construct anyway. You don’t end up with music if you let a physicist tune a piano. At the bottom of Jackie McLean's attack is just that feeling of uncertainty and the challenging of accepted boundaries that you get in the activity of listening to his music and facing the question of whether you accept this as music that is harmonious and "in tune" or whether you just plain think that he is "out of tune" and should go away and realign his reed. It’s just that kind of experience listening to “Destination Out!” where "out" is a place you might arrive at but your experience is all the time calling you back in; it is a challenge to the conventions of music but not a wholesale assault upon it as is much free jazz.

So, to "Destination Out!". It is one of half a dozen albums by Jackie McLean in this Blue Note period that could have been featured in 100 Great Jazz Albums but, perhaps with the exception of "One Step Beyond" it is the greatest. The three principals, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III and Bobby Hutcherson, remain from the “One Step Beyond” album. But by now Tony Williams had joined Miles Davis and has been replaced by Roy Haynes and Larry Ridley replaces Eddie Khan on bass. Three of the compositions ("Love and Hate", "Esoteric" and "Riff Raff") are by Grachan Moncur III with "Kalil The Prophet" the single Jackie Mclean composition.

From the very first notes on vibraphone of the opening track "Love and Hate", it is clear that Bobby Hutcherson will be the underpinning voice upon which continuity and certainty will be based. Vibes as underlying texture, vibes as percussive accompaniment to drums, vibes as vivid solo instrument; we alternate between all three modes throughout these four tracks. It is interesting to observe how much space and freedom of expression is created in this way when vibraphone replaces piano in an otherwise standard quintet. Interesting too that the Dave Holland Quintet has achieved so much recent success with just the same set up.

Grachan Moncur III contributes lithe and expressive trombone with none of the ugly slides that so often marr the instrument's delivery. His registration of note is so accurate that he might almost be playing a valved instrument such as a euphonium.

Jackie McLean' s playing on alto sax is as every bit acerbic and challenging as we have come expect except that here there is the strong sense that he has refined down what he has to say to its elements.

"Love and Hate" is a slow, almost dirge like opener. It tells you that this is going to be something different to conventional bop as first sax and then trombone play out long, lingering solos. "Esoteric" is more deliberately controversial, setting out with an almost intentionally un-musical broken rhythm that returns repeatedly between escapes into more upbeat territory. "Kahil The Prophet" is truly upbeat and gives sax and trombone the opportunity for long, flowing solos on top of a driving rhythm maintained throughout by drums and bass. Bobby Hutcherson's vibes act almost as a kind of ringing punctuation, underpinning the whole before eventually breaking into a fine, long solo that is one of Bobby Hutcherson's best on record. "Riff Raff" is an almost conventional post bop blues, brilliantly allowing the quintet to shine at the same time as delivering the listener back "in" to more familiar territory. And then, almost as soon as it has begun, this most rewarding of listening experiences is over.

"Destination Out!" is challenging listening even today. Back in 1963, before the experiments with "time no changes" charted by the second great Miles Davis Quintet, this must have been very radical music indeed.

Star Rating *****

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1 comment:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Excellent, excellent review, my friend. I've been a jazz lover for nearly 20 years, but I didn't really begin to truly love and appreciate Jackie's sound and music until the last few years. I even saw him play back in 1995; he was brilliant (and well-dressed in his purple suit and skullcap.)

I've grown to love "Destination...Out!" and Grachan Moncur's "Evolution", and I eagerly await February's release of "One Step Beyond" and Moncur's "SOme Other Stuff."