Recorded on March 19, 1962 at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Jackie McLean had always been a highly emotional soloist, so it makes sense that he was one of the first hard bop veterans to find a new voice in the burning intensity of jazz's emerging avant-garde. McLean had previously experimented with Coltrane's angular modes and scales and Ornette's concept of chordal freedom, but Let Freedom Ring was the landmark masterpiece where he put everything together and ushered in the era of the modernists at Blue Note. A number of saxophonists were beginning to explore the ability of the instrument to mimic human cries of passion, and here McLean perfected a long, piercing squeal capable of expressing joy, anguish, fury, and more. The music on Let Freedom Ring remained more rooted in hard bop structure than Coleman's, and McLean was still recognizably himself, but that was precisely what was revolutionary about the album: It validated the avant-garde aesthetic, demonstrating that it had enough value to convert members of the old guard, and wasn't just the province of radical outcasts. There are only four pieces, one of which is the surging Bud Powell ballad "I'll Keep Loving You"; the other three are McLean originals ("Melody for Melonae," "Rene," and "Omega," dedicated to his daughter, son, and mother respectively) that spotlight his tremendous inventiveness on extended material and amaze with a smoldering fire that never lets up. Pianist Walter Davis takes the occasional solo, but the record is McLean's statement of purpose, and he accordingly dominates the proceedings, with the busy, free-flowing dialogues of bassist Herbie Lewis and Ornette drummer Billy Higgins pushing him to even greater heights. The success of Let Freedom Ring paved the way for a bumper crop of other modernist innovators to join the Blue Note roster and, artistically, it still stands with One Step Beyond as McLean's greatest work.
All Music Guide
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A new look at LET FREEDOM RING
In a sense, Blue Note got two alto saxophonists when it signed Jackie McLean to a contract late in 1958. One was a master of the bebop vernacular who had helped usher in the more caustic and percussion-driven hard-bop era, and who can be heard to best advantage on Freddie Redd's 1960 masterpiece Music From "The Connection". The second was a more restless, exploratory soul attuned to where contemporaries such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were headed, who sought his own path into the new music. This renegade side of McLean's personality is well described in the memorable liner notes the saxophonist wrote for the original release of the present album, and could be heard in embryo as early as his first date as a leader for the label, when the version of "Quadrangle" that McLean describes was recorded. (That performance can be heard on Jackie's Bag, which is also available in the RVG Series.)
There were other signs of transition on subsequent Blue Note recordings, including the title tracks from the 1961 sessions Bluesnik and A Fickle Sonance; and there were even instances after Let Freedom Ring was taped (including a quintet session with Kenny Dorham and Sonny Clark done later in 1962) in which McLean reverted to his more established instrumental persona. Yet the present album announced that he had found the means to a more complete and contemporary means of expression, achieved primarily through the use of the modal structures that Miles Davis had popularized through his Kind Of Blue recording. Together with supporting players who shared both McLean's modernist foundation and trademark passion, the saxophonist created a manifesto to growth through evolution that is one of the great albums in Blue Note history.
"Melody For Melonae," like McLean's earlier "Little Melonae" dedicated to his daughter, was also recorded by the saxophonist a month after this version on the Kenny Dorham United Artists Jazz album Matador. There the composition bore the title "Melanie" and employed a faster tempo for the improvised sections. Here the groove is more stable and sustains the mysterious aura of the supporting vamp more effectively. McLean introduces some provocative upper-register screams for the first time here, and executes them with a precision of shading and pitch that should dispel any notions of random squealing. He also takes great care in developing the melodic material in his solo, pausing in spots to regenerate new ideas in a manner that suggests the influence of Ornette Coleman. Former Coleman drummer Billy Higgins sets up a commentary that is inseparable from the soloist and invaluable to the overall success of this track, not to mention the entire date. McLean stops playing at one point during the alto solo to allow the drums to complete an idea. The voicing and propulsion of Walter Davis's piano, and his ability to flow in and out of tempo, are also exemplary.
Davis, one of the young pianists personally touched by Bud Powell during the 1950s, shines again on Powell's beautiful "I'll Keep Loving You." It was a masterstroke on McLean's part to include this overlooked ballad (which Powell recorded for Norman Granz in a 1949 solo version) and to retain the rubato feeling of the original. The rhythm section helps to achieve a unity of mood as the tempo shifts and McLean varies the intensity of his lead. Those who pigeonhole the leader as an "angry" alto should check out the achingly tender coda.
The final two compositions are both related to the blues; but while "Rene" employs the standard twelve-bar structure and harmonic sequence once the solos commence, "Omega" abstracts the form to arrive at a three-part modal structure. Both compositions inspire superb performances, with the parade of tart blues licks in the former recalling Andre Hodeir's description of Thelonious Monk's treatment of pop songs as an "acid bath."
The still-controversial McLean sound was never more acidic than on Let Freedom Ring. "Whenever I get with Hank Jones and ask him to tune me up, he'll always hit B flat rather than A," McLean joked while discussing his tone in 1997, then continued in a more serious vein. "Some people would prefer music to be a kingdom, with someone at the helm defining what to do; but jazz is the perfect example of democracy. You could line me up with Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Gary Bartz and Kenny Garrett, tell us all to hit C, and get five different spins on the same note. We all have our own perceptions. My life has been sweet and sour, bittersweet, and I'm interpreting my experience. I'm a sugar-free saxophonist."
His interpretations were never keener than on these classic performances.
- Bob Blumenthal, 2003