Recorded on March 24, 1967 at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
This 1967 session is notable for the presence of Ornette Coleman in the role of sideman, on trumpet no less. There are only three tunes on New and Old Gospel, one side-long piece by McLean, a four-part suite entitled "Lifeline," and two works by Coleman, including the title track and "Strange As It Seems." As a trumpet player, Coleman understands the psychology of McLean's playing and composing, in that they both come directly from the blues and it haunts everything they do. The other players on the session that make up the rhythm section - drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Lamont Johnson and Scott Holt on bass - understand this implicitly. No matter how knotty or abstract things get, they can dance back into the blues pocket and haul it all out again. Not that they have to, because, as is evidenced here, especially in the unbelievably complex intervallic world on "Lifeline," the front-line players know exactly where they are; they intersect across harmony and melody lines throughout and meet on a dime to offer a series of tonally challenging phrases and held notes that put one theme to bed and bring another one into play. The melodic interplay here is just stellar; it follows no convention or structure other than a blues feeling, and yet swings so wonderfully hard. On the title track, the most joyous thing on the disc, Ornette uses a simple rhythmic device that is found in round singing in Pentecostal churches and Johnson takes the ostinato and lets it rip, swinging up and down the aisle, as McLean and Coleman take the front line and move all over the scale (in C) and create a stomping, wailing, roaring work that is all stomping harmonic fury and no slack out excesses. The session ends on a glorious moody note, with McLean playing a melody and Coleman using his trumpet to play counterpoint by juxtaposing a free tempo against the rigid time signature of the bluesy lyric. In the solos both men switch places, and when the turnaround happens it's Holt who signals it and brings everyone home at the same time. This is one legendary Blue Note date that isn't mentioned often enough in that label's great history.
All Music Guide
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"I felt it was inevitable I should record with Ornette Coleman some time," Jackie McLean was saying after this session was over. And of course, he was right. Jackie has recorded with practically all the key figures in modern jazz-Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, to just start the list. And Jackie, moreover, has kept growing, extending the range of his imagination. Unconcerned with labels, he has kept himself open and responsive to such innovators as Ornette Coleman while remaining persistently, incisively himself.
Ornette, on the other hand, "was never as far out as he first appeared to be to some," Jackie emphasizes. As is now clear to everyone in retrospect, Ornette's roots in jazz go all the way back. The sound of the blues, for example, is as organic a part of Ornette's music as it is of Jackie's. Both, moreover, play with immense authority and yet with the quality of flexibility that enables them to meet here in a series of strikingly integrated performances.
On all the tracks. Ornette is on trumpet. "Afterwards," says Jackie, "when they heard about the date, a lot of trumpet players asked me why I used Ornette on that instrument. Actually he was willing to play any of his instruments, but it seemed to me, as we talked about the session, that we would best complement each other if Ornette focused on trumpet. It's amazing how far Ornette has gone on that horn in the last three years. I'm not about to compare him technically to anybody, because that isn't the point in Ornette's case. The point is how much he plays and the fact that what he plays is entirely him! If you put a record on of Ornette playing trumpet, I could tell immediately it's him. You know, we had never played together before, but once we got started, there were no problems in communication."
"No, no problems," Ornette added when I talked to him. "I hadn't expected any. i love the way Jackie plays and the way he writes. He's such a beautiful musician. And so it was a very good, a happy session."
The first side is a composition by Jackie, Lifeline, divided into four parts. "It's an attempt," Jackie explains, "to parallel in one piece of music a complete life experience, from birth to death. Offspring is the beginning. Midway is the late twenties or early thirties. The third section, Vernzone, doesn't follow the chronological design although its spirit is part of the life cycle. It's named after my son Vernon, who's seventeen, I've written music for practically every member of my family except him, and I thought now was the time. The last section, The Inevitable End. is death."
Beyond that outline Jackie prefers to avoid any more specific programmatic description because, after all, each listener will react to this distillation of every pilgrim's progress in his own way-depending on where he is in the cycle, where he's come from, what he's into now, where he hopes to go.
Offspring bursts forth-reaching out and into the world, into experience, into the very young's polymorphous pleasures in being, in learning through play, in playing through learning. These obviously are this listener's reactions. Yours may be quite different. In any case, the music is irrepressibly alive with energy. I would note, incidentally, the penetrating work of Lamont Johnson, both in solo and as an accompanist. A New Yorker, this young pianist had been with McLean for almost a year at the time of the recording. "Lamont," says Jackie, "is one of the last piano players I'll seek out to play with these days because, by and large. I've had my fill of piano players. But Lamont doesn't get in the way, he doesn't try to force me into any areas I might not want to go into."
Midway is reflective, a time and a music of assessment, of looking back at loss and achievement, of speculating as to what's to come. Ornette's growing skill with a mute is impressively evident as he creates a statement of remarkable emotional precision in its use of space as well as its control of textures. The interweaving, moreover, between Ornette and Jackie is like two simultaneous monologues taking place in each man's mind and yet emerging as consonant dialogue.
Verzone creates yet another ambience of searching, of digging into essences and the kinds of questions that may lead to essences. In this section and elsewhere, the drumming of Billy Higgins is characteristically attentive and resilient. As Jackie says of Higgins, "He's one of the most natural drummers I know. He can fit into almost any situation." And bassist Scotty Holy, originally from Chicago, is also alertly adaptable. "The thing about Scotty." says Jackie, "is that he's got the spirit. I mean not only his conception and his sound but his willingness to listen, to study, to be really part of a group." As for Jackie himself, here and throughout the session there are his further explorations of the possibilities of time and textures and also his exploration of the very horn itself. He's into the full range of the instrument. He is. in sum. inside the instrument.
The Inevitable End speaks for itself - the last ("lies of what has been, of what might have been. These are sounds that might well be part of the climate of a Samuel Beckett novel or play. And the voice which emerges toward the very end is appropriately that of the composer.
The second side contains two originals by Ornette Coleman. Of the buoyant Old Gospel, Jackie says, "This has a real old-time churchy feeling. Some may think it unique coming from Ornette but I knew it was there-deep down inside him-all the time." To Ornette, the song recalls "the type of rhythmning sound that people responded to in the South. And not only in church. This is the kind of religious belief you can see in the streets. These are the sounds of people happy that they've had a blessing. The feeling we got in that piece made me feel happy about just growing up in America. There are a lot of good memories in that piece, and not of the bad ones. Old Gospel is not about being good or being bad. It's about being."
And Alfred Lion, who produced the session, says of Old Gospel: "It's one of the most inspired pieces I've recorded in years. There seems to be no end to the exuberance."
From the unabashed joy of Old Gospel, Ornette turns to the subtleties and ambiguities of Strange As It Seems. "It starts," Ornette points out, "with Jackie playing the melody very slowly. Meanwhile I'm playing the trumpet in a different tempo-a free tempo. The title came from my feeling about the song-it's a combination of elements which are quite different from each other but at the same time are involved in a deep relationship. It's like a love affair with someone who might not care about your philosophy but who loves you a great deal." For this listener, it's an unusually provocative piece, and I expect that each listening will reveal more of what it has to say and more of the intersecting opposites within each of those who hear it.
The album as a whole reminded me of what Ornette has told columnist Ralph Gleason: "Why I like music is that it's like walking down the street naked." Part of the unnecessary clothes that get in the way of music, Ornette has always felt, are the labels which are put on the different ways different people feel and express the music inside them. Jackie McLean agrees, "I don't want to hear any more." he says "about bebop or hard bop or this or that category. Titles hang things up. The music is just good or bad." To which Ornette adds: "There's no bad music, only bad musicians."
Here without worrying as to what niche it fits into, just become part of what's happening. And what's happening, in Ornette's term, is what always happens with the best of music-it "gets the present to exist."
-Nat Hentoff (original liner notes)