Jackie McLean New and Old Gospel Album Review

Before he became one of the most celebrated jazz performers of all time, Ornette Coleman was, supposedly, fired from an R&B band for playing the wrong notes.

It’s possible that Coleman was deliberately playing off-key or out-of-tune—that he was just too harmonically adventurous to be tied down by some bandleader’s rules. But it’s more likely that Coleman simply couldn’t play the music. If you sign up to play in an R&B band for a paycheck, after all, you presumably know what you’re getting into. Why would you hit the wrong notes if you could hit the right notes? Maybe Coleman wasn’t experimenting. Maybe he just literally didn’t have the skill to play in an R&B band.

“Skill” is one of those measures that’s supposed to provide a modicum of objective weight to measures of artistic quality. Draftsmanship in art, or prose style in writing, or technical ability in music, are things you can rate with at least some degree of confidence. Your kids’ paint-splatter fingerpainting is less great than the Mona Lisa, because Leonardo Da Vinci attained a level of craftsmanship that your child has not (at least, not yet!)

It’s hard not to rely on this logic at least to some degree when compiling best of lists; great technical skill is impressive and riveting. But as Ornette Coleman demonstrates, it’s also in many ways arbitrary. In the visual arts, deskilling has been underway for over a century.

Coleman famously put a Jackson Pollack painting on his 1961 Free Jazz album, connecting his own disdain for traditional musical structure to Pollack’s non-representational paint spatters (which famously look much like children’s fingerpainting.) For many artists, technical accomplishment isn’t so much a scale as a box. To dispense with a blueprint is even more impressive than to follow it perfectly. Building a functional house out of hedgehogs is more impressive than building one out of wood.

My favorite Ornette Coleman outing is one in which he hasn’t quite gone full hedgehog but is instead swapping the small mammals in and out for the support struts in a kind of ongoing virtuoso pratfall. The album is the virtually unknown 1967 Blue Note set New and Old Gospel, led by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. It’s one of the few recorded instances in which Coleman set aside his alto saxophone for a trumpet—an instrument on which he is even more skilled at being less skilled.

The rhythm section on the album—Lamont Johnson on piano, Scott Holt on bass, and Billy Higging on drums—is more grounded in roots forms than on Coleman’s best-known records as a leader. This is most noticeable on the Coleman written track, “Old Gospel” which (as the name indicates) has a sanctified roll, similar to some of Mingus’ churchier explorations.

The head is a gloriously catchy, twisted Monk-worthy line, which McClean plays with gut-bucket passion while Coleman honks along through the final off-kilter deet, dah! McClean’s solo is hard driving Illinois-Jacquet-worthy gut-bucket sax, with the end of his solo charging off into ecstatic screeches; there’s no question that he would hit every note on the nose if he were in an R&B band.

Coleman’s contribution, which comes in after the sax is done, is almost a parody of McClean’s. The trumpet makes bold statements which then trail off into sad dying waterfowl honks, or skitter away into dead end trills. Coleman leans into a groove and forgets where he’s going; his tone is so ineffectual he sounds like he got locked out of the studio and is trying to play his part from behind the door.

Johnson’s piano solo heads back towards something like conventional competence, with a barrelhouse roll with bits chipped out of it, the percussive melodies sketched out rather than completely delineated. The tune heads for its conclusion with Coleman running around, or over, or nearby, Maclean’s lines. The track is virile and flailing, sublime and ridiculous—one of the all time great moments in jazz, however unsung.

The albums first tune, though, may be even better. The song is called “Offspring,” part of a medley by McClean called “Lifeline.” The track opens with both horns squalling away, on a driving head, which Coleman keeps scrabbling at, and then falling off. McClean’s solo is enthusiastic and joyfully laced with earthy blues, touching on Coltrane, and quoting “Salt Peanuts.” Coleman, in his feature, sounds like he’s being strangled as Johnson echoes him with pounding chords that attempt to rationalize the unrationalizable.

The horn interplay on the track is like that too; bursts of ecstatic noise that make you want to hum along or make random squawking noises or both at once. At points it sounds like Maclean is trying to teach Coleman how to play, while Coleman is trying to explain how not to. “Listen to me and we can get tossed out of the R&B band together! Pppfffft! Honk! Ack!”

After then the medley goes right into “Midway,” a lovely ballad on which Maclean, in a burst of genius and or anti-genius, goes Coleman one weirder, interpolating a series of deep squonks as the rhythm section earnestly pursues its slow tempo and Coleman tries to get his trumpet to respond meaningfully as best he can.

The album is a wonder to listen to because you never exactly know whether you’re dazzled by the technical brilliance or snorking at the mess. It’s a hard bop album that got hit in the head one too many times; it’s a free jazz album that had an identity crisis partway through and dreamt of being a butterfly with a giant clown nose. The closing track, “Strange As It Seems” sounds more than a little like an outtake from A Love Supreme in which a five year old got into the studio and started blowing on a kazoo. It is a masterfully inept album, filled with wrong notes that are all right.

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