John McLean grew up on Long Island, went to high school in Detroit (where he started playing gigs at 16), and then moved on to Boston – where he attended the Berklee College of Music – before heading for Florida to get his master’s degree (from the University of Miami, in 1988). And then he headed to Nova Scotia for three years to teach, before finally moving to Chicago to concentrate on making his own music.
So John McLean gets around. He just doesn’t get into the studio that much, at least not to lead his own dates: Easy Go is the first disc under his own name. But he has appeared on more than 20 recordings, including albums led by Chicago vocalists Terry Calllier, Grazyna Auguscik, and Patricia Barber. Beyond that, he has performed with a wide variety of artists – among them Randy Brecker, Jane Ira Bloom, Arthur Blythe, Kurt Elling, and Jerry Granelli – while becoming one of the leading figures on the Chicago jazz scene.
Neil Tesser, writing in the Chicago READER, put it like this: “No jazz musician in Chicago can more quickly electrify a tune or galvanize an audience; for that matter, only a few jazz guitarists throughout the country can match the focused intensity of his playing. He gets a a sweeping, gorgeous, day-glo tone from his guitar that grabs the ear even in a crowd; once he has your attention, he holds on to it with quick, hard stories perched between street-talk and Olympian pronouncement.”
When I asked him recently about his influences in music, McLean said, “I’m a frustrated singer. The CDs in my car right now are by Joni Mitchell, Shirley Horn, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Tony Bennett. My three favorite guitar players are Wes Montgomery, Wes Montgomery and Wes Montgomery.”
The band heard on Easy Go, with the exception of drummer Adam Nussbaum, is McLean’s working group. “The musicians I chose for this record are some of my favorite players, anywhere,” says McLean. “I’ve been playing with each of them in varying combinations for years now and I’m very proud of how the sense of trust, and closeness among us, comes across on the record. And I’ve known and loved Adam’s playing for years. There might be no greater feeling in this music than playing with a drummer who hears the whole song.”
McLean’s compositions take center stage on Easy Go. “I’ve been writing music as long as I’ve been playing,” says McLean. “I try to write tunes that create a strong sense of forward motion; a current within which the improvisation unfolds.” These tunes feature both his electric and acoustic work, which is par for the course. “Using a few different guitars and timbres over the course of a set has always felt natural to me. I don’t think it’s much different than a brass player showing up to a gig with a trumpet, a flugelhorn and a couple of mutes.”
As for why it’s taken this long to put his name up front on an album, “My musical interests center on the physical act of playing music more than the making of records,” says McLean. “For me, recording is a little bit like sitting and posing for a photograph. I hope when people listen to Easy Go they get a little more Walker Evans and a little less Annie Liebowitz.”
Highlights of Easy Go include McLean’s arrangement of the Jaco Pastorius song, “Three Views of A Secret,” which showcases his steel string acoustic playing, an electrifying opening track entitled “Fat Chance,” featuring some extremely tight ensemble playing, McLean’s whisper quiet trio take on the Miles classic “Blue in Green” and his funky blues dedication to his brother entitled, “My Brother Richard.” – (Michael Friedman)