Jackie Mac proclaimed his allegiance to the New Thing with 1962's Let Freedom Ring. At the time, it might have seemed heretical for one of the burningest chord change players of all time to announce that he was taking Ornette Coleman's side in the jazz wars, and more importantly, that free jazz wasn't fundamentally incompatible with mainstream hard bop. Jackie was king of the hard-swinging standards-fueled blowing session, and he even released an entire record of blues (Bluesnik), but he also knew that jazz could aspire to more than just spang-spang-a-lang on Tin Pan Alley song forms and 12-bar blues. (He played on Pithecanthropus Erectus back in 1956, after all.) Let Freedom Ring promised great things to come, and it's Jackie's next three records for the label that make good on that promise.
More than just a followup to Let Freedom Ring, One Step Beyond is a great leap forward. For one thing, it marks the recorded debut of a 17-year old kid by the name of Tony Williams. I'll let Jackie tell that story:
In December 1962, I left New York for Boston to do a week at Connelly's. It was the week before Christmas to be exact. Again it was a local rhythm section and again it was the rush to get in town early on the first day to rehearse the section and get some originals set up. It was already dark when I arrived at the club.
When I hit the door, a young man gave me a hand with my bags. I thanked him and sat down to catch my breath. After a few minutes, the young man returned and informed me that the musicians were up by the bandstand and waiting. Looking at this youngster and thanking him once more, I assumed that he was a young jazz enthusiast waiting to listen to a band rehearsal before going home to his studies. At this point I stood up, and having no idea with whom I was going to play, I turned and asked the kid if he knew who the musicians were. He immediately answered "yes" with a certain look of excitement in his eyes. "Who's on bass?" I asked. "John Neves," was the reply. "And on piano?" "Ray Santisi."
"What about the drums?" I inquired. "ME! -- Tony Williams -- and I am very happy to meet you, Jackie." "You?" I said with amazement and some doubt seasoned with a little worry all mixed together. "Damn -- you'll have to excuse me, Tony, but you look so young! How old are you?" "Seventeen," he answered with a big, happy grin that I was to get to know very well in the weeks and months that followed. [N.B. Tony had just turned 17 the week before, on December 12 - DJA] We had a lot of musical fun that week; the whole rhythm section was good. John Neves and Tony had played together quite a bit, and in Tony I heard and felt a fresh inspiration that made me want to play.
Tony is legendary for playing like Tony Williams right from the very start, and it's no lie -- listen to Tony's solo on the opening track, Jackie Mac's "Saturday and Sunday." (And of course, Tony's incredibly creative and ballsy playing on all subsequent excerpts.)
But Tony wasn't the only one to make waves with this record. Grachan Moncur III -- who incidentally, is appearing this Saturday and Sunday in a not-to-be-missed stand at the Iridium -- was familiar to fans of the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, but no one had ever heard him write music like this before. His two contributions to the record -- the loping, time-shifting waltz "Frankenstein" and the darkly atmospheric "Ghost Town" -- are absolutely brilliant, both as tunes unto themselves and as vehicles for liberated improvisation. "Ghost Town," especially, slayed me when I first heard it, and has slayed me every time since. The space, the pacing, the development, the vibe -- everything is so bracingly original, fully realized, and utterly unlike anything else going on in jazz at the time. Grachan, like Booker Little, ranks among the truly great, criminally unrecognized jazz composers.
Bobby Hutcherson didn't make his recorded debut on One Step Beyond -- he had recorded several times already in his native Los Angeles -- but was still new in New York and an almost complete unknown at the time the record was released. (Grachan had played some sessions with him after hearing Bobby play at Birdland with Billy Mitchell and Al Grey, and recommended him for the band.) Moreover, in 1963, the vibraphone seemed like an old-fashioned instrument at best, an anachronistic novelty at worst. Milt Jackson could pull it off in the MJQ, but it was not an instrument most people wanted in their bands. That is, until they heard what Bobby could do with it. His bracingly cool sound, prodigious technique, modern harmonic sensibility, and innovative four-mallet voicings made him the go-to guy for the New Thing. He caught the ear of Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill, and in 1965, he recorded his brilliant debut as a leader for Blue Note, Dialogue. (I am convinced that Bobby Hutcherson's contributions to all these cutting-edge Blue Note recordings led directly to the prominence of the vibraphone in 1970's minimalism.) But it all started here.
Listen to Bobby's solo on "Ghost Town" -- clearly one of his greatest recorded solos. Also, Bobby's comping on this date is just as impressive and vital as his blowing.
Bassist Eddie Kahn is not someone I know much about. He was Max Roach's bassist at the time of the recording, and was apparently a former West Coast tenor player, who had switched to the bass only recently, though (as Jackie says in the liner notes) you'd never know it from his playing here. He went on to make some great records with Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Lloyd, among others. He plays admirably on One Step Beyond, despite often being thrown into uncharted territory. Go back and listen to the way he plays behind Tony's solo on "Saturday and Sunday" -- not any easy thing to do, by any means. In fact, this is the earliest recorded example I can think of of a bassist playing an improvised accompaniment to a drum solo, and Eddie pulls it off admirably.
Of course, there's Jackie's own playing. Every solo here is a gem, but if I had to pick, I'd go with his blowing on the alternate take of the opener "Saturday and Sunday" (more adventurous than the issued version). I've included the head in this excerpt, which is notable for its alto-under-trombone voicings ("Saturday") and chromatic, rubato middle section ("Sunday").
The blowing changes are "So What"-derived modalism (in fact, they are essentially an inverted "So What"), and Jackie's searing solo is a terrific example of his ability to apply his trademark hard bop intensity and Colmanesque freedom to this kind of chord progression.
Here's what Jackie Mac wrote about this tune in his liner notes:
This composition consists of 32 bars for the solos; the form is again modal. E-flat minor for 16 bars in the first section. Then moving to D-flat minor for one and D minor for seven and finally repeating E-flat minor for eight. The melody sections are in two segments, the first "Saturday" a section which is bright and moving in contrast to the "Sunday" section, which is directed as opposed to being felt or counted. Sundays were always too long and too eerie when I was a kid growing up. Two hours of Sunday School followed by three hours of Church afterward. After four hours, everyone in church began to look like Frankensteins with wigs and dresses. Finally, after the Sunday section, we revert back to Saturday and get off into the solos with a happy bright feeling.
Jackie's next Blue Note session, Destination Out, continues in the same vein, albeit with a different rhythm section. Miles had stolen Tony away by this time, so he was replaced by Roy Haynes, and Larry Ridley takes over from Eddie Kahn on bass. But Tony would return two months later on Grachan's Evolution, along with Bob Cranshaw on bass, and with the fortuitous addition of Lee Morgan on trumpet, playing some of the best music of his career. These records, recorded in late 1963, are both just as happening One Step Beyond, and they both deserve more attention. I promise to give them their due soon.
Meanwhile, the best way for the uninitiated to get these albums -- plus with Grachan's second BN record Some Other Stuff (with Wayne, Herbie, Tony, and Cecil McBee) and Jackie's late 60's BN's Hipnosis and 'Bout Soul -- is Mosaic Select's limited-edition Grachan Moncur set.
Virtually everyone playing today owes this Jackie McLean-Grachan Moncur-Bobby Hutcherson outfit a tremendous debt. We are all the inheritors of their "New Thing" legacy.