Monday Notes

Jackie McLean, Hip Strut. A very unusual blues

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[Monday Notes no. 94] Jackie McLean is one of the most original and modern alto saxophonists, perhaps the one who most continued Charlie Parker‘s experiments. Hip Strut is an excellent example of his unique position between tradition and innovation. It is in fact a classic blues progression, which Jackie McLean nevertheless transforms in his own way.

Apart from his great mastery over his instrument, what is remarkable about Jackie McLean is his penetrating, harsh sound and his ability to heighten tension during his solos, always making them interesting and unpredictable.

Hip Strut begins as a classic blues turn, the kind of simple blues that uses the same melodic phrase three times, only changing the underlying chords.

Hip Strut Jackie McLean tema giro di blues

After the first execution of the theme, however, the harmony stops on a single B♭ chord, for twelve measures. On this pedal, the rhythm section plays an ostinato, based on a rhythmic pattern that is always the same. The rhythm section performs this figure three times, at the end of each blues progression.

Hip Strut Jackie McLean- riff

From this moment on, each 12-measure blues chorus is followed by this pedal on a single chord, again for the duration of 12 measures. The procedure partly resembles a stop chorus, in which the soloist is left alone and the rhythm section merely accents a few notes here and there. In this case, the rhythm section continues to play, but merely repeats the ostinato.

Thanks to this procedure, the classic 12 measure blues with which jazz musicians are so familiar alternates with as many ’empty’ measures in which the soloist is left alone.

Jackie McLean is the first to take on this challenge, and also the one who more successfully passes it. In fact, the saxophonist performs no less than 11 improvisation choruses, and not once does the interruption of the accompaniment cause a drop in tension. Quite the contrary, Jackie McLean surpasses these moments of suspension each time with greater momentum.

Every jazz musician should learn to balance tension and relaxation during solos. In this Jackie McLean is an undisputed master, a superb example to study and imitate.

Until next Monday!

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