Skip to content
McLean a stellar solo act
For every musician who yearns to achieve stardom in youth, there's another who prefers to develop slowly and surely outside the spotlight, allowing his art to blossom in its own good time.
Chicago guitarist John McLean perfectly fits this description, for he has spent fully 25 years working as a sideman to headliners such as singer-pianist Patricia Barber and singer-songwriter Terry Callier. Though McLean's contributions to other artists' recordings and concerts have been top-notch, listeners never have been able to fully gauge the breadth of his talent--until now.
With the recent release of his stunning new recording, "Easy Go" (on Premonition), and his shows over the weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club, McLean has taken his place among the most accomplished and distinctive guitarist-bandleaders working in this city, or any other. To hear him igniting repertoire from "Easy Go," as well as unrecorded material, was to witness the transformation of a gifted sideman into a formidable soloist fronting a dynamic, unusually focused jazz ensemble.
Granted, McLean has learned a great deal from the electric guitar work of elders such as John Scofield and Larry Coryell, as well as the incendiary Chicago guitarist John Moulder. Yet McLean has built on their achievements, creating a deeply personal musical language notable for its intricate melodic threads, restless rhythms and quirky, unabashedly chromatic chord progressions.
Yet even when McLean is at his most arcane, venturing into remote keys and tracing bizarre chords, the sheer lyric beauty and emotional intensity of his lines enable any listener to grab hold of this music.
Follow the winding path of McLean's sinuous melody lines, and you are getting to the heart of his message.
This was even more true during Friday night's first set than on the recording, for the "Easy Go" CD places a bit more emphasis on ensemble playing than on solo statements. Working in front of a live audience, however, McLean created far more expansive solos than one is accustomed to hearing from him.
The band, meanwhile, proved at least as strong as its leader. Something about this ensemble brought out the most aggressive side of saxophonist Jim Gailloretto, who yielded a harder, tougher and more rhythmically relentless music than in any other setting. Bassist Larry Kohut, too, let his sound swell out, whether producing fat walking bass lines or bowing his instrument as if it were a cello.
The fabulous Montzka brothers kicked up the energy a few degrees more, with drummer Eric Montzka firing off explosive combinations and keyboardist Karl Montzka providing great splashes of color on a Hammond B-3 organ.
It has taken McLean 2 1/2 decades to arrive at music as viscerally exciting and texturally succinct as this, but clearly, it was time well-spent. For McLean now steps forward as a potentially major jazz guitarist who has a great deal to say--and the technical prowess and musical sophistication with which to say it.