Why One Saxophonist Covered His Idol

The late alto saxophone giant Jackie McLean died after a long illness in 2006, but continued performing and teaching until late in his life. One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was “Mr. E,” which leads off his 1998 septet album Fire and Love.

I’m thinking of it because I recently heard another version of the song by the much younger alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and his trio. Their take on “Mr. E” comes from a recording called Dialect Fluorescent, which came out just a few months ago.

“I really love the composition,” Lehman said. “I love the way the melody is structured; I love the way that the harmony is set up. And I think it’s really ingenious, actually, the way that every aspect of the composition … is really set up to create a kind of musical framework that at once is really grounded, and gives you a kind of sense of place and sound as a listener, but also has an incredible amount of flexibility and is kind of malleable as musical material.”

Obviously, Lehman likes the tune — but I suspected that there was more to it than that. I had read that Lehman studied with McLean, and I knew that Lehman had even written an academic paper about McLean. And if you listen closely to the two saxophonists, you’ll notice a certain strident overtone to both, an quality that Lehman’s recent press material describes as a “bracing, McLean-tinged saxophone sound.”

There’s a deeper connection here. So I gave Lehman a call yesterday to find out about it. During our conversation, the words “state-of-the-art” kept coming up.

“[‘Mr. E’] really represents, as far as I’m concerned, state-of-the-art composing for small ensemble,” Lehman said. Then he continued. “And also, I think it’s important to document the recent work of all these amazing musicians which we look up to, whether it be Jackie McLean or Andrew Hill or Wayne Shorter, all of whom are people who wrote really amazing, seminal works in the ’60s, but also continued to do so right up until the ends of their lives — or are continuing to do so, in Wayne Shorter’s case. When it feels appropriate, it’s really important to underline the fact that people like Jackie really stayed active and really kept pushing himself throughout his life.”

Another, related example: “In the late ’90s, before he got sick, I think young saxophonists were really looking for him for the state of the art of the instrument. Which I think is really amazing, considering the fact that he was 68.”

Lehman was one of those young saxophonists who looked up to McLean. As an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University, he commuted twenty-five minutes north to the nearby University of Hartford to audit classes with McLean, who was on faculty.

By the time McLean started teaching at the University of Hartford in 1968, he had already made many of the recordings which now cement his legacy as jazz royalty. McLean started as a drug counselor — drawing upon his own, previous addiction to heroin — and eventually began teaching music history and performance. Around that time, he also founded the Artists Collective, a cultural center in a poor section of Hartford. By the mid-1970s, he had established a department of African-American Music, and today a program at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School conservatory bears his name: The Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz.

Lehman encountered McLean nearly three decades into his teaching career. He recalled how in the classroom, McLean’s social skills and sense of humor combined with his “unassailable musical pedigree.”

“In the course of one class, you might get very specific instructions of how to play a Bud Powell composition, based on feedback that he himself received from Bud Powell,” Lehman says. “And later on, in the same class, he might take a four-minute solo — either in an open setting, or on ‘Giant Steps,’ or on a composition of his own — that defined state-of-the-art alto saxophone improvisation in the late ’90s. So just to be confronted with that historical continuum, and also be put in the position to engage with the fact that all of this information and learning was oriented toward doing something incredibly unique and contemporary in the present — it really leaves an indelible mark on everybody who was able to study with him.”

Lehman studied with McLean in the late 1990s. At that time, McLean was working with a young drummer named Eric McPherson — another former student. In fact, “Mr. E.” is a dedication to McPherson, complete with a section for a drum solo. (Among many others, McLean’s former students include trombonist Steve Davis, saxophonists Wayne Escoffery and Antoine Roney, and his son René McLean, also a saxophone player.)

Later, Lehman himself worked extensively with McPherson, who is now on faculty at the Hartt School.

“Eric is one of my favorite drummers of all time, and somebody that I’ve really been lucky to perform with and record with quite a bit,” Lehman says. “He’s somebody that I’ve been listening to since I was about 14 years old.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Lehman reemphasized how vital McLean was as an artist throughout his entire career — how many fellow young saxophone players admired McLean. But was also clear that Lehman had a personal history with his idol too.

“I often, when I’m talking to non-musicians, will describe it as being a basketball player who idolized Michael Jordan for most of his life, and then actually getting to study with him, work with him,” Lehman said. “That’s really what it felt like — every time we got to work together, every time I got to take a car ride with him, it was in the presence of that greatness.”

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