Saxophonist McClean Makes Vintage Sounds for Modern Ears


Al McLean performs with the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal.

(Photo: Randy Cole)

Saxophonist Al McLean might be the only jazz musician in Montreal who sits in on three well-known jam sessions in town, every single week. He’s at Upstairs on Mondays, Diese Onze on Tuesdays and Grumpy’s on Wednesdays. He’s there not only to play; McLean also generates clients for his side business. He is famous around the city as the go-to saxophone restoration expert, particularly for rare, vintage horns.

McLean—who is a professor of Jazz Saxophone, Jazz Combo, Jazz Composition, Jazz Theory, and Advanced Improvisation at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music—has shared the stage with several jazz luminaries, including Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cobb and Lenny White.

McLean recently celebrated the release of Frontiers (Cellar Live), his second recording with veteran Los Angeles-based saxophonist-composer Azar Lawrence, which pays tribute music and spirit of John Coltrane.

Growing up in Esquimalt, a suburb of Victoria, British Columbia, McLean participated in his high school’s jazz program, playing in the school band. His music teacher gave him a few records, including John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which seemed to ignite something in the young saxophonist. “That was the first real, non-poppy jazz that I had access to. Spiritual art music,” he recalled.

“He is the primary reason I got into music, and the saxophone,” said McLean of Coltrane’s profound influence. “I decided that would be my mission, to get close to making listeners feel some of the way I feel while listening to Coltrane. There’s something so visceral about his music. And that’s how I feel about Azar’s music. It’s shocking, the depth of it.”

In 1995, at age 18, McLean arrived in Montreal to attend McGill’s music school, where he went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Jazz Performance (both with honors). “You don’t have to go to school to play music, but of course, it helps,” he said. “The important thing is that it puts you in an environment with like-minded people. It gives you a head-start on studio and recording experience, playing every day, learning new material really fast.”

Within two years, McLean was getting hired for gigs around town, subbing in various groups and playing in pianist Vic Vogel’s big band, founded in 1967. At only 20, he was excited to be playing in a band that didn’t feature his peers, but rather his teachers and established professionals.

McLean worked on cruise ships for a period of five years, sailing between Vancouver and Alaska, Singapore and Hong Kong. He also spent several years working as a vehicle inspector, while gigging three nights a week at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and attending as many jam sessions as he could.

But over time, the demands of his day job and busy performance schedule left McLean feeling burnt out. So he took a year off to begin learning how to repair instruments. “I had two C melody saxophones hanging around—novelty horns, not something people want,” he recalled. “I got my model-airplane building supplies out, rebuilt them and started becoming proficient at it.”

McLean now has musicians from all over the world shipping him their saxophones for repair, but he focuses on local professionals’ instruments. “People know they can find me at the jam sessions. It’s not uncommon for me to walk in with one horn and walk out with three.”

Restoration led McLean to Montreal photographer and filmmaker Randy Cole (co-producer of both McLean-Lawrence albums), who was selling vintage horns at the time. “I was basically buying saxophones that didn’t work, and fixing them,” said McLean. “I thought if I built them up and did a quick demonstration video—if I could prove that they not only worked, but worked extremely well—that would increase their value.”

Cole suggested creating mini-documentaries portraying McLean playing these restored vintage instruments, and so began their collaboration on a series of short films: Jazz, Period.

“We started sourcing vintage saxophones and churning out beautiful restorations of rare, hard-to-come-by instruments I’d otherwise never see—strange, discontinued one-off designs.”

McLean first met Lawrence (who succeeded John Coltrane in McCoy Tyner’s group and has played with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and Freddie Hubbard) while sharing the stage at a Lenox Lounge jam session in Harlem.

“I didn’t recognize him,” recalled McLean. “We played [Frank Foster’s] ‘Simone’ together. He gave me his card, and I said to myself ‘Oh! That’s the guy from the post-Coltrane McCoy stuff!’”

The two stayed in contact, later playing a weekend at Upstairs in Montreal, followed by the recording of Conduit (2015). “Al McLean plays at a very high level,” Lawrence reflects in an upcoming film in the Jazz, Period. series. “He has plenty to say. I feel he’s endeavoring to express himself so that we can feel it.”

Captured in nearly one uninterrupted take, Frontiers, the second Lawrence-McLean collaboration, is rooted in mid- to late 1960’s classics. Offering superb musicianship and brawny interpretations, the album spans medium-tempo minor-key modal tunes—Coltrane’s classic “Lonnie’s Lament” and Lawrence’s “Mystic Journey”—as well as two Thelonious Monk ballads, McLean’s “Get Up” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring.”

A rhythm section of established Montreal players—pianist Paul Shrofel, bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Greg Ritchie—provides solid support throughout.

“Playing with Azar really kicks my ass,” reflected McLean, “because he has so much energy. There’s so much meaning in his playing, so much décollage. It’s like a fighter jet pointing its nose straight up to space. Maximum thrust. I think to myself, ‘Wow, what do I play after that?’ It’s a cross between finding my own voice and being completely dumfounded.”

McLean has an appreciation for vintage craftsmanship. “I drive a 1959 Pontiac. These old things have a certain character that you don’t see anymore,” he mused. “It’s the same with the horns I restore; they’re all handmade. They’re works of art, each different—especially with the engraving. There used to be a huge emphasis on the aesthetic, same as with vintage cars. Also, I’m 6′ 7″, so I don’t fit into new vehicles very easily.”

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