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Jackie McLean

Blue Note

For a hard-hitting alto saxophonist like Jackie McLean, recording an album of ballads is one of the hardest projects to pull off. McLean’s citric tone and geometric phrasing don’t seem fit for lovely tunes written by Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. But on his latest album, Nature Boy, he leaps to the task. Billy Higgins drives the quartet with his sparkling cymbal-rides and soft rolling toms, making songs like Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and Don Raye and Gene DePaul’s “Star Eyes” dance while retaining a bluesy romanticism. McLean still zigzags through the melody with daring turnarounds, yet his angular phrasing gives way to smoother contours on old faves like “I Can’t Get Started With You” and Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” On slow-burners like these, McLean’s tone sometimes sounds too sharp for the hushed ambience. Fortunately, pianist Cedar Walton’s elegant, economical accompaniments and David Williams’ simpatico bass lines provide plush chords that nicely buffer McLean’s sting without getting in the way of his poignancy. Nature Boy is hardly a great milestone for the legendary saxophonist, but it shows his knack for revivifying well-worn classics.—John Murph