Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jackie McLean, Tone, Intonation

In a previous post, I excerpted a bit of Lee Konitz talking with Dan Tepfer about Jackie McLean and playing sharp. (The full transcript of that interview is now here.)

Jackie McLean's unique tone and intonation on the saxophone are frequently commented upon. His approach especially with regard to intonation was surely part of an intentional evolution: in his earliest work with Miles Davis, McLean plays more or less as well in tune as any other saxophonist of the period. So what's the explanation?

In this interview from 1996, McLean offers some insight:

"...even though I never really sounded like Bird, even my first recordings, as hard as I tried to play like him, I still had another quality to my tone that I still have today, which is kind of original - it's mine, you know. And that's another great thing about this music: it's very democratic, everybody can have their own sound, you know. A classical saxophone player, most of the time, they have to get a pitch that is tuned up perfectly to the piano and up to where the piano's A is, and they have to play at a particular intonation to keep it that way. But, and many, and, and many of the, the, the popular saxophone players of today sound alike. I can't tell the difference in all these guys, these current guys and I, it's not that they're playing anything that's so difficult, or so technically different, it's just that all of their tone, the qualities are the same and many of their ideas are the same, you know, very syrupy, sweet tone that they're producing today..."

UPDATE: Saxophonist Nick Biello puts it aptly: "JMac's intonation, even on early recordings, varies from record to record. And on some later records, it's 'in tune.' In an interview (I think it was from Jackie McLean on Mars) he says that he's always struggled with intonation. So I'm not sure if his sharpness was a conscious choice, or if he accepted it and thus made it an organic extension of his sound." 


  1. I had a few sessions with Jackie at Hartt back in the late 70s. He did indeed 'push in' a bit as he thought it allowed his sound to 'cut' through the clutter and be heard. (Side note - urban legend has it that McCartney also tuned his bass a bit sharp for the same reason though I have never found any hard documentation of this fact). Jackie also used to practice on tenor because he said when he then 'picked up the alto it feels like a pea-shooter!'. I sometimes wonder if that also contributed to his 'fierce' sound. He was a terrific man and an inspiration.

  2. Hi Dan,
    Great article!! Would you mind telling me where you found that wonderful Jackie quotation about tuning? I couldn't find the citation anywhere else. Many thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading, & thanks for alerting me to the dead link. The quote is from an interview that I believe McLean gave in 1996 for the Ken Burns documentary. The full text had been available on the PBS website, along with pdfs of several other interviews with notable jazz musicians. It's a shame that they're no longer there.

    2. Thank goodness for the wayback machine:

    3. Thanks a million, Dan! I am writing a chapter about melodic-harmonic stratification in my dissertation on the musical "flat side," so this is super helpful. Jackie's sharpness is so intense! Love it!