January 2007

Mark McLean’s Playground My 4th Year Recital Revisited
January 24, 2007 Walter Hall Toronto
by Paul J. Youngman
The show was well attended, the Walter Hall holds about 400 people, a crescent-shaped theatre, with the stage set low in the centre. The seating ascends two stories from the stage at floor level to where the third floor should be. I picked a seat just to the right of centre stage and just past the mid-way point, the drummers stool was directly in my line of sight as I looked down upon the stage.

The show started in a timely manner; you would expect nothing less from this master of time, Mark McLean. As he came out to the front of the stage, he was greeted by a loud and extended applause. Dressed in semi-formal attire, looking the part of a sophisticated jazz musician, or a returning professor, welcomed back to his Alma Mater, in anticipation of an important seminar, to share with us some insights into the workings of another culture or to give a special clinic. McLean took a slight bow and took his seat at the podium, his drum stool, overlooking his world of musical instruments and musicians who would this night, follow his every beat as he put on a special clinic.

Mark McLean’s Playground, consists of some serious playmates, David Braid on piano, Michael McClennan on acoustic bass, Andy Ballantyne playing saxophones and Kevin Turcotte on trumpet and flugelhorn. David Braid opened the first tune with a brilliant-sounding introduction. McLean would mark off time, tapping one stick against the other stick, which was positioned on the snare’s rim and the snare drum head. A muted, chromatic, wood block sound was produced. A Dixieland feel rapidly developed, on this M. McLean composition, named “Testifyin’.” As the song got up to speed, Kevin Turcotte would make his presence felt with a beautiful warm tone, offset by a screaming intensity, as he reached for some high notes and with the fluidity of a grand river, busting over a dam, a slight strain showed as he forced the notes from the horn, he reached a little deeper and opened the sound up a little wider. McLean sensing the tension raised his shoulders higher, maintaining his relaxed swinging stick work but digging down a little deeper, indicating to Turcotte he was here for this serious business of jazz and any side trips that might develop. The song ended tightly, the intensity lingered on, high energy was absorbed and the audience reacted with joyful applause.
McLean moved to the microphone at stage right, welcoming the audience and introducing his band mates. He offered an explanation as to why he was revisiting his graduation performance, nine years later. He said, “I found my adjudication notes and I thought there were some really good points that could apply even now.” He also wanted to clear up any misconceptions, so he pointed out, “I didn’t fail the first time, I just wanted to let everyone know.”

Returning to the drum kit, a basic four-piece kit, two cymbals and a high hat, he incorporates a huge arsenal of specialty techniques that give him a large and diverse sound. Every drummer has his own special techniques but McLean uses many, and to masterful effect. He will create a wall of cymbal tones, playing from bell to outside edge and changing the angle of his sticks to create different tones, varying the intensity of his strikes. As one cymbal is fading his other cymbal will come to life with a completely different tone, in order to vary the texture and colour of the tone he may scrape a stick across the surface of the cymbal. He will integrate the high hat cymbals into the lush cymbal tones as well by pumping the pedal, a loose high hat splash sound and a rapid press roll on the right hand ride/crash cymbal to create a vibrato effect and quickly switch to brushes and work a little swishing magic as the cymbals fade from brash to a faint whispered buzzing. A final brush roll to create a sustained hush, dusting the tail end of the melody, a quick switch to sticks, driving the rhythm back into gear and he lets the piano take the lead. The pianist, choosing to call and respond with well placed perfectly shaped notes, one last verse for everyone to come back home and McLean with serious intensity, and a dialled-in focus, scrapes the cymbals edges creating an educational finale - as fingernails scrape the blackboard of your memory.

On “Don’t Panic”, a McLean composition, you know from the body language that this tune is all about getting down to business. Kevin Turcotte takes a natural stance, feet shoulder-width apart, a solid imposing figure – he steadfastly brings his horn to his lips, right hand making contact with the horn just before impact, he blows to knock you from your seat, reaching for a high note, a piercing shriek, that nearly sets you to panic, he shifts slightly to his left and lets loose a tight group of notes, one upon the other, each note complementing the next. The saxophone player, Ballantyne, lays down some smooth fluid lines with a big, warm, round tone. The rhythm section steps up, pushing the song forward, driving the horn players to the edge of panic. A great song to end a wonderful first set.

The second set would open with a McLean composition, “Come On Now” a slower tempo intro, with finger snapping to the time. When the drums kick in, a double time beat underpins the foundation as a haunting saxophone phrase flows over the song. When the drum break in the song occurs, the band abandons McLean. He is solo, the drums, his percussive armada and the audience. McLean proceeds to produce a well thought-out inspirational drum solo; incorporating every technique available, using his floor tom as a tympani, pushing the head of the drum with his hand to vary the tone. Setting up a left hand press roll and playing glockenspiel with his right hand, switching rapidly between brushes and sticks, this was not so much a display of percussive authority, as it was a display of the drums as a melodic instrument.

The band would join Mark McLean on stage to flow through a couple of tunes, “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” “Looking Glass” and the final song of the evening “Gemini Rising” composed by Tony Dagradi, sans piano or bass but adding guest artists, Lester McLean, percussion (marching cowbell), William Carn - trombone, Jason Logue - trumpet and Paul Neufeld – sousaphone. A New Orleans funeral march, a joyful celebration of a good life, the saxophone was laying back with melodic lines, the brass band was cooking, duelling trumpets, sousaphone laying down the bass lines and trombone screaming to wake the dead.

Mark McLean made mention that the show was recorded by Marc Rogers, a soundman, and a bassist. I hope that we will be able to revisit Mark McLean’s Playground on compact disc whenever we feel the need of some inspiration.

(Oh yea, my adjudication notes indicate a grade of A+.)

We welcome your comments and feedback
Paul J. Youngman
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