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An angelic release

John McLean - Better Angels
Origin Records
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: April 28, 2008
John McLean

Review by Brad Walseth

Guitarist John McLean opens up his sophomore effort as a leader sounding somewhat like Pat Metheny on the original title track. Grazyna Auguscik's lovely wordless vocals float through, accompanied by Jim Gailloreto's soprano sax, before Zach Brock enters with a choice violin solo. McLean answers with a burning solo of his own, while bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Eric Montzka tear up everything in their path underneath. Very cool stuff, somewhat reminiscent of the regions Matt Geraghty's explores on his recent "Passport."

If the names sound familiar, they should, as these are some of Chicago's finest Jazz musicians, most of whom can be seen on any given night playing in town. McLean himself has appeared on recordings with Patricia Barber and Auguscik and is on the faculty of Roosevelt University. With a stellar cast like this, and based on the opening number, one might expect more of the same, but McLean throws everyone a curve by pulling out Janis Ian's "Ready for the War." Maybe not everyone's idea of "Jazz," but I like it!

With Auguscik's smoky delivery, McLean's fiery guitar work and Karl Montzka's haunting organ over that solid rhythm section, this number is transformed into a funky and mysterious outing that is memorable, but maybe lingers a tad too long. Another McLean original, "Place Talk" gets into a more experimental vibe, with odd timing and more wordless scatting. Gailloreto offers an intelligent solo, showing why he is so well regarded. As if to show he can play it straight, McLean next presents a fairly straightforward (aside from the intro) version of "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." Again, I love this form of musical A.D.D., as it shows an artist who is truly open-minded.

The folksy "Three Arcs Complete This Circle" follows and takes us again in more of Metheny's direction across the Midwestern plains, and it's an exhilarating ride. I was initially a bit dismayed to see the Beatles' oft-covered "Blackbird" appear, but this version truly is a treat, with Auguscik's bittersweet delivery and McLean's bluesy lines accentuating the sadness inherent in this modern classic. Brock, Gailloreto, Kohut and the Montzka's provide stellar support again.

The Charlie Christian/Benny Goodman/Ben Lundy composition "Airmail Special" is given a unique treatment that allows the entire band to stretch out. McLean even brings on the distortion here, before the band goes out high stepping, smiling the whole time. Finally, the old standard, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," cools everything down pleasantly on this angelic release from a quite talented local guitarist,

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