When telling stories there are so many different options when it comes to characters, settings, plots, dialogue, that you’ll never run out of new possibilities, even in the shortest of stories like are found in songs.

Not all may be very promising, but at least you can always find a new way of saying something, especially when combining it with a different melody, arrangement or vocal qualities.

But strip away the stories and what you’re left with are merely the melodies, arrangements and various instrumental components… and the latter doesn’t change if you’re a tenor sax bandleader with the same personel behind you each time out.

This means there’s a chance you’re eventually going to run dry of good ideas and be left to meekly shuffle out the door.


The J-Street Shuffle
By now most hardcore Big Jay McNeely fans were not looking specifically to his records releases to get their fix of his brand of raucous honking music.

His singles still sold moderately well, but they weren’t poised to be national hits any more, nor probably regional ones either.

His main avenue for connecting to his audiences these days was on stage where he could get even wilder than he was able on the confines of a record, extending his performances well beyond the three minutes he was allotted in the studio and bolstered further by the added visual component that went with these live gigs.

Get enough of those likeminded fans together and the energy and excitement of the audience meant he was one of the few artists who weas treated like a rock star at his performances but who didn’t sell like one any longer.

But that doesn’t mean the singles he released were irrelevant and companies like Federal Records couldn’t get something out of having him on board. His name reputation alone served as reassurance to those not yet familiar with the rest of their acts who hadn’t yet had a commercial breakthrough that this was a label that specialized in rock ‘n’ roll.

Which is why something like Big Jay Shuffle, a song he co-wrote with brother Bob, his baritone sax player and right hand in the band from the beginning, is such a let-down.

It’s not that it’s terrible by any means, just sort of uneventful. Not honking, yet not sensual or melodic. Not an impressive display of technical qualities, but also not striving to be purely an emotional release.

Mostly though, it’s just not all that interesting. A case of going through the motions and settling for something moderately passable, yet without any attempt to leaving a lasting impression, which for Big Jay McNeely was almost unthinkable.


Shuffle In The Gravel
Before anyone gets carried away, all of the parts here fit together nicely and are played well. That much we can be assured of whenever Big Jay McNeely steps foot in a studio.

But for once the parts – and even the playing itself – are rather… routine.

The stuttering intro is about the most frantic McNeely gets here and when it slows down we get he and (mostly) Bob churning away which is hardly exciting unto itself. Maybe it was deemed a vehicle for Bob McNeely to get more of the spotlight for once, as well as to give Jay a breather on stage, which makes sense I suppose, but it’s not as if Big Jay is sitting it out altogether so he’s got plenty of work to do himself even if it’s not really heavy lifting.

As noted in the title, Big Jay Shuffle utilizes that shuffle rhythm as its main attribute but that’s more suited to the background of a song than taking the spotlight, so once they’ve wrung that dry during the first minute it’s Jay’s turn to take more of the load as he starts improvising without getting too flamboyant in the process.

His tone is okay, deep and scratchy, almost like a voice that’s getting over a cold, but the riffs are so unimaginative that they can’t draw your attention on their own. The best come at around the 1:30 mark but it goes nowhere but in circles and by the end other horns are tossing in notes that don’t compliment it all that well.

The biggest problem I think is that it doesn’t have a clear-cut goal in mind. When Jay cuts loose in other songs where he’s honking and squealing like a madman, it’s to stir the passion of the audience and the frantic playing of those records is a sign that it’s okay for listeners to lose their minds.

When he dials things down in other performances and gently coaxes melodies out amidst a more atmospheric arrangement, it’s to transport you someplace different. He may not always choose the same destination in those records, sometimes classy, sometimes exotic, sometimes haunting and mysterious, but they all stand out from the pack because of what he’s focused on doing.

But here it’s almost like he’s focused on the end of the night on the bandstand, getting off stage and going back to his room and passing out. It’s a record that’s suitable for dancing, but not made for it, a song that’s too aggressive and tough to use for seduction, yet not tough or aggressive enough to serve as the perfect soundtrack for surly behavior.

In other words it’s generic and yet by not even giving us the best of each of his many stylistic approaches, it’s forgettable too.


Shufflin’ Along
This is a hard one to settle on a score. There’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with this. No missed notes, no stylistic shortcomings, no clashing in the arrangement to speak of. Yet I fail to find anything right about it when it comes to stirring a positive response.

If we’re overly harsh it’s likely that it’ll be one of those times where the artist’s name and reputation will have hurt them, as we come to expect more out of them than giving us a record like Big Jay Shuffle where our most positive response is a shrug of our collective shoulders. So we’ll moderate our response, telling ourselves that in comparison to the high grades he gets so often a middling score won’t draw many curious viewers… or listeners.

I suppose it’s justified because if this were playing in a mix of 1952 rock songs at a party it’d just be politely ignored, provided you were talking, drinking, screwing or fighting. But if you wanted to get that party started and put this on as a way to light the fuse, people wouldn’t know that party had even begun and would be waiting impatiently for a clearer sign it was time to get the festivities started.

That, more than any demotion of another point, is as much a put-down of Big Jay McNeely as we can hand out.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)