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With this release Big Jay McNeely’s stint on Exclusive Records, the Los Angeles label he turned to after his initial breakthrough on Savoy earlier in 1949, comes to an end.

While the official tally of his releases will show that he scored no national hits with the company in Billboard he did manage a few regional hits in Cash Box so the venture for both the label and the artist could hardly be deemed a commercial failure.

As for their creative peaks, well, as consistently solid as the work has been, and as influential as some of the records were, the lack of any signature tune makes his year long stay with Exclusive seem like something of a holding pattern in the career of the preeminent tenor sax star of rock ‘n’ roll.


Desert With Spice
Exclusive Records was never a real contender for the big time, even in the relatively smaller field of independent labels specializing in mid-century black music, but they were well run and didn’t seem to make many boneheaded decisions along the way as so many companies, even more successful ones than they, were guilty of through the years.

As befitting that assessment of their overall competency Exclusive generally issued the better, or at least more distinctive, sides McNeely cut over the course of two sessions last winter and spring early on in the hopes that they might spur sales for subsequent releases that were more run-of-the-mill… like say Gingercake.

There’s nothing really to complain about with this record but maybe a little less to really recommend about it compared to the top side, Boogie In Front. Truthfully the two sides are fairly interchangeable, which probably was bound to happen any time you took a kid, just twenty-one years of age, and over the course of four recording sessions for two labels in the span of five months and told him to come up eighteen original songs, most of which were instrumentals. If you toss in the added sides he cut with Johnny Otis for Excelsior during the same period in which he most likely worked out his own sax parts, you have someone who was at risk of being overextended creatively. That so much of it, including these comparatively weaker entries, wound up being perfectly acceptable singles for the style only shows how skilled he was.

But while that might be how we judge careers in retrospect, the big picture view and all that, it’s not how audiences at the time judged individual singles as they were released. In that realm the only thing that mattered was how each specific song connected with them in the moment and with Gingercake you get a sense you’ve kind of heard it all before.

Oh, don’t misconstrue that last line, it’s not that this was a recycled idea, or some thinly veiled remake of another record, it’s a new song for sure, but it’s just that the approaches they had at their disposal were becoming a little redundant by now. With so many tenor sax instrumentals being made by others thrown into the mix, you had less chance of standing out as the calendar was about to turn from 1949 to 1950 than you’d had a year earlier as 1949 dawned.

But just as the most common ingredients to a standard desert (flour, eggs, sugar) are fairly well set, the basic principles of good record making remain the same no matter the era, no matter the style, no matter the standards being used to compare them all.

For starters you need to identify the primary audience’s palette in order to choose the right recipe to serve. It’s best to have a tasty melody that is quickly identifiable and creates instant recall of the hook at the very least, if not the primary lines, after just a few notes. Then make sure the arrangement surrounding it contributes to the overall flavor and is tightly constructed without over-seasoning it with extraneous parts or weak links. Throw in an underlying rhythm that can be savored as it keeps the song moving forward rather than lurching or standing still. Lastly come up with a distinctive and inspired showcase for whomever is taking the lead, be it a singer or musician, and hope they have it in them to pull it off effectively and leave you with a good aftertaste.

Yeah, that’s a lot of things that have to go right when you really think about it, but in order to simply be a filling and reasonably appetizing song the main consideration is that none of those things can go horribly wrong. Just make the dish easy to digest and other than a few overly picky eaters you won’t have many of these offerings sent back to the kitchen.

With Cream On Top
Kicking off with a more rousing lead-in than on the flip-side, horns honking, drums slamming, this at least gave listeners a distinct choice, or so it seemed. As it goes on the energetic mood remains the same but there’s not much variation shown, nor anything that could be called particularly memorable.

Its arrangement might not be great but it keeps the atmosphere intact throughout and there’s no substandard passage or any supporting musician who seems out of place or trips over their own mouthpiece. The rhythm is its strongest attribute perhaps even if it never attempts to deviate from the simple pattern.

Where it misses ever so slightly is in the role of … Big Jay McNeely himself?!?!?

Wait a minute… say what??? Are we really sure about this? I mean, he sounds just fine, blowing strong and not doing anything that seems out of place, so what’s the problem?

Well, how about the fact it’s lacking a really strong melody? Or the fact that its solo, which is suitably loud and aggressive, has nothing in it that makes you want to stop and play it back just to hear again?

McNeely’s parts are hardly substandard but are sort of aimless. Well played but without character. I like the sound he makes without being able to remember what I just heard and in a record that in order to pull sales and draw spins on a jukebox you absolutely need to remember something about it to get you to play it again and again.

Yes, his fire is prominently on display, particularly down the stretch he blows some impressive notes, screaming with intensity at times, but I dare you to try and guess the song they come from if those same riffs were played at random mixed in with other equally aggressive parts from other records by other saxophonists. That’s not a knock on the playing as much as it is a comment on how difficult it was becoming to sound distinctive the more of these came out.

To that end Gingercake is a performance more than a song, an extended workout on the horn without any truly transcendent moments to give it personality.


Standard Menu Offerings
It’d be patently unfair to suggest that Big Jay McNeely had hit a brick wall or had run out of creative inspiration. As we’ve repeatedly said cutting instrumentals us infinitely harder in many ways than writing and recording songs with more moving parts, simply because there’s fewer ingredients to be used.

Gingercake works perfectly well for its aims as a song – it’s consistently rousing using all of the expected attributes of a rock instrumental, circa 1949. But it works slightly LESS well as a record because it lacks identifying features to get you to insist on hearing this particular record from among all of the rock instrumentals of the past few months to choose from.

That’s the quirky nature of making records, it’s not enough to have a great band playing at the top of their game, you need to also have a great idea that brings something slightly new to the table.

If you were feeling extra snarky about life you could rightly claim this was somewhat predictable, whereas if you were more generous you could say it was fairly suitable. The words may suggest a difference but they essentially mean the same thing in this case.

But rather than interpret that as a put-down of sorts, let’s instead consider the reasons why it’s true for a minute… The biggest reason this doesn’t make more of an impression when you get right down to it how astounding much of Jay’s prior work, a string of releases that were inventive and groundbreaking in addition to exciting and manipulative in the best sense of the word in that they pushed all of your buttons.

Maybe it’s simply that with other sax players their lesser efforts contained more noticeable flaws and so they’re more easily dismissed and forgotten. With Big Jay McNeely he’s still going to give you something worthwhile but his track record makes merely “worthwhile” seem like a rude dismissal rather than a relevant effort.

McNeely in many ways had become a victim of his own success, proving that there may even be unexpected drawbacks to setting such high standards in the first place.


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