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SAVOY 713; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Even when ostensibly setting out to create something more in line with the dominant forms of jazz-rooted saxophone-led records that had flourished for years prior to rock’s ascent to the dominant form of music in the black community, songs which adhered to a much more refined sense of order, Big Jay McNeely could never quite deliver what was expected.

Or wouldn’t deliver what was expected…

Unless of course you view this as what he, and soon by extension his fan base, expected even when initially cloaking it with a veneer of respectability – a gritty balls to the wall workout of the highest order, designed to get the blind to see, the lame to walk and the dead to rise from their graves to shake their bones on the dance floor.

Then he delivered EXACTLY what you came to hear.
 

 
A Voracious Appetite
As the year was set to turn from 1948 to 1949 there almost certainly an expectation that within black music there’d be an eventual “course correction” which would get things back on a more sensible, predictable and sane track.

How long could this rock ‘n’ roll garbage remain popular, the veteran musicians and label owners must’ve been thinking. Crazy trends and fads are one thing, every musical style seems to endure those from time to time and they sometimes seem inexplicable too but those all have eventual term limits. Sooner or later order is restored and those chasing cheap hits will no longer be able to hop on some ridiculous bandwagon and will have to earn their success with a degree of musicality.

Or so the thinking went.

But what that thinking didn’t take into account was the standards of musicality shifted over time. Different generations required different sounds to represent different outlooks and experiences. They also just needed something NEW. Something that their older brothers or sisters, or – gasp! – their parents or grandparents hadn’t already claimed for themselves.

Rock ‘n’ roll provided that in the late 1940’s for the post-war generation who were mere infants when jazz excited the flappers of the 1920’s while causing outrage in the older generation who viewed it as a sure sign of sin, corruption and moral depravity. They’d been children when jazz slowly got refined and moved into the mainstream in the 1930’s and were coming of age in the 1940’s when it began fracturing and headed in different directions. Big bands had become too middle of the road, be-bop was too avant garde and thus not communal enough, and of course throw in some extended recording bans which meant new musical ideas atrophied – at least on record – and the door became wide open for something much different to take hold.

If Cecil J. McNeely had come of age five years earlier, certainly 8 to 10 years earlier, he’d have almost certainly been one of the jazz cats who ruled that era as well. Whether he’d have blown up a storm and beaten Illinois Jacquet to the punch in that regard (only to be largely forgotten by the rock off-spring he sired in the process as time went on), or maybe gone in another direction and tried vying with Charlie Parker to reinvent modern music, or if he’d simply been content to work his way up from third horn in a large ensemble behind Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton or Jimmie Lunceford and maybe one day get the featured spot in a handful of songs like a Johnny Hodges, we don’t know.

What we do know is that when rock ‘n’ roll was born in mid-1947 a young budding sax player who had played a Chopin waltz on sax at his high school graduation, who’d sat in with some jazz outfits around town and saw his buddies move headlong into bop, came to a different decision regarding his musical future.

A much noisier occupation awaited him.
 


 

A Small Nibble
So here we are, almost a year into McNeely’s career as a rock ‘n’ roll trend setter but at the time Man Eater was recorded he had been a contracted recording artist all of two weeks giving us a look back at where he began and whether he, or anyone else for that matter, sensed what was about to happen.

Signed to Savoy Records out of New Jersey, the original success story in the independent record label wave that would crest with rock ‘n’ roll, Savoy had built their reputation on jazz and to a lesser extent gospel and now were attempting to make the transition into this clamorous new genre with a series of instrumentalists – mostly saxophone players – taken from the outskirts of jazz like Paul Williams and Wild Bill Moore and urging them to honk.

Nobody had to urge the newly christened Big Jay McNeely to honk but maybe in this case they urged him to tone it down just a little, because the way this starts out you think you may have accidentally started playing the wrong track, or worse yet, you think the label or even McNeely himself was aiming for a higher more sophisticated brand of record buyer.

The tooting intro and the swinging riffs that kick this off give every indication that the title of this song was a mistake of epic proportions. Perhaps a typically smarmy ploy by a record label hoping to mislead you into buying something that isn’t what you expected it to be. Great white sharks are man-eaters. Lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) are man eaters. Anamorphic boa constrictors in bad CGI movies are man eaters.

But this?!?!
 


 
 

The start of Man Eater presents a relatively mild and controlled sound, catchy enough I suppose but a few years out of date and even before rock changed everyone’s thinking about what excitement was it’d have been nothing much to hold your interest. But we’re forgetting something aren’t we? Namely the fact that Big Jay McNeely hasn’t even made his first appearance on the record yet.

Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that could possibly change things.

When McNeely arrives though, twenty seconds in, it’s with a relatively modest entrance, at least for him, almost as if he doesn’t want to startle those who were getting used to the more timid atmosphere that was starting to take shape. But this being Big Jay he’s not likely to stay inconspicuous for very long and sure enough he starts to progressively ramp up his playing, easing you into the transition from old hat to new school.
 

A Bigger Bite
The genius of most of McNeely’s records are found in his arrangements that take full advantage of the supporting players and where Jay’s content to be just one of many solid components, though of course usually the most explosive among them. But on Man Eater he’s essentially the entire show after that deceptive intro. Once he’s off the line he stomps on the pedal and keeps it floored the rest of the way, the others in the band providing steady, if unobtrusive, assistance.

You might think this is a smart game plan, especially when you heard the others forget to turn the page on their calendars at the start of the track, but with Jay it’s not MORE McNeely that is the key to his success, it’s more variation that makes everything come together on his best sides.

This was cut at his very first session, the last week of November 1948, two weeks before the flip side. The difference is on THIS date his brother Bob was anchoring the band on baritone before his brief departure.

The problem is here his presence is muted, never dropping down low enough to make his presence known, content instead to humbly blend in with the other horns, depriving Jay of a foil to really play off of in the arrangement. In fact, if you told me Bob put down his baritone and picked up another tenor and was using that for the majority of the song I wouldn’t be surprised, though the session info would dispute it. You do hear him at the end on baritone but unless he stepped out of the room to make a phone call or buy lunch for the others and they laid this down in his absence, then there’s really no sensible explanation as to his relatively anonymous turn here.

So what we’re left with his Big Jay himself to carry the entire load. The piano and drums add what they can to establish some rhythm but otherwise the record merely relies on his tenor sax to haul the rest of them across the finish line. He’s up for the challenge though, blowing steady and self-assured throughout, mixing it up enough between highs and lows, tossing in a few change of pace riffs to keep you from getting distracted, and though hardly complex he manages to get it sounding as if it’s progressing somewhere even though it winds up not much further along than where it started from.

All of which makes this is a tough record to judge. Everything about it is played well, you have no trouble getting into the spirit of things as he plays, nothing at all is out of place – even that intro seems as if it gets absorbed into the rest of the song. It also shows that even at this stage Big Jay had a much firmer sense of direction than almost all of the other horn players. This isn’t some improvised track that loses its way, something which is the one fatal flaw of so many instrumentals we’ve come across to date, and so taken by itself you wouldn’t hesitate to say this is a good record. Maybe even very good.

But at the same time we’ve heard better out of Jay and without a more diverse arrangement it all tends to blend together without anything unexpected to offset it. You feel worn out by the end of the track without having the enjoyment of losing your mind in the process.
 

Don’t Leave Hungry
But I suppose that’s a minor quibble. We’re judging McNeely against his own impossibly high standards and though it falls short of his best sides we can’t allow that to distort the positive impression it’d make when stacked up against so much else that was making waves at the time. Average Big Jay is still above average for anybody else and so it has to be seen in that larger context.

Besides, it’s helpful to remember the effect of that context for another reason, namely the dismay that the older guard in music had for all of this noise. To them this was the type of exercise in indulgence they probably figured would do in rock ‘n’ roll before long. Nobody can want MORE of this junk, they screeched… yet they clearly did and the more records coming out that fit the bill the better that was for rock ‘n’ roll in general.
 


 
McNeely might not have been the one who started it but he was now its most effective practitioner and the entire musical order of things had been upended by one honking madman after another. Because of that shift in the dominant sounds of young black America in the late 1940’s McNeely became a star, a revolutionary figure in shaping the future landscape… and because of the more explosive, ferocious and inventive playing he’d already made his name on, Man Eater is in many ways a victim of that success. It’s not lighting the fuse to blow up the accepted order of things, nor is it providing the biggest bang once that fuse reaches the powder.

Once the explosions start and the sky is filled with noise and smoke and the smell of wanton destruction then one more “BOOM!” like this record is hardly noticed. But then again, isn’t that a GOOD thing?

I mean if this kind of record was now expected out of him and every other guy who grabbed a horn and jumped on the bandstand in rock then that only proved that things were shaping up to be mighty fine for rock music as we headed into the next decade when this kind of sound would grow ever louder and more obnoxious.

Hardly what the already cowering elder statesman wanted to hear. Close your ears, boys, this cacophony has no end in sight.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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