How many ways can songs differ from one another?

Lots, right? Style, which is based on song structure and instrumentation, vocal emphasis, things like that.

Narrow it down though to commercial singles and you’ve eliminated a lot of things like classical and opera and hymns. Whittle it down some more and take just rock singles and then focus it on a specific era and even though it carves music into decidedly smaller pieces you still have a variety of methods you can take that will connect with audiences.

But if you eliminate vocals altogether, which also means taking away the stories those songs tell, what are you left with? Tempo, which often equates to mood in some way, and instrumentation.

When you’re a notorious tenor saxophonist cutting instrumentals you probably aren’t going to feature prominent pianos or guitars, that is if your band even has them, which this doesn’t, and so at this point you’re down to just the basics… fast or slow, boisterous or contemplative. Then you remember this is Big Jay McNeely and slow and contemplative, though not out of the realm of possibility, are going to be a rarity.

Which means each song he releases is trying to simply tweak your impressions on the margins.

Knowing that it’s amazing he was able to be as diverse as he was.


Singled Out
The first thought you might have after considering all that is how lucky Big Jay McNeely was that his prime didn’t come during the album era, where a dozen or more songs in a similar vein to be digested in one sitting was probably not going to entice many listeners to give him a chance.

But then you take a step back and consider that an album might actually be a blessing in disguise for him, because he was more than capable of delivering in a variety of ways. He’d worked with vocalists to good effect but on singles he had to be selective with how often he used them otherwise he’d wind up becoming a secondary figure on his own releases. But on albums he could easily afford to put two vocals per side, 4 songs out of 12, without drawing too much attention away from himself in the process.

Then you remember how good of a songwriter and arranger he was when allowed to stretch out, giving us such moody atmospheric cuts as Tondelyo, which was too quirky for the jukebox trade and died a quick death as a result. But throw it on an album amidst some more raucous uptempo sides and it’d stand out and draw your attention.

Finally, consider the related fact that in a singles market you couldn’t really afford to have too many misses and still be a marketable artist, which meant that McNeely had to put forth the kind of record that got the best response over and over again – both to maximize his sales, but also to give the record company something they felt confident in promoting.

In other words, he was not able to take full advantage of his natural inclination towards diversifying his output on singles… or at least the A-side of singles.

B-sides was where he had to break things up but when you cut four or six or eight songs for a company, it was up the the company to choose which they were going to pair together and with Night Ride they sort of doubled down on McNeely’s strong suit.

Yet even here, though it’s suitably fast paced and features some noisy pyrotechnics along the way, the primary components he uses – and the way in which he uses them – are unique enough to distance it from the top half of the single and a lot of his past efforts.

The only problem was the dominant sound – him honking away – was still front and center and so you really had to be looking for the subtle differences to appreciate them and we know when it came to two minute dance records most people didn’t have time to ponder the methods being used.


Layer Cake
This is a record that puts all of its money on horns – lots of them – and so you might be inclined to ask… “What is so unusual about THAT on a Big Jay McNeely record?”

I mean, this is a guy whose entire persona is built around the suggestive, ribald and obscene ways he can make a tenor saxophone sound and if his antics aren’t enough he’s got his older brother Bob blasting away in the deeper tone of his baritone sax to fill in any spots he may have missed.

As we said, McNeely’s band had a rhythm section, maybe a piano, but little else other than even more horns, so how can he possibly come up with something new using the same old things he had lying around?

By using them all in different ways.

Suffice it to say, whether you like the results or not, you probably won’t mistake Night Ride for many other songs because of how he is layering all of the horns on top of one another, creating four distinct melody lines/riffs and overlapping them throughout the record to constantly shift your attention away from the other ones, knowing the other ones will then draw you back anyway.

It’s a magic act… a slight of hand trick… three card monte as devised by a horn section rather than a shady looking guy on the sidewalk flanked by a couple of shills.

Though in the late 40’s and early 50’s it’s not completely unexpected to find a trombone on a rock session as it would be a few years down the road, it IS unusual to have two of them on the same session, yet here they do as Britt Woodman and John Ewing are doubling up on the instrument and playing the siren-like refrain(s) that anchors much of the song. You can’t miss them, the trombone is known from drawing out notes in this fashion and each of them is playing slightly different parts for a lot of this and yet they dovetail nicely, giving this a firm base to work off.

Meanwhile Bob McNeely chips in with a third refrain in the circular riff he’s knocking out on the baritone which acts like punctuation as well as serves as the turnaround for the trombones to pull up and start over.

Meanwhile the rest is Big Jay whose tenor is diving, darting, honking and blowing everywhere else, changing riffs, switching from providing melodic interludes to rhythmic bounce and a few lusty solos thrown in at no extra charge. You can make out the drums and piano in the arrangement but they’re incidental to this because of how McNeely is able to make four horns sound like forty.

It’s noisy, a little bit frantic maybe, but never out of control because each is sticking to their carefully mapped out parts, all of them simple enough when taken individually, but when combined so that you really need to lock in on one to see where it starts and ends, it sounds a lot more chaotic than it really is.


Laundry Time
So for the second time on this release we have a perfect example of the arranging skills of Big Jay McNeely… on a song that is not quite commercial enough as a single to pull coin as they say.

That the two songs were paired together on a single is unfortunate, for even though they don’t sound too similar, neither one gives us a more streamlined hook-filled opus to serve as the clear plug side, nor one that is demonstrably different in tempo or mood to set it apart.

This one is slightly weaker, but still well worth hearing, featuring good playing, inventive ideas and a rare opportunity to see how effective trombones can be in the right frame of mind.

On an album this might be something where the different textures make it sound even more out of left field, given the right sequencing, whereas on a single the main thrust of Night Ride – the speed and intensity of the riffing which is similar to the other half – overwhelms those aspects and doesn’t provide enough distance to really grasp the ways in which it deviates from formula.

The end result of all this is while it’s another song you’ll never really object to having play at a party, it’s also one where all of its wrinkles get pressed flat by the iron after coming out in the wash… or something like that.


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