It’s a natural reaction to have when a creative mind suddenly can’t hit on anything that seems to work, be it commercially or artistically.

But in the record industry the more you wander about looking for some elusive sound to connect with audiences, the more you tend to drift away from that audience as Big Jay McNeely has found out over the past year or so.

On stage he was still as popular as ever, drawing huge rapturous crowds, but his records were now becoming exercises in futility when it came to regaining his once lofty spot in rock ‘n’ roll’s ever changing pecking order.


The honking, the squealing, the musical furor that Big Jay McNeely specialized in and which propelled him to stardom as 1949 kicked off, has quieted down.

Or maybe the better description is it’s found a new outlet.

The saxophone, though still a potent weapon in a larger arsenal in the rock ‘n’ roll platoon, is no longer the primary method of attack on the senses as it had been for two years of organized mayhem when every two-bit sax player seeking headlines laid down ostentatious displays of crude musical bravado.

The excitement had stirred the masses but after awhile it began to get repetitious and with an increasing number of new young vocalists entering the field who weren’t tied to more demure past styles, rock’s boundaries expanded and there were suddenly plenty of singers who could replicate the rousing excitement that once belonged almost exclusively to horn players like McNeely.

What was odd however was how quickly Big Jay lost his appeal to record labels, who were usually the last to drop a formerly big seller. He went without a record contract for a year and while he’s landed on Imperial, a rising independent label, his only real success to date was with the vocal group Three Dots And A Dash led by Jesse Belvin on All That Wine Is Gone.

But McNeely, while comfortable working with singers, was never going to be defined by that and so with The Deacon Blows For Ray he’s trying once again to create some interest with his horn.

The timing for it might be right – a huge sax instrumental by another act was about to hit the streets and the sax has been increasingly used to set off the fuse in a number of vocal group cuts over the past year, but strangely Big Jay can’t seem to get the match lit on this one and despite a decent game plan it winds up fizzling out as a result.


Low Blow
What had stood out in the best records of Big Jay McNeely from the start was how well constructed they were.

Far from the mindless honker he was criticized as being, McNeely’s compositions showed he understood music theory as well as anyone in rock, even if his preferred means of impressing people remained his ability to puncture their eardrums, collapse a lung or two and bludgeon you into unconsciousness with his frantic playing.

Here on The Deacon Blows For Ray he exibits some of that structural inventiveness in how the intro gradually builds anticipation with a series of escalating lines, adding instruments to the mix and switching up the riffs until it’s got you leaning forward if not not quite leaping out of your seat, but then when the payoff comes, he lets that interest fade by never putting his hooks in you.

He plays well, utilizing a strong tone with that gritty buzzing quality that suggests the kind of intensity we tend to gravitate towards, and you certainly can’t accuse him of laying back and taking it easy. He honks, he squeals, he finds a groove and holds it admirably for awhile.

But what he doesn’t do is tie it together perfectly. It’s not that it isn’t well thought out, or the progression seems haphazard. But whereas on his best efforts he’d constantly be building towards something, here he’s content with achieving a succession of smaller peaks rather than constantly ramping it up for one big peak.

I know, that still sounds vaguely appealing provided those mini-peaks are providing enough juice, but to return to the opening theme of this review, he’s merely wandering around, hoping that each small apex is enough to keep you coming back for more and without something to really turn your head the effect isn’t quite the same.

Maybe if the band was given a deeper churning groove to cut, or if brother Bob McNeely was given a bigger spotlight on baritone to trade off with Jay and push each other higher, but while this works well enough to satisfy, it’s not doing more to really gratify.

The melody isn’t all that memorable, they’re using a fairly obvious technique of ticking the cymbal to create a sound that might be (intentionally) misinterpreted as a live audience to add unwarranted excitement, and after they’ve pulled out all of their tricks in the first half, the back end is anti-climatic.

The effort to be creative is apparent, but it seems they’ve just run out of ideas.


Blowing Away
As we’ve said before – and will say again – instrumentals may seem easier to pull off than vocal records because you’ve whittled down the primary components from three to one by eliminating lyrics and vocals. But what soon becomes obvious is that just puts far more pressure on coming up with perfect musical elements that are often found IN lyrics and vocals.

Think to yourself how many great vocal hooks there are in classic songs that if reduced to three or for notes being played on a sax, guitar or piano would fall flat. Or how a fantastic turn of phrase can not only embellish a melody, but define it, adding character to a simple six or eight note run.

On The Deacon Blows For Ray there’s none of that… nothing that stands out on its own, nothing to make you gravitate towards it, nothing to remember after it stops playing.

You know what this is? A good backing track for a vocal performance, one that would allow you to notice the robust sax of McNeely better as it sets the rhythm that the singer rides, where his best moments would transition from chorus to bridge and where a condensed sax solo in the instrumental break would stand out rather than blend in with more of the same that preceded it.

In the end it’s just good enough to be appreciated in a mild, almost non-committal way, yet not so good that it will turn his fortunes around and remind people what it was that made him so riveting a performer not that long ago.


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