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How many ways can you get up a flight of stairs?

You can walk… you can run… you can crawl on your hands and knees… maybe sit on your ass and go up backwards. I suppose you could even tie a rope to a doorknob at the top and pull yourself up on your stomach but how would you get up there to tie it if not walk, run or crawl?

Silly, stupid questions of course, but unusually relevant when analyzing a saxophonist who was making such headway just out of his teens by honking up a storm in what was often the most dynamic manner possible.

For while the initial explosions coming from his horn may have startled an entire generation into embracing his first few records, what would become of him when those same listeners grew weary at the prospects of hearing yet another detonation from him?

After all as with ascending a stairway just how many ways were there to make your records sound unique if you were resigned to blowing like mad?

Big Jay McNeely had yet to find out.

In fact, though 90 years old as of this writing he STILL may not have found out, for while not every record he released over seven decades as a professional – with some extended sabbaticals in the “real world” thrown in – were distinctively original, almost all of them at the very least aspired to be.

That alone set McNeely apart from most of his peers who at a certain point found the grind of trying to come up with something different to do on the same horn each time out rather tedious. By contrast Big Jay seemed never to be at a loss for ideas, his records featuring inventive arrangements that avoided gimmicks as well as avoided merely re-hashing his greatest moments of inspiration that had already set the rock world on fire when he was barely old enough to buy a drink at the bar.

Plenty of those who were critical of this brand of music, be they more refined musicians, erudite writers or merely shell-shocked listeners without an affinity for rock ‘n’ roll, who called all of these noisy records nothing more than offensive assaults on the senses and were fundamentally opposed to any of it being embraced by the mobs of young fanatics who turned the likes of these unsavory characters into heroes, apparently never pondered the question of how these so-called musical Neanderthals could keep coming up with songs that stretched the creative envelope yet again.

And that’s precisely what McNeely does – yet again – on the mysterious-sounding Tondalayo, his third single released (on two different labels) in a matter of weeks.


For the most part we know what to expect in the payoff sections of any record sporting the artist credit of Big Jay McNeely. More often than not it’ll be the musical equivalent of stuffing his tenor sax full of TNT and lighting a fuse. We’re going to get an explosion and it’s going to rattle your cranium if not blow it off your shoulders entirely.

Yet we also know it’ll be something that’s not simply an excuse to make a lot of noise because that’s what is expected out of him. Though not all raunchy honking and squealing is created equal, not even with Big Jay, his approach has been to tweak the formula by what else he layers around it. His supporting musicians aren’t there simply to provide bare bones accompaniment to keep the song’s structure intact so that he can have the perverse pleasure of blowing it all up in his solos, but rather they’re given the responsibility of contributing something compelling on their own to make the interplay between the two components worth just as much, if not more, than the inevitable histrionics of McNeely’s spotlighted performance.


On Tondalayo it’s the work of the group at large which makes this so intriguing from the first notes played, a slinky shadowy piano that sounds up to no good back by intermittent wood block percussion.

It’s the first moments of an elaborate heist scene in a movie put to music. A tension filled prelude to the fireworks around the corner where safes are blown, jewels are heisted and tenor saxophone playing madmen drown out the alarm bells. (Yes, Ocean’s 8 just came out this past week, but no, I’d written this before it hit theaters… there IS such a thing as coincidence you know!).

In fact the intro is actually rather jazzy, especially when Jimmy O’Brien stretches out on a more florid piano riff that immediately follows. Despite that it doesn’t take on the aura of being hopelessly outdated as many jazz-influenced aspects of rock records have in the past, but rather it works so well precisely because it has the feeling of being something that is about to be violently upended.

The other horns are contributing to this sinister vibe, including Bob McNeely laying down his baritone sax temporarily and picking up the alto, broadening the sonic palette even as they’re laying back in the shadows, their presence more of a sensory response than a visual one.

At 35 seconds in they move into the light a little more, surrounding you as it were and with it the threat that had seemed vague and undefined now appears more menacing. Yet nothing they play as of yet is taking this out of low gear. There’s no sudden movements, no flash of a weapon, no cry of warning, but you know in your bones you’re about to be jumped.

Shadows And Light
If you want to hear a precedent for this all-encompassing feel look no further than Harlem Nocturne as done by Johnny Otis, in whose band McNeely had recently done time and was still recording with him when called upon by Johnny to contribute something as only he could. No doubt he’d played that song on stage with them from time to time at The Barrelhouse Club over the past few months, the record being one of Otis’s first to draw local attention, and as mood-setters went the song itself was something which would be revived by a number of rock artists over the years.

But that record was still a little loud and brassy sounding, so if McNeely indeed got the idea for it from there (and to be clear they’re NOT the same song, same melody, same anything other than possessing a similar understated sense of imminent danger) he made the smart decision to completely strip down Tondalayo to the barest essentials in the first minute before he jumps into the scene to club you over the head.

This is when it goes from simply being ominous mood music and transforms into a patented Big Jay McNeely rock extravaganza.

If you want to keep the filmic analogy going (though I’m sure you all lost the plot a number of paragraphs ago) this is a classic scene cut. The tension builds, the danger level rises, the mob is about to put a hit on somebody, or the mugger is moving in on the victim and suddenly on cue, just as the action is about to take place, the director cuts to a loud crowd scene in a nightclub or something seemingly unrelated to what was building, startling you with the change.

Which is exactly what happens on this record. McNeely’s arrival, far from being the final act of violence as might expected, actually relieves the tension. His full-bodied roar snaps you back into the here and now. The anticipation of what was to come when it was still unknown had you on edge, but once it hits, even as lethal as it may sound to some, is a relief.

The musical backing maintains the same baleful mood, churning in distant unison, showing that when used properly the trombone and trumpet aren’t destined to always be an albatross around a rock song’s neck, and here they provide a perfect contrast to the more in your face antics of McNeely’s grinding riff.

He doesn’t go all-out either as might be expected. He’s giving you enough of what you need for fulfillment without doing so much that he breaks the spell entirely. Sure enough when it slows back down to the crawling pace it’s now Big Jay himself who adds the last chilling component to the ambiance by adding a devious line taking the place of the other horns which drop out altogether, leaving just McNeely in a mesmerizing back and forth with the piano and omnipresent percussion.

Suddenly you’re right back on the edge of your seat, the other horns slip back in the window as Jay lays out until the final coda which resolves nothing in terms of the fate of anyone involved, but is perfectly judged as a fitting conclusion to what can only be described as a vivid scene painted by rock’s most accomplished sax artist.

Crime Story
I’m not sure this had the requisite parts for it to score big as a rock hit and yet at the same time I’m pretty sure it had a few too many of those aforementioned noisy blasts to connect with a more cultured crowd, so you could say with a bit of conviction that it missed its mark just enough in both realms to be a failure.

Commercially maybe that would be true, but conceptually and aesthetically it would be patently false. Tondalayo is as well constructed a record as you can find, regardless of the genre you wanted to slot it in. Each member of the band fills their assigned role to perfection. The melody is alluring throughout, the arranging is exquisite and the mental image it conjures up is vivid and pretty damn enticing.

You might think the movie scene references here were a little heavy handed, something perhaps emphasized too much to make up for a lack of the background information which usually forms more of the review (as by this point we’ve exhausted a lot of that with so many McNeely records being covered). But in truth the film imagery the song suggests is really what sets this apart from so much of what we’ve been hearing of late.

Film noir had been a major genre in movies for the bulk of the 1940’s but to date the music used within those pictures were traditional Hollywood studio creations. But over the next decade noirs would utilize far more expressive jazz-based scores created on demand for the films in question. Later dubbed, rather simplistically, crime jazz, it featured exactly the type of moody, menacing, exotic sounds as played by Big Jay McNeely and company on Tondalayo.

I don’t want to state definitively that McNeely invented this form, but I’ll definitely suggest it in fairly strong terms. Now of course there were far more methods employed over the next dozen years in movies (and later on TV) to convey the appropriate nefarious acts taking place in vibrant black and white cinematography than simply what is shown here. But the fact remains that what IS shown here by McNeely forms the bedrock of the sound any way you cut it.

You can certainly say that Henry Mancini elevated the basic concepts here to even higher art on such classics as the themes from Touch of Evil or Arabesque and Peter Gunn, as did Lalo Schifrin in the 1960’s on a number of projects, and I won’t argue.

But I will argue that McNeely beat them all to it on Tondalayo and showed pretty clearly that when it came to establishing a sinister mood he was more than up to the task.

More than any artist to date Big Jay McNeely – hardly a forgotten name but certainly one mainly credited for a single limited approach in the history books – is proving to be as versatile and far-seeing as any rocker you could care to name. The sad thing is that in rock there’s usually only one surefire way to get to the top of the stairs and that’s with as many huge hits as possible and so McNeely, with just one of those to his credit, gets overlooked for everything else.

Everywhere but here that is.


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