There’s a whole bunch of metaphors wrapped up in New York guitarist/composer Pete McCann’s arresting new album, Pay for It on the Other Side, while also reflecting this esteemed musician’s eclectic and receptive approach to his art, where jazz and rock sensibilities straddle pop and world music. McCann’s career this far has led him to work with the likes of Lee Konitz, Brian Blade, and David Liebman, as well as the Mahavishnu Project (endorsed by the great John McLaughlin himself), Patti Austin, Grace Kelly, and Curtis Stigers. A sense of adventure, discovery, and in-depth experience has steadily seeped into his creativity, producing absorbing panoramas of original composition and performance.
For his sixth release as leader, the guitarist regroups for the third consecutive recording with his quintet of alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, pianist/keyboardist Henry Hey, bassist Matt Clohesy, and drummer Mark Ferber—all illustrious musicians with whom he feels a particularly deep musical bond: “They have the ability to flesh out what I’m thinking even before I say it.”
It’s the cover art’s red-toned portrayal of the George Washington Bridge—connecting New York with New Jersey—which signals the background to these 66 minutes of glorious instrumental music. “It sounds like an aggressive album title,” declares McCann (a trait unimaginable in his own persona!). “The most obvious connection is that every day when I cross this bridge to go to work, I pay a toll” (on the other side of the Hudson River). “But I’m also fascinated by the spiritual implications of karma, how we treat people and the environment, and the consequences of that.”
The foundational aspects of McCann’s own work unfold both from intense improvisational study and multifarious influences over the years—hot news topics through musical homages to halcyon memories. Such inspiration fires a penchant to vividly pictorialize sound, all underpinned by the impassioned technical prowess of the guitarist and his colleagues.
The trip-up driving 5/8 bassline figure heralding the album’s opening title track suggests a human heartbeat, channelled by McCann’s characteristic fretboard energy, switching from jazz/rock propulsion to fast swing; and “Polygons”’ Mahavishnu-evoked Alberti bass phrases stem from the guitarist’s fascination for geometric shape: “Sometimes I stumble upon a pattern I’ve never played before—it’s a rare thing, but it gives me an idea to develop. When I look at the first chordal shape of notes, it looks like a polygon. That arrived first, followed by the melody”—and here his rapid high lines (reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth) soar spectacularly.
These lightbulb moments can hit at any time: “Cookout”’s boppish ascending fourths figure came to McCann while gigging with New York pianist David Cook, who mimicked the phrase back to him, encouraging him to develop it. The result is this perky, abstract number with pacey walking bass, led by John O’Gallagher’s alto sax fluency which colors its increasingly Weather Reportian fervor.
“Mud Flap”’s second-line brass-band drum shuffle satisfyingly gets under the skin with crunchy wide-vibrato guitar riffs redolent of John Scofield and B.B. King, plus supporting Hammond improv. An older number, with attitude, this has been waiting in the wings for the right opportunity to shine: “It’s a greasy, New Orleans style, where the bass line instigated the rest of the writing. I imagined a dirty, rainy night in the Deep South—a truck gets stuck, and the mud just keeps running up the mud flap!” The guitar man’s bluesy side is also heard in furtive “Floor Three,” where pedalled chordal meshes pave the way for angular guitar, cascading alto and distorted hues of ’60s Pianet.
By turns elegant, fierce and mesmeric, “Nikhil” is an impressive homage to renowned classical Indian sitar player Nikhil Banerjee (introduced to McCann by drummer Dan Weiss while touring with bassist Chris Tarry). McCann explains that he’s a big fan of Maury Deutsch’s Lexicon of symmetric scales and tonal patterns—a go-to source since his time at his college days: “Once I’d gotten hold of this book, I was off and running and never looked back. It’s been important to me in getting away from traditional ways of thinking about music, applying it to improvisation and composition.”
In “Nikhil,” the octave is divided into three parts—C, then A-flat, then E (all major octave splits). “The melody worms its way in and out of major and minor, taking each tonal center and putting it on top of the other; so you have this giant polychord, with all these aspects of the song going on at the same time—and the bridge section is like a free-for-all Phrygian blowout!” Indeed, Henry Hey’s accordion and Mark Ferber’s percussion establish a drone-like reflection of harmonium and tabla before guitarist and saxophonist let rip with breathless displays against its potent bass-and-drum vigor.
In contrast, the panoramic openness of “Yonder”—with its Methenyesque straight eighth feel and singable melodies—paints the rolling hillsides and farmland of McCann’s native Wisconsin, expressing fond memories of father-and-son fishing, hunting, and hiking. Lush, sunshiny guitar and coruscating piano ease out across rippling streams of percussion, Matt Clohesy’s countrified acoustic bass emphasizing these hazily warm recollections. Taking the idea of contrafact a stage further, animated “Is April Okay?” is almost a full revision of Gene de Paul’s ballad “I’ll Remember April,” with the melody playing over the changes and a repeating rhythmic pattern; and brisk, fly-like-the-wind soloing from Hey’s piano is matched by McCann’s effortless mellow-toned scurryings.
Heart-rending and harmonically-compact “Indemnity” imagines protection against loss, the leader taking a melody that uses the perfect fifth on the bridge in an ascending formation, illuminating his improvisations with acoustic clarity, paired with O’Gallagher’s smooth unison tones. This tender, intimate sound is a world away from McCann’s jazz-rock urgency: “I still have my trusty nylon-string guitar that I had in college, where I played it every day when I worked on classical music. It’s still important to me, especially when my studio work calls for bossa novas and ballads. It’s just a beautiful sound.”
“Conventional Wisdom” was conceived during one of the big political party conventions running up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, recalls McCann: “I remember feeling as though many of the speakers were spouting rhetoric that had no factual basis. I put my political angst into this composition.” Stringing together a clutch of melodic fragments, the win-win outcome is the blistering jazz-funk of Stevie Wonder–styled clavinet riffs and atonal climb-out-of-the-mire guitar and sax—a triumph, in artistic terms at least.
Pete McCann was born in 1966 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the third of four siblings, and raised there in a bustling farm household. Radio and turntable rang to the sounds of country, rock ’n’ roll, and heavy metal, and thus the pathway to a life in music came into view. Pete’s love affair with the guitar began at age eight, when his mother persuaded the local music store to take him at an early age for lessons.
As a junior high and high school student, Pete attended Shell Lake Jazz Camp, located 80 miles from Eau Claire, for six summers in a row. “Most of the faculty was Indiana University teachers,” he says. “My time there sparked my interest in the idea that music, which was something I enjoyed, could actually be a career.” Master classes in jazz improvisation with teacher Mike Irish and guitar study with Russ Moss provided further inspiration. At University of North Texas, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance in 1989, he studied with Jack Petersen and relished the opportunity to play alongside visiting guests such as James Moody and Jon Faddis. During his junior year, he attended a summer program at the Banff Centre in Alberta, studying with Kevin Eubanks.
Arriving in New York soon after graduation, McCann gigged with the East Down Septet, Horse, and Splendid Splinter, as well as playing in Erwin Vann’s Worlds project (Kenny Wheeler as soloist) and subbing for Ben Monder in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The guitarist made his recording debut as a leader in 1998 with Parable (Palmetto), in a quintet setting featuring bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Matt Wilson. You Remind Me of Someone, also on Palmetto, followed in 2000.
Two of his current band members, John O’Gallagher and Mark Ferber, were on hand for his 2006 quintet date Most Folks (Omnitone); and the current quintet had coalesced as of Extra Mile (2009, Nineteen-Eight) and Range (2015, Whirlwind).
McCann’s delight in working with his own band is palpable. “We played these compositions at New York’s 55 Bar before recording and it was great to see how they were received—it gave me some ideas on how to structure the arrangements, who might solo, and so on. These musicians have the ability to read and play anything I put in front of them, yet also bring their own creativity to the project. I definitely heard John O’Gallagher’s alto voice on all this music. Henry has so many ideas for sounds and different instrument. His playing is so unique, walking the fine line between terrific jazz piano, funky clavinet, accordion, organ; he’s like a one-man-band. And I love the way Mark and Matt work together. They have an amazing sense of time and feel.”
Building bridges, not walls, is surely the way to greater connections for humanity and art. In Pay for It on the Other Side, Pete McCann and his quintet transcend the barriers of modern-day strife with a distinctive show of classy jazz-rock. Cross that tollman’s palm with silver and hit the gas! •
Pete McCann: Pay for It on the Other Side
Street Date: July 20, 2018