Album review by John Clare: Wending (Bernie McGann Quartet)

Bernie McGann (Rufus RF113)

Review by John Clare

Editor’s note: soon after John submitted this review, Bern McGann passed away in hospital in Sydney. Read John’s essay celebrating McGann here >

Cover of McGann's 'Wending'At the time of writing the great Bernie McGann is in hospital, following a by-pass with serious complications. We will be realistic. Back on dialysis as I write, he might never play again, but his tenacity has surprised doctors. That is to say he could easily have died by now. Still, as Peter Rechniewsky remarked, he persisted for so long when few were interested it should come as no surprise..

I would be proud to claim that I was one of the few mentioned above. It would be one of my life’s few achievements (as distinct from adventures and so on), but few is an exaggeration. Still, late last century McGann said to me, ‘You are my champion.’ This unusual remark, specially for Bernie, gave me a start. In fact I thought at first he had it back to front. He was my champion! Or hero to be exact. But he had used the correct form. I championed his cause. I was not the only one, nor was I the first to write about him. In the pre-Cambrian era I edited Music Maker magazine and one of my writers had already written cover notes for the ABC’s Jazz Australia, on which Bernie played. His famous Spirit Song was among the selections. Obviously others had discovered him before me. I was probably the first to write about him in mainstream publications.

But this is all reflected glory and I apologise.

One day Paul Grabowsky told me, ‘You know I’ve thought about this quite a bit and I’ve come to the conclusion that Bernie McGann is one of the great alto players of all time.’ It is what I think also.

This recording contains what may be the last music played in a studio by Mcgann. That music is on the tracks recorded by Richard Belkner in 2012 of the most recent quartet: McGann, trumpeter Warwick Alder, bassist Brendan Clarke and drummer Andrew Dickerson. The other tracks were played by the earlier quartet with Alder, Lloyd Swanton, bass, and John Pochée, drums. Ross A’Hern recorded these in 2005. Pochée’s unique drumming is often more discursive than Dickerson’s and there are a number of  other fascinating contrasts. Each swings in a very different way. Both rhythm sections are great ones. McGann plays magnificently in both situations. Listening to these tracks it is hard to believe there was so much resistance in days of old. All tracks were produced by Lloyd Swanton at the request of Tim Dunn of Rufus records. Lloyd also supplies notes in his beautifully clear style.

One of McGann’s great virtues is his ability to project feeling and indeed raw powerful emotion – and to stimulate the visual imagination – whether he is playing simple or complex lines. His playing is both emotional and intellectual, abstract and representational. McGann will at times produce startling mazes and deliberate bubbling-over congestions of notes but unlike many musicians when they play fast he variously inflects, weights, colours, tempers and shapes his notes so that the play of  energy and colour becomes virtually a kind of speech. Damn, it is sometimes like the surface of a cubist painting, synthetic period. McGann is now 76 and for some years he has played much more softly. The startling presence he would once project without amplification now requires good miking. A’Hern and Belkner both understand and the unique sound springs into you room. Sounds I should say, because there are many hues radiating from the central tone.

The first track – which is also the first track with the newer quartet – is an example of McGann’s propensity to move a very old popular song out of the realm of nostalgia into the here and now, with vivid immediacy. This is The Breeze And I, a happy and faintly exotic tune that was a hit for Dinah Shore with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra in 1940. That was the year I was born and I loved it as a small boy, and again as a teenager when it was a hit all over again for Caterina Valente. This version follows the arrangement McGann devised and used in live performance. There is an introduction, here quite long, in which alto and trumpet engage in a dynamic improvised conversation over a Latin feel with deep stepping bass and jubilant drum punctuations. The band then snaps into a tight, propulsive, yet still wonderfully carefree swing rendition of the melody, followed by solos from the band. In fact everything here is melody, whether improvised or written. Note how McGann’s ideas slice and sideslip through the air, each flowering from its predecessor, dropping suddenly and rising as on thermals, twisting and sharply angling in turbulence. Though Alder plays from a more orthodox standpoint he is also an original and certainly one of the finest trumpeters we have produced. He is, as Swanton notes, an organic player.

McGann had a wonderful feeling for Latin or Latin-flavoured tunes and wrote a few great ones, including Malaga and Blues For Pablo Too (the title track of the CD on which they both appear) and my favourite, Mex. The version here is, I think, one of only two on record, the other appearing on the ABC recording The Last Straw. Lloyd and Pochée are on both. Both versions are great. I mean great. This is a shining and ecstatic creation, but in McGann’s solo, when he plays in his highest register, the emotion is both thrilling and painful. Thrilling and ecstatic, but also infused with melancholy, like life on earth. Actually McGann is tapping into both the joyful and melancholy aspects of  Spanish music. And of course the blues. Because his playing is well behind the beat, these high plaints and cries seem almost hesitant, as if there is an attempt to hold the emotion back. In fact it is about as emotional as music can get.

McGann’s use of all registers, but specially the deepest and highest is worth remarking. Sometimes his high notes are strained out like a thin golden wire, sometimes they curve radically, and sometimes they jump at you like the startling squeal of a rusted nut being turned with reluctance by a shifting spanner. It hurts. And it is true. Beethoven would point to his collection of Handel manuscripts when a visitor arrived and say, ‘There is the truth!’

You can hear some of that whenever Bernie McGann plays.


Bern McGann – alto saxophone
Warwick Alder – trumpet
Lloyd Swanton – acoustic bass
John Pochée – drums
Brendan Clarke – acoustic bass
Andrew Dickeson – drums


You’ll find soundbytes on the Rufus Records page for this CD >

Video of Bernie McGann Quartet playing ‘The Breeze and I’ – uploaded on 29 Jun 2011 by Andrew Dickeson
Live at the Sound Lounge 24/06/2011
Performed by Bernie McGann – sax, Warwick Alder – tpt, Brendan clarke – bass, Andrew Dickeson – drums