John McLean’s Easy Go Guitar
Easy Go Guitar
by Mark Ruffin
It’s quite appropriate John McLean finds himself growing roots in a town known as the Windy City. As the title of his debut album, “Easy Go,” suggests, he has taken life with the approach of anchorless buoy at sea, or a piece of paper blowing to and fro. At, 37, the one constant in his life has always been the guitar.
“I’m kind of an unmotivated goofball,” says the musician who has come to national prominence due to his stylistic work as a sideman on three albums by vocalist Patricia Barber. “I’m living now just like I did when I was a kid,” he continues. “I got a little room in the house. I’ve got guitars and amps and I sit there and try to figure out how to play the guitar”
The big difference is that he’s married and has a mortgage to pay, two facts that have kept McLean busy on the jazz scene in Chicago. That work, in a city whose top players demands individuality, has not only helped McLean find his own voice on his instrument, but a chance to shed a previously nomadic existence.
On the weekend before recording his album, McLean took his recording band into the famed Chicago nightclub, the Green Mill. When introducing the quintet, including three local players and national ringer Adam Nussbaum on drums, McLean’s obvious self-effacing low-key humor was obvious. Between his heady compositions and the seamless interplay between the group, it also became clear that the “unmotivated goofball” may have found an path as a bandleader and composer.
“I like to play, I like to get on the bandstand and get into the moment and that physical thing about playing,” McLean comments. “I don’t have the ability to step away from myself and access my sound either in a positive or negative way. “I’m just trying to do the best I can and as long as it feels good, I figure I’m on the right track,” he continued, “though I do believe I have found a voice.”
The trek to find that voice started in Long Island, where McLean started guitar, and continued on to Detroit, where he went to high school. Through those years, there was only one musician that mattered; Wes Montgomery.
“It wasn’t like I was consciously excluding anybody from my listening,” McLean says, laughing at the memory. “It’s just when I came home from school, I didn’t want to put anybody’s record on. I bought all his records I could find and all I wanted to listen to was “Boss Guitar,” and stuff like that. He was like blinding to me.
“When I got to Boston, there were all these teenage guitar players listening to all these cutting edge cats like Sco’ Metheny, Abercrombie and Bill Frisell. They were like a revelation to me, because at that point I was really only hip to Wes.” Without direction McLean had wandered to Bean Town to attend Berklee only because he’d read about it in the paper. After having a performance degree conferred onto him, the guitarist, literally at the last minute applied for and was accepted to the performance master’s program at University of Miami that gave him a free ride with a teaching assistant gig.
“All I had ever done in my life was go to school, so I figured I might as well keep going,” the guitarist deadpanned. “I really should be a hell of a lot better musician with the degrees I have.”
He only moved to Chicago because a filmmaker friend raved about the jazz nightlife, which McLean enjoyed for less than 60 days before he got his first real job. For three years he taught at St. Francis Xavier University in Antakinich, Nova Scotia, a little town two hours from Halifax.
McLean says he loved the quality of life there, plus the students and even the weather. What he didn’t like was that in the middle of nowhere, there’s no place to play. With the only constant in his young life gone, his first weekend spent in Chicago started haunting him. “I heard Von Freeman that weekend,” McLean remembers. “There were other things (about Chicago) that swept me away, but any place that was good enough for Von, who is a god as far as I’m concerned, was good enough for me. So, three years later when I got sick of not playing the guitar, I just picked up where I left off in Chicago.”
Using the now defunct nightclub, the Bop Shop, as his hub, McLean ingratiated himself into the local scene in 1992 by meeting other players, and soon the phone was ringing. He did an early session for Barber, and met drummer Michael Friedman, who’d soon hang up the skins to start Premonition Records.
Despite commuting some 200 miles south of Chicago to teach at Eastern Illinois University, McLean said it was during this period in his life when some gained some focus concerning his career. The critical fallout from his piercing solos on Barber’s breakthrough albums, “Modern Cool,” and “Companion,” helped him to see even clearer.
“There had been some drifting in my life,” the guitarist admits of his once laissez-faire attitude. “I wasn’t really out shopping for a record or anything. Mike said we should do a record, he sent over a contract and that was it.
“I’ve played on about 30 records as a sideman and “Easy Go,” is my first shot,” McLean concludes. “For me, it’s like playing the guitar, something I could get better at.”