Guitarist/composer John McLean is an emerging musical voice for the 21st century. Steeped in tradition and propelled by contemporary influences, the Chicago-based musician sculpts an uncanny representation of an ever-widening American musical landscape. Better Angels, McLean's second release as a leader, is a stunning collection of original compositions and standards, featuring McLean's blistering guitar and his unconventional ensemble comprised of saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, violinist Zach Brock, organist Karl Montzka, bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Eric Montzka.
There is a freshness to McLean's approach that is at once unpredictable and comforting. His lines evoke familiar warmth, yet are set apart from anything contrived or generic. His flexible sound is reminiscent of guitar giants as diverse as Pat Metheny (title track and "Three Arcs Complete This Circle"), Cornell Dupree ("Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me") and Charlie Christian ("Airmail Special").
Auguscik, a longtime McLean associate, brings her engagingly earthy vocalizing to the pop oriented "Ready for the War" and the Lennon/McCartney classic "Blackbird." Her angular scatting on McLean's "Place Talk" is a wonderful showcase for her instrumental influenced sensibilities. Other improvisational highlights from the session include Brock's soaring violin on the title track and Gailloreto's Bob Berg style of tough tenor saxophone on "Blackbird."
Better Angels is a risk-taking, conceptual achievement. McLean is a guitarist of formidable ability deserving of broad acclaim.