John McLean's last album, Easy Go, was a personal favorite. So I awaited his latest, Better Angels, with baited breath. While this is a vastly different album than its predecessor, it has its own charms that make it an equally engaging and interesting album.
McLean has chosen some fantastic sidemen for this project, all of whom bring something fantastic to the table. For fans of homegrown jazz, none of these players needs an introduction. Jim Gailloreto is a monster of a saxophonist, Zach Brock is a creative violinist that makes a ton of interesting music, and Grazyna Auguscik is one of a handful of jazz vocalists in town that seems ready and willing to do something with this music beyond the tried and true standard, and vocalese routes. The rhythm section of brothers Karl and Eric Montzka and Larry Kohut are solid throughout, stoking fires and offering intriguing support which definitely add character to this collection of songs.
The songs themselves range from great to sublime. McLean's knack for writing shows throughout this disc. The title track, "Better Angels," in particular, is stunning. The vocal and guitar line that serves as the melody is haunting. There is a density that is achieved on this track that is in itself a work of art. Zach Brock's violin work on this track really stands out, as do Auguscik's vocals. It's an auspicious beginning to a really nice disc.
The second track, Janis Ian's "Ready for the War" is interesting for a handful of reasons. First off, the choice of the tune itself is surprising. Secondly, its reading is beautifully done. Everyone's sense of taste here is simply amazing. On a song where everyone could have easily overplayed, everyone seems to pull in the reins a little bit and let the song evolve. McLean's solo here sounds a little bit like fellow Chicagoan Fareed Haque, and that's a good thing. Some purists might say that this isn't jazz, but that would surely be their loss.
The standards on this record admittedly underwhelmed me at first listen. However, after a few listens, I came to understand where McLean was coming from. "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" sounds downright eerie here at first before settling into one of the slower interpretations of this one that I've ever heard. "Airmail Special" rocks out in a way that I've never heard it done before, and "I'm Confessin'" is a great way to wrap up the disc.
This disc surely makes my list of best jazz albums of 2007, as it's executed brilliantly from start to finish. The angels looking over the recording of this album were the better ones, indeed.