Big Jay McNeely

The "cool" West Coast sound of the '50s and '60s is perhaps Southern California's foremost contribution to the development of jazz during the century we're just concluding. Yet the style didn't spring full-blown from the brow of Gerry Mulligan; its smooth, often muted feel was heavily influenced by the jazz scene that flourished during the '40s and '50s along Los Angeles's Central Avenue. Today this portion of the city, known popularly as South Central L.A., is renowned for the hard-as-bullets gangsta rap first practiced there by N.W.A. and its various spinoffs. When Big Jay McNeely ruled the street, however, the hometown music was creamy and luxurious, eschewing the swinging anarchy of bop for something considerably more sophisticated.

Central Avenue Confidential, recorded in 1998, roughly fifty years after McNeely scored his first hit, "Deacon's Hop," captures this mood admirably, thanks to a sympathetic band led by guitarist/producer Skip Heller and McNeely himself, whose simple but incisive saxophone lines still work awfully well. "Mighty Fine," the opener, sets the platter's tone, percolating gently along a persuasive groove that will feel familiar to soul-jazz buffs. At the midpoint, McNeely roughens up his tone, honking in the approved R&B manner, but there's never any fear of anarchy. Control is McNeely's game, and he plays it well, whether he's choogling on the finger-poppin' "Big Jay Shuffle," pumping out smoky atmospherics throughout Johnny Mandel's "I Want to Live" and the Acker Bilk chestnut "Stranger on the Shore," or getting wistful on the gorgeous title track.

There are times when the music here is too damn tasteful, seeming to disappear into the wallpaper of an anonymous supper club -- which is probably why Central Avenue's jazz creations became a victim of passing fashion. Fortunately, McNeely's self-assured hipness seems undiminished by the years, turning Central Avenue Confidential into a map to one of jazz's largely forgotten destinations.


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