Bernie McGann

Ugly Beauty

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Australian Bernie McGann has a nice, spare alto style that likes to play around with rhythm and space to make his notes count in an early Ornette Coleman vein. But Ugly Beauty runs into a big problem, especially on a disc with only two originals among the standards, and pieces by jazz classics like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn. McGann is simply a cut above his trio partners as a player, but since he's not into dominating the action, the music is out of balance and never really coheres into anything. The rhythm section, especially drummer John Pochee, is guilty of getting in McGann's way right from the start on "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." The title kind of meanders nicely through its paces while "Bluebird of Happiness" injects some energy, but another round of Pochee overplaying with bothersome cymbal washes, too. McGann cannily picks his spots to place the melody notes to the ballad-spare "Daydream" but, as with "Without a Song," the good moments drift in and out. McGann's two originals don't clear the focus any. The head to the faster "Desperados" is a set-up for a Pochee drum solo before McGann bops in Ornette-ishly, but Pochee is no Ed Blackwell (though he'd probably love to be), and bassist Lloyd Swanton gets his own adequate solo spot on "Lady's Choice." The name of Bird's "Barbados" suggests calypso rhythm, and Pochee's drums are better here at first (he returns to being irritating and out-of-kilter by the finale), but why another Swanton solo right off the bat? And what was McGann himself after here? He's tasteful and impressive as a player but so what? For a new listener, Ugly Beauty falls into a vacuum since McGann plays so much better than the others but you can't get a sense of him as a writer because the originals largely just set up his trio mates for solos. There must be a better intro to McGann playing in another context out there.