I was fortunate to speak with Mark McLean after the show. McLean is a superb drummer who has played on at least 20 records to date. He has also toured with some of the biggest names in music. The following is what he had to say about drumming, singers, artists, New York and being on time.
JazzReview: So how did you like the show Mark, did it move you?
Mark McLean: It was fun; it was really nice to see the different styles. I’ve worked with Brenda, the tap dancer, before and I had met Esmeralda once before. They have such great reputations. It was great to be able to interact with them in that way. They were great about it. They were so professional, it was really nice. The band was really great, too. It was a lot of fun.
JazzReview: How did you end up hooking up with David "Fathead" Newman?
Mark McLean: That was actually through the bass player, John Menegon. Three or four years ago, I was touring with Dewey Redman and John was the bass player. He was doing double duty between Dewey’s band and David’s band. I met David through John. I was in Toronto and this gig came up, so this was my first time playing with David and it was a great opportunity in that it was such a relaxed atmosphere improvising.
JazzReview: It sounded real good. I thought it all came together. The dancers were doing their best to be a part of the band. They were an instrumental part of the music.
Mark McLean: They were great. One of the things that helped make it work was the fact that we didn’t rehearse all that much. Everyone was naturally listening; there were no pre-conceived ideas about what we were going to be doing, which is how it should have been. Now that I think about it, that wasn’t a bad idea. At first I was like, oh man, I don’t know any of these songs. Especially when Brenda and Esmeralda were working together, they have the footwork, the dynamics were just great. One other thing I’ll say about Brenda is she knows the repertoire, she knows the tunes, she knows the form. And Esmeralda was very conscious of the form as well, so that made it easier.
JazzReview: Do you think Esmeralda has a Flamenco comprehension or she understands the jazz part of it?
Mark McLean: Well, the first song we did was "This I Dig Of You." Before Esmeralda started to dance, she listened for a chorus and then she came in. She got the concept and that showed in her movements. Everybody got the concept and that’s what made it really work.
JazzReview: I hope you folks can do more of this mix of the arts; it was nice to see the break-dancer mixing into the fray also. The contemporary element, he danced more on his hands than he did on his feet. Amazing!
Mark McLean: Oh yeah, that was Jason York. It was really good. He is a very nice guy and was very much into the team work of what we were doing. I hope this is just the beginning. I was like wow, the place was packed! Every dancer had their cheering section. After the show, I met a lot of tap dancers who idolize Brenda Bufalino. It was great.
JazzReview: I have heard good things about you for a lot of years in regards to drumming. Was it Humber College you studied music at?
Mark McLean: No, I went to University of Toronto.
JazzReview: Another great learning institution with a focus on music. I think there is another one with a solid music program, isn’t there?
Mark McLean: Yes. York is another University with a great music program.
JazzReview: Who were your teachers at U of T?
Mark McLean: Barry Elmes and Bob McLaren while I was going through school. I was also studying with Jim Blackly. During my high school days, I studied with Mark Kelso.
JazzReview: Where did you pick up the musical appreciation?
Mark McLean: Since I was really small, my family always had music around the house. My parents don’t play any instruments, but there was always records playing--Calypso, Soca, Quincy Jones Records, like Dude, all sorts of stuff like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dianna Ross. My older brother Lester, he plays saxophone, guitar and he sings. He can play everything. He went to the jazz studies program at York. I started playing piano when I was nine. I wanted to follow big brother. I started listening to Trane. The first thing I heard was Coltrane Plays The Blues. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, that’s where it started man.
JazzReview: That’s great. I noticed on your website that you also arrange and compose. Is that due to your knowledge of piano?
Mark McLean: I wouldn’t have made it through U of T if I didn’t know piano. At times it felt like I was a piano student. I took composition with Phil Nimmons, arranging with Terry Promaine. Everything was based on harmony and melody. The theory of music, it was a lot of hard work, a lot of hard work, but it paid off.
JazzReview: Oh, it’s still paying off. You’re a young guy and yet you have done so much, played with so many people. You mentioned earlier that you had played with the David Newman piano player before. What band was that with?
Mark McLean: Frank Kimbrough, that was a show we did with Teri Roiger in Baltimore last summer. I had been seeing him a lot with the Maria Snyder Big Band. He’s a great piano player. He plays with his head up; we make a lot of eye contact. I think I have a thing with piano players. I’ve always been able to connect with the piano player.
JazzReview: Another piano player you connect with is Andrew Craig from the Molly Johnson Band. I heard one of your songs at the Toronto Jazz Festival. I believe it was called "Tangerine." That was really great.
Mark McLean: Oh, thank you. That was an arrangement of mine. The song was actually written by Prince.
JazzReview: That’s going to be on the new Molly Johnson CD?
Mark McLean: Yes, that’s right.
JazzReview: When is the CD due out for release? I thought it was due out around jazz festival time?
Mark McLean: Now I’ve heard that it’s coming out in October.
JazzReview: Okay, that’s good news.
Mark McLean: Yeah, one of the four Tuesdays in October, hopefully soon.
JazzReview: You’ve been with Molly Johnson since the beginning. I’m pretty sure I saw your name on the first CD.
Mark McLean: It’s funny, the first album came out [and] I wasn’t originally on it. The records were re-issued. I believe it came out on a label--something happened, receivership, or something. The records were reissued as Marquis Records distributed by EMI. I’m on those records and on the radio edits.
JazzReview: You are on the second album. You play on every track right?
Mark McLean: Yeah, the CD is Another Day. I wrote the title track with Molly and I did the arrangement on "Ooh Child," which is one of the tracks on the record.
JazzReview: Oh yeah, that’s really great. Another Day is doing really well right now. It’s getting a lot of airplay. I’m hearing it on smooth jazz stations, mainstream and straight ahead jazz stations.
Mark McLean: Yeah, it’s done well over the last couple of years.
JazzReview: How did the involvement with Molly Johnson come about?
Mark McLean: I met Molly in 1999, briefly. I was just moving to New York around that time. I was involved in a show, The Nathaniel Dett Chorale and she was part of that. I said hello [and] about three months later, she called and asked if I would play some gigs with her. Scott Alexander, Phil Dwyer, playing piano, that was the band when I first started with Molly. That was 2000. That evolved into the band that you saw at the Toronto Jazz Festival.
JazzReview: What a great band, excellent players.
Mark McLean: That’s a hand picked band by Molly. That is the band that she wanted.
JazzReview: Have you toured with Molly? I know she has done some stuff in France. Were you part of that?
Mark McLean: I have toured with Molly, but I haven’t done the European things. My schedule has never allowed me to do that. I’ve done a lot of Canadian dates with her. Over the past three years, I’ve been working with Peter Cincotti and Andy Bey. That took up everything. I feel like I haven’t worked with Molly for a long time. The gig you saw was the first live gig in about a year and a half.
JazzReview: It seemed really fresh and the band was tight.
Mark McLean: Oh yeah, well it’s a great chemistry. I’ve known Andrew Craig for a really long time. Mike Downes was one of my teachers at U of T. You know, five years could go by, I could sit down in a room with that band and it would be fine.
JazzReview: That’s great. It’s an excellent synergy you guys have and it really comes across.
Mark McLean: That was the first time we played together since recording the new material. Of course, the first performance we do is in Toronto (laughing). The next show was in Winnipeg. Then we went to Montreal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play that gig. I had committed to do the Jesse Cook DVD in Montreal. So I was in Montreal, I couldn’t play the gig, but I’m staying in the same hotel as the band. (Laughing) I think Molly has finally forgiven me for that. Well, now with the new record coming out, I hope I can play with her a lot more. I love Molly. It’s funny I had breakfast with her yesterday.
JazzReview: That whole family is so multi-talented. Her sister is a great singer.
Mark McLean: Yeah, that’s for sure. Actually, her brother Clark lives in New York. He has come out to see some of my gigs in New York. That was so great of him.
JazzReview: How long have you been based in New York? What was the reason for relocating to the Big Apple? That’s another term for New York.
Mark McLean: I’m aware. I became a resident of New York in 2000. The reason for relocating, well people always talk about how New York is, where you see how you measure up. I thought, yeah, yeah, yeah. Around 1995, I was at a jazz club, The Top of The Senator, to see Brian Blade.
JazzReview: Oh yeah, one of my favorites.
Mark McLean: Well, he is my favorite drummer and I’m proud to call him a friend, as well. He’s great. Then I saw Gregory Hutchinson, then I saw Bill Stewart. I asked, "Where do all these guys live?" The answer: New York. "Okay, well maybe that is where I should go."
It wasn’t the easiest decision. I was just graduating U of T. I was working with Jane Bunnett at the time. I remember talking to Jane about it. I was apprehensive about leaving Toronto and I told Jane. She was like, "Go, just don’t tell them you’re leaving, just go." I was also working with Brian Hughes and it was a touring gig, so that made it a lot easier. I could leave from New York and meet up for the tour. I could come up and perform with The Colour of Soul. That is the funk band that I belong to. Or whatever came my way, it was a lot of back and forth. Over the last three years, it’s been New York heavy. Everything has been in New York, but that is what convinced me, that one conversation with Jane, "Just go!"
JazzReview: Jane Bunnett is very influential in the Toronto jazz community, maybe the Cuban jazz community as well. I have you playing on Red Dragonfly with Dewey Redman.
Mark McLean: Oh yeah. I remember doing my first gig with Jane and the Sprits of Havana. The album with Dewey was Spirituals and Dedications. I met Dewey Redman through Jane. Jane was a very big part of my development. I met Stanley Cowell through Jane. You know what? Right out of University, I ended up in the studio.
JazzReview: How is it you get to work with all of these great singers? Is it reputation, is it you calling them, how does it come about?
Mark McLean: Wow, singers! I first of all, I had some opportunities to work with some excellent singers: Andy Bey, Molly Johnson, Peter Cincotti. Last winter I did the Kennedy Center Honors. We did the tribute for Tony Bennett. I worked with Dianna Krall, KD Lang, great, great singers. You know, I don’t know how it comes about to be quite honest. Andy Bey heard me in New York. I gave him a demo, I had a cassette. He liked the way I played, so that’s how it started with him. Someone hears you playing a gig with a vocalist. Peter Cincotti heard me playing at the Blue Note with Andy Bey.
JazzReview: That’s great, so reputation is the key.
Mark McLean: Yeah reputation, that’s how that stuff happens.
JazzReview: You always hear about first call studio and gigging musicians in New York. Where on that list are you?
Mark McLean: I’ve been fortunate to get some good calls. I recently recorded Gladys Knight&&&s record in New York. Phil Ramone called me for that. Tommy LiPuma did one-half in LA and Phil did the other half in New York. I split the drumming duties with Jeff Hamilton. I’ve done a lot of work with Andréa Bocelli. Patricio Boen (sp), an Italian singer, a crooner, I did his showcase and tours in the States. Universal got me that gig. I got recommended for a Joe Samples gig, [and] went to Europe with him. Actually, we just finished the European tour last week. Some really nice opportunities have come up. Darrell Grant, do you know him, he’s a pianist?
JazzReview: No, I don’t think I’ve heard the name.
Mark McLean: Well, Brian Blade was the first call for it, but he couldn’t do it. So he recommended me.
JazzReview: Oh that’s great. That speaks volumes man. You’re getting the second call--that’s o.k. too. What do you consider some of the most important things for a drummer?
Mark McLean: Well you know, drummers, the best thing is to have a good feel. Good timing of course. You need to have the knowledge of what the other instruments are in the band and what they are listening for from you. What do they need from you? You are supposed to be supportive. You’re the heartbeat of the band, provide that good dynamic level that supports the band, but doesn’t overpower the band. When it’s time for you to step out, to stand out with a solo, it’s that much more powerful. You’re playing, accompanying and then you start to solo. It’s like you weren’t even there and then it’s really dynamic. You have that groove and you’re right on the time.
JazzReview: Absolutely, Mark. I know where you’re coming from. That makes for such a great dynamic. What you are saying is so important if you want it to be about the band. Your drum selection, you have a small set, yet you make it sound very big. You have great sounding cymbals. You do some nice brush work, masterful brushwork.
Mark McLean: Oh thank you. Thank you very much.
JazzReview: Are you getting sponsorship from any companies?
Mark McLean: Yes, Zildjian cymbals since 1999, Yamaha drums since 2000 and I also endorse Regal Tip for mallets and brushes. They all have been very supportive. I was just at Zildjian last week in Boston. I picked up some new stuff and gave them back old stuff. They have a great system there.
JazzReview: Is there any thing in particular you’re looking for when choosing your cymbals? Is your pick based on your piano teachings, the sound of a note or tone, the sound of the ride cymbal or the tone of the bell?
Mark McLean: Partly, I listen very closely to the overtones. If I hear an overtone I don’t like, I know that’s not going to work for me. Lately I’ve been listening to Brian Blade cymbals, Tony Williams’s cymbals and Elvin’s cymbals, trying to figure out what I like about them. I’ve switched to darker toned cymbals, but they still have an attack on them. I’ve also switched sticks within the last week. I’ve always used wooden sticks. I use Zildjian wood sticks. Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching a lot of videos of the greats trying to figure out their approach to cymbal work. When I watch Tony Williams or Brian Blade play, I notice they’re not really hitting the cymbals all that hard. So I have changed my approach. If I pick a cymbal with darker overtones, when I hit it with the same velocity, I’ll get the sound I want, and that’s what’s been happening lately.
JazzReview: Any advice for young aspiring musicians, drummers, just getting into it?
Mark McLean: A couple of things, listen to yourself practice, practice hard, don’t just go on autopilot. When it’s time to play, just play. Go out and have a good time, enjoy what you’re doing.
JazzReview: You always look like you’re having a good time.
Mark McLean: I do. I am most definitely--and keep your head up, literally, watch what everybody else is doing. Try to make eye contact with people. Let them know you’re listening to them and that you’re part of the team. As for the getting work part of it, (yelling into the recording machine) be on time, call people back. Too many people can’t show up on time for lobby call. Simple things, these are things you’re taught in school. We learn this when we’re in grade school. Just because you are an artist, you can&&&t be late. You know you think because you’re an artist you don’t have to call anybody back. No, you want to be professional. Call people back, be on time.
JazzReview: What’s in the future Mark?
Mark McLean: The future? There is so much happening--well working with Molly, [and] I’m working with Andy again. [In] the immediate future I will be playing with Lela Hathaway, a show in Houston starting next month. So I’m busy learning that music and I’m writing and arranging.
JazzReview: Is a Mark McLean CD in the future?
Mark McLean: (Laughing) This happens every interview and I always say yes, but this time I can honestly say that yes, that will happen soon. We will have guests on it as well, like Molly Johnson, Andy Bey and some other great people.
JazzReview: That will be great Mark. I’m really looking forward to it. I want to thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I look forward to the next time I can hear you play. In the meantime, be well and keep playing.
Mark McLean: You are very welcome. It was my pleasure. It was a true pleasure. Thank you very much.
Interview by Paul J. Youngman - KJA Jazz Advocate