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Album Review: “Green Park” – Benet McClean. Words: Sammy Stein.

It’s the energy that grabs you. I reviewed Benet Mclean’s ‘The Bopped and The Bopless’ back in 2016 and have not tired of it. So, it was a little trepidation I pressed ‘play’ on Mclean’s latest release ‘Green Park’. I mean, how can you top ‘The Bopped and The Bopless’?

Mclean does not even try and why should he? This album is a completely different offering. Billed as Mclean’s debut album on solo violin, it is much more than that. With an accompanying lineup including Duncan Eagles on tenor saxophone, and flute, Liam Dunachie on piano and organ, Rio Kai on double bass, and Zoe Pascal on drums, this album is something else!

Mclean studied violin from the age of 3, but gained a reputation as a pianist, releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums. He has performed with Binker Golding, Daniel Casimir, Soweto Kinch, Steve Williamson, Omar, Julian Joseph, and many more. Returning to the violin, which he never really left behind as his live appearances with the likes of Kitty La Roar and Nick Shanklin have demonstrated, Mclean releases ‘Green Park’ on Sea Mammal Records. 

It is an album of changes, quick-silver reactions, and, above all, musicianship. It reflects the energy and musical melting pot of the quintet’s live shows. The interaction between the musicians is really good and to be expected from such as quality ensemble.  It is Benet’s leadership that directs, and his playing is beyond superb. There is one point where he drops a perfect major seventh but, almost before your ears register the jarring opposition he slides into the major key, and you wonder whether you heard right. This kind of playing is so clever and deliberate and keeps the listener completely engaged because the brain can never switch off to this music – it is packed with surprises, not just from Mclean but the rest of the ensemble too. 

The influences are diverse, from classical to hard bop, gypsy dance, and fusion. There is warmth, searing, soaring escapades, and delightfully challenging episodes. No genre contains this music as it blends and merges influences to create something completely different.

The opener ’Blue Fingers’ is full-bodied, with classically imbued phrases, stuffed with energy and joyful flamboyant delivery that goes with knowing your instrument and being master of it. Mclean makes challenging technical changes sound easy as his mercurial fingers and bow flow across the strings. The arrangement allows the other musicians to have their voice too, including a perfectly timed drum solo from Pascal. The overall effect is a completely delightful, fully immersive musical dive that brings to mind the same skills he displayed on ‘The Bopped and The Bopless’ but now developed and honed to a new level.  

‘Lucy’ is introduced with a laid-back melody from the sax of Eagles, with an intriguing bass line behind before the violin takes the melody briefly. It is taken back by Eagles, who improvises and works around it, finding those in-between notes like he can and does. Kai’s lyrical bass solo is beautifully worked, and the violin sings and sighs across the top in exquisite revelry.  Almost standard in jazz format, this is a gorgeous number, right to the end including the wonderful counterpoint section that leads to the finish. 

‘Red’ is gentle, introduced by the piano of Dunachie in thoughtful mode. The violin’s entry adds grace to the depth of the piano, which now takes a supportive line, adding trickles of inspired keyboard work. The number gently sashays with violin searing high and glorious, the piano and bass catching the falling rivers of notes and supporting the top line. The piano re-emerges and creates a secondary portion to the piece with some beautiful phrasing before Eagles adds his interpretive part, under all of which the percussion rises and falls with alacrity.

Bobby Watson’s spiritual jazz number ‘Fuller Love’ is delivered with the Mclean and co touch and is a wonder interpretation. Full-bodied, warm with a beat to knock your socks off. ‘Mr. Bap’ is a crazy ride of rhythmic changes, warping effects, organ escapades, and duets between sax and violin, interspersed with a challenging rhythmic pattern and a swing section oozing trad jazz overtones, replete with a walking bass section, broad rhythmic beats, and glorious saxophone. ‘The Pharoah’ is a contrasting track with repeated riffs, delicate percussion and a whiff of Eastern promise and modern classical music finds its way into the arrangement.  ‘Jo’ finishes the album in style, with a wonderfully rhythmic, dynamic soundscape of epic proportions. The drums at the beginning give way to a jazzy, richly textured, multi-layered section with a descending melody that put me in mind briefly of Neumann/Bader/Arnie/Martyn’s ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ until it devolved into a completely different animal with a life of its own.

There is so much going on in this album, from the masterful power of Eagles’ saxophone, to the rhythmic prowess of Pascal, the intuitive playing of Dunachie, and the interpretive style of Kai. All of the musicians deserve credit, but the binding is Mclean. Making technically challenging music feel effortless, Mclean demonstrates (again) his talent and ability – not only for playing the violin but for how he has put these pieces together. Affording enough focus on all the musicians, Mclean delivers completely immersive violin, and I don’t say this often, but this made me laugh out loud with the sheer joy of listening. Some of this is also due to the production which is really good, subtly done but the balances are fine throughout. 

Song structures evoking jazz standards, deep swing grooves, angular lines, and startling virtuosity come together to give Green Park elements of tradition and modernity in equal measure (say the PR notes). Speaking on the catalyst behind ‘Green Park’, McLean says, “The general vibe of the past few years has felt intense, and it got me thinking about just how much the vibe and the energy in our lives can change. I wanted to try and capture the feeling of some of those shifting energies we experience during our lives.” 

Nigel Kennedy said of Mclean’s playing, “Now is an exciting time because from the chrysalis of his modern jazz mastery an inspirational and completely original style is emerging.” I couldn’t agree more. Mclean has something unique here, he brings together styles to create a unique tonal experience – and one that is difficult to tire of – as his last album proved. I am sure I shall be playing this one for years and only hope it is not quite so long before Mclean releases another. 


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