One of the most versatile studio and touring drummers in jazz, R&B and pop over the past 15 years, Mark McLeans’ credo is “I don’t want to be seen as a drummer, I want to be known as a musician whose instrument just happens to be drums.” Since moving to New York in 1999 and raising his international profile with his several year association with jazz singer/pianist Andy Bey in 2000, Mark McLean has kept time in the studio and/or on tour with a virtual “who’s who” of jazz and pop artists – including Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Glen Campbell, Carla Cook, Linda Eder, Jimmy Webb, Vanessa Williams, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight, Joe Sample, Jamie Cullum, Andrea Bocelli, Catherine Russell, Dionne Warwick and The Backstreet Boys.
Following his time with Bey, the Ontario born and raised graduate of the University of developed a long term association with vocalist/pianist Peter Cincotti, toured Europe with George Michael in 2011-12 and worked in the studio (on a Billy Joel track called “All My Life”) with the late legendary producer Phil Ramone. Ramone, who had called on McLean for numerous sessions since 2003, once said, “Mark is a tasty, sure handed drummer, a song man’s musician.”
McLean has a single criterion when it came time to expand his horizons beyond the groove and record his long awaited breakout as a powerhouse composer and lyricist: it had to Feel Alright. On the eclectic 11 track set, which doubles as a showcase for a wide range of American and Canadian vocalists, he shares his love for old school soul, down and dirty blues/funk and traditional jazz to Southern folk-pop with a zydeco twist, Rat Pack-like swing, edgy pop/rock and New Orleans brass band music. McLean will be headlining his CD release party for Feel Alright on May 28 at SubCulture in NYC.
JazzMonthly: I read that you have a reputation among musicians as “the drum whisperer.” Where did that term come from and how did you get it?
MM: I think it came up a while ago when someone I was working with commenting about the different dynamics I worked with. These allowed me to pull different sounds, moods and textures, instead of just hitting the drums a single way. That phrase began to be applied to me in the early 2000s, but I can’t remember who said it. I took it as a compliment because I am able to make the drums sound loud like anyone else but my real skill is being able to be subtle and support the music I’m playing. It’s easy to overplay, but I think my success is based less on what I play and more on what I don’t play.
JM: You have a unique musical family, with your great Uncle Cy McLean being a pianist and bandleader who lead Canada’s only full scale black orchestra in the 1940s. And your brother Lester is a sax player and vocalist in Toronto. Tell me about how your family has influenced you.
MM: My dad first told me about Cy and his history when I started studying jazz in school and it was becoming apparent that I aspired to be a professional musician. Cy died in the mid 80s before music was really on my radar, and I didn’t know him, but I really came to appreciate his legacy. My dad had a huge record collection and my parents listened to a lot of different music in our basement when I was growing up – calypso, soca, Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones’ The Dude, stuff like that. I also remember when he brought home Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which I wore out. That collection also included some Nat “King” Cole and Cannonball Adderley. Lester is older than I am, so I used to follow his lead when he first got into music. He in turn was influenced by our older cousin Kojo, who was a bassist in a rock band. We loved hanging out with him and once Lester and I started playing, he always made time for us. Lester played guitar and sax in our high school jazz band and I tagged along once I started playing drums around 11 or 12. A friend of Lester’s let me hear John Coltrane Plays the Blues featuring drummer Elvin Jones and that really sparked my interest in jazz drumming.
JM: Why did you switch from piano to drums? What was it about the drums that felt like your true musical calling?
MM: Even though I started playing piano around nine, I think I just always liked the drums. When I was in seventh grade in band, they asked us to choose an instrument and I gravitated towards the percussion family. I grew up enjoying performances by the Toronto Symphony and recall being fascinated by the way the percussionists played the snare, timpani and marimba. The drums and other percussion instruments felt so alive and I loved all the different sounds and beats. I still do! And to be honest, drums were easier for me and more natural than playing the piano.
JM: One of the coolest things on your early resume is playing with the legendary pianist and fellow Canadian Oscar Peterson when you were 22. How did that happen?
MM: When I was studying at the University of Toronto, I played at a bass player’s recital and sparked the interest of a faculty member who was on the panel for that show. I didn’t have any classes with him, but he liked my style and invited me to play a gig with him at a local restaurant. Next thing I knew, I found out that he had done a lot of work with Oscar and he recommended me to play a few dates with him. I did two shows with Oscar, one at his daughter’s school, which CBS taped for a segment of a Sunday morning show, and the Harbor Front Center in Toronto.