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The Sound of a Truly Different Drummer
by Mark Miller (Globe and Mail) – January 6, 2005

It may seem like a contradiction in terms to suggest that a drummer could have a quietly successful career, indeed that a drummer could do anything quietly. And Mark McLean, the drummer in question, is not by preference a quiet drummer. But there's the 29-year-old Torontonian in New York playing with Andy Bey on the veteran singer's latest CD American Dream, which was recently nominated for a Grammy award. And there he is travelling internationally with Peter Cincotti, the young pianist and singer who has been hailed lately as the new Harry Connick. McLean also appears on most of Cincotti's new release, On the Moon, which was produced by Phil Ramone. And now Ramone's calling the drummer for other sessions. "I haven't been able to make any of them," McLean says, laughing. "But he called!"

And there's McLean standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jay Leno backstage at The Tonight Show in Los Angeles and with Bill Cosby at the Newport Jazz Festival in photos that he has posted in rotation on the home page of http://www.markMcLean.com. His bio on the site makes mention of performances with Oscar Peterson, Jane Bunnett, Dewey Redman and even the Backstreet Boys. In conversation -- over hot chocolate on a cold, wet, January Sunday at a Harbourfront coffee spot -- he adds Wynton Marsalis and Patti Austin to the list. McLean isn't name-dropping here. He seems to be as genuinely pleased and impressed as anyone else by the progress he has made since his first venture to New York in 1999. Five years later, going on six, he has an apartment in Brooklyn and returns to Toronto only for the holidays, for concerts with singer Molly Johnson and -- alongside his brother, Lester, a saxophonist -- club dates with the jazz-funk band Colour of Soul. Back home he's a rarity, one of the few African-Canadians of his generation who have been drawn to jazz, as opposed to reggae, funk or rap. Not that he has given the distinction much thought.

"Jazz was something I liked playing from an early age," he explains, "and I was focused on it. I never really thought about other black Canadians who were doing it, I just wanted to be with people who did it, regardless of their background." In McLean's case, though, the background is significant. His grandfather, Reggie McLean, was a pianist in Sydney, N.S., and Toronto during the 1930s; his great uncle, Cy McLean, also a pianist, had his own band in Toronto as early as 1937 and led Canada's only full-scale black orchestra during the Swing Era in the 1940s. Skip ahead one generation, and McLean, who played both piano and drums in high school, went through the jazz program at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s before heading south. It was in this period that he worked with Oscar Peterson. "It was very short," he remembers of his affiliation with the great Canadian pianist, just two or three concerts locally. No matter, he adds, "I was happy to get one." McLean made his first trip to New York in the hope of studying with the extraordinary drummer Brian Blade who, it transpired, didn't teach, but was willing to take the young Canadian under his wing personally. In time, McLean did have lessons with Kenny Washington, a bebop stylist of the old school, and with Billy Kilson, who -- like Blade -- has been radicalizing the drummer's role in jazz. This, perhaps, is the irony of McLean's quietly successful career. A drummer can't play in the explosive Blade/Kilson manner that's closest to McLean's heart when he, or she, is playing with the kind of performers -- in short, singers -- that have offered McLean such high-profile employment.

"That's a different discipline," he notes, of his work with Bey, Cincotti and Johnson. "There comes a point in the night where I can do my thing, but I can't do it the whole time." Not that he's complaining. Restraint, and the tension that goes with it, is as intrinsic to jazz as excess. Indeed, for McLean, that was the attraction of jazz in the first place. "There's an intensity that I can't really find in any other music. I think of some of the rock bands and funk bands that I like -- I'm zoning in on the drums here -- and you have to hit pretty hard to produce something that makes that music sound good. But there's an intensity about jazz; it can be so quiet -- yet so powerful." Blade and Kilson have proven as much. But they've also relocated "the top" in "over the top," a place that McLean plans to visit more and more often himself in the near future. Even as Cincotti's schedule is beginning to fill out impressively for 2005, McLean talks of projects in Toronto with saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and pianist David Braid; indeed, he's working with Jefferson at The Rex in Toronto on Saturday night. Of course, The Rex, with all due respect, is a long way from The Tonight Show -- a long way from having Leno clap an arm around your shoulders and smile for the camera. A young man's head could be turned by such company, and by the world beyond jazz that it -- together with Cincotti's burgeoning popularity, the Backstreet Boys and Austin -- represents.

McLean's head is not. "It is what it is," he says, almost casually, of his occasional brush with celebrity. "My primary concern is playing the drums, playing them as well as possible, and making the music feel good. Everything after that is secondary. There's a lot to be swept up in, but for me, I know what's real and what's not."