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Big Jay McNeely still puts on a lively show

Sax man behind the 1949 'Deacon's Hop' to play at Burbank's Viva Cantina Aug. 16.

August 11, 2012|By Jonny Whiteside | By Jonny Whiteside
  • Big Jay McNeely holds a 1953 copy of See Magazine with a large picture of him playing saxophone on his back in Los Angeles. McNeely's first hit album was in 1949.
Big Jay McNeely holds a 1953 copy of See Magazine with a… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

Tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely has been a musical revolutionary for decades. His first recording, the sinuous, irresistible 1949 instrumental “Deacon's Hop,” ignited a rhythm-and-blues explosion that heralded and hastened the rise of rock 'n' roll.

His volcanic live shows reached frenzy pitch so reliably that within three years he was banned from performing anywhere in Los Angeles County. Almost four decades later, his performance at a Berlin club the same night that the infamous Berlin Wall came down won him a local rep as “the New Joshua.”

More than 60 years into his career, McNeely, who appears at Burbank's Viva Cantina on Thursday, is still exhibiting a radical artistic sensibility. He recently recorded a loopy, funky electronic-techno set and has an ongoing collaboration with a young Afro-beat collective in the Netherlands. McNeely may be 85 years old, but he simply enjoys what he does too much to ever consider retirement.

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A trailblazer in Los Angeles' profoundly influential post-war R&B community, McNeely's early discs remain definitive, epochal statements, so much so that three of them will be featured on the soundtrack of forthcoming Warner Bros. Mickey Cohen bio-pic “Gangster Squad.”

As potent a show stopper as ever — famed for going off stage and walking through the club or outside onto the street, playing while stretched out flat on his back — McNeely still gives out with the dynamic, swinging style, full, rich sax tone and swaggering presentation that has him in demand as a busy live attraction around the world.

“I'm doing quite a bit of stuff these days.” McNeely said. “Got this thing called ‘Mac's Back' with [the Engenius.] He's a young kid, and I just play my horn and he puts the arrangements on it. It's totally different from what I usually do. It's for young kids that like all that new stuff. It's something else, not jazz, not funk, not rock, but a lot of electronic sounds and rhythms.

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