By the time he issued his debut album, Easy Go (Premonition), this past autumn, guitarist John McLean had appeared as a high-profile sideman on more than 20 discs by fellow Chicagoans–including Grazyna Auguscik, Patricia Barber, Terry Callier, and Jeff Stitely. So even though the local scene is already lousy with terrific guitarists (from Bobby Broom to Jeff Parker), McLean didn’t really need a record of his own to elbow his way into the public eye–but it sure hasn’t hurt. On the album he fronts a band that also stars locals Jim Gailloreto on saxes and Karl Montzka on keyboards (most potently the Hammond B-3), and much of the music leans heavily on his previously revealed strengths: a deep, from-the-toes tone; a command of rock-guitar flash in the service of heady jazz improvisation; and an ability to leap into a solo at what seems like full throttle, then keep building in speed and intensity. But for every such tune on Easy Go, McLean includes another that plays up relatively underexposed aspects of his style–such as his soulful virtuosity on acoustic guitar (which restores Jaco Pastorius’s much-abused “Three Views of a Secret” to a state of grace) or his gorgeously contemplative electric work (on an original ballad called “My Brother Richard” and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”). Several critics around the country, apparently still entranced by McLean’s brooding solos on Barber’s albums, have complained that his own record isn’t dark or edgy enough, but to my mind that’s a textbook example of how expectations can lead even sophisticated listeners astray. Stylish and inviting, Easy Go places McLean’s music in a new, larger frame; he’s already a performer I never like to miss, and he continues to grow. His quintet, at this moment one of the best bands in town, is among the seven acts featured at the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s annual Jazz Fair. Friday, January 25, 10 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-427-1676.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.