James McLean is a drummer based in Melbourne, Australia
He works at the intersections of composed and improvised music
James’ practice sees him working equally as a solo artist, a bandleader, and a sideman in numerous ensembles. In combination, he is fast establishing himself as a leading voice in Australian jazz and improvised music, as recognised by being awarded the 2016 Freedman Jazz Fellowship - becoming the first drummer to receive the award.
In early 2018, James completed his PhD research at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying the application of embodied cognition to the development of solo drumset repertoire. In addition to an academic thesis, this research has produced two solo drumset recordings: Counter Clockwork (2015), and Oscillator (2018).
James co-leads a variety of ensembles, including All Talk, Blind Spot, and Lightly Toasted, and has been featured on recordings by the Eugene Ball Quartet, The Paul Williamson Quintet, the Joe O’Connor Trio, and Andrea Keller’s Five Below. For a full discography, see the ‘recordings’ section of this website. He regularly performs with these ensembles, and others including the Rob Burke Sextet, and Tamara Murphy's Spirograph Studies – for a full performance schedule, see the ‘performances’ section of this website.
Earlier highlights of James’ career include: recording the Bell award winning album Sarcophile with the Marc Hannaford Trio; performing with American guitarist Ben Monder during a visit to Australia; and touring and recording with expatriate percussionist/composer Phil Treloar in both duo and quartet formation.
Currently James is pursuing a number of projects, including
o A series of duo recordings with five of Australia’s leading musicians – Simon Barker, Chris Hale, Andrea Keller, Gian Slater, and Scott Tinkler - funded by the Freedman Fellowship
o Integrating electronics into his solo performance practice as a way of inverting and augmenting the physical possibilities of the instrument
o A suite of new music for the trio All Talk, exploring binary rhythm hierarchies as compositional devices
"Jazz is alive and growing in Australia and James McLean is new-generation proof."
Dr. Richard Letts, Director of The Music Trust.
"Drummer McLean sometimes supplied series of sudden curt, brief bands, and rolls using wire brushes. These strokes were remarkable for their thickness of dense overtones in combination with their sudden cessation. I have heard many sounds spring from a drum kit, but rarely such wide, grainy ones."
“…bring the drums a little further forward in the musical mix and with it some truly astounding musicality, not to mention dexterity, from McLean; indeed, characteristics identical with him … he brings to this music a remarkable maturity, accompanied with ears aplenty and an open mind.”
"He often uses the rims of his drums to create speech-like inflections, symptomatic of the fact that all three instruments [in All Talk] imbue the more abstract phases with a deep-seated humanity. A solo drums fragment called ‘Shorter in Words and Longer in Meaning’ conveys McLean’s grasp how to create an atmospheric context in which to build a narrative – rather like looking locally for one’s sources, inspirations and role-models, rather than just emulating heroes from across the seas."