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 one of the leading young voices in Australian Jazz and improvised music.

In 2016 James was awarded the prestigious Freedman Jazz Fellowship – becoming the first drummer to receive the award.  The fellowship consists of recording time and funding to pursue a two-year project.  James’ project will consist of composing and recording duos with five of Australia’s leading musicians: Simon Barker, Chris Hale, Andrea Keller, Gian Slater, and Scott Tinkler.  These duets will be composed and recorded in 2017, for release in 2018.

In 2016, James was featured on the debut releases of the Eugene Ball Quartet (Hi(gh) Curious) and Paper House (A Certain Kind of Now) as well as recording with groups including Blind Spot, Question Time, and the Shaun Rammers Quintet - all of which are due for release in early 2017.  He also regularly performed with pianist Andrea Keller's Transient trios; bassist Tamara Murphy's Spirograph Studies; and pianist Joseph O'Connor's Confrontations, a quartet formed to perform the suite of music O'Connor composed for the PBS Young Elder in Jazz commission.  Another highlight was performing in trio with American guitarist Ben Monder at local venue Uptown Jazz Cafe.

2015 saw the recording and release of James’ debut solo album Counter Clockwork.  This project explores intersections of composed and improvised material for the drumset, with a focus on polyrhythmic materials and physical movements as methods of musical development.  

The second half of 2015 was dedicated to the foundation of Dispositions, a flexible ensemble with James and composer-percussionist Phil Treloar at its core.  James received an Australian Council grant for Dispositions to tour Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, performing both improvised works and premiering new compositions.  Recordings of Dispositions are due for release in 2017.

Prior to 2015, James has been a member of many forward thinking Australian Jazz ensemble, such as the Bell award winning Marc Hannaford Trio and Paul Williamson’s Inside OutIn 2014, his trio All Talk released their debut album A Shorthand of Sensation.

Aside from performing, James is undertaking PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, researching rhythmic innovations and the role of the drumset in contemporary Australian jazz & improvised music.  He is due to complete this research in 2017.

"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."

John Clare; reviewing the 2016 Freedman Fellowship concert for Limelight Magazine

“…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.”

Phil Treloar; Recollections: Twelve – Sarcophile

"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."

John Shand; reviewing A Shorthand of Sensation for Australianjazz.net