Pianist Jim McNeely has proven his excellence at large-group writing many times, with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (later to become the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra and more. He proves it again with this exceptional CD, his first for the young OmniTone label.
Leading a ten-piece ensemble through eight fabulous pieces (four are originals), McNeely creates a sound that is futuristic yet rich with bop reference points. His work tends to grab listeners by the throat more than, say, Maria Schneider's, although he has in common with Schneider a mastery of dynamics and tonal variation. He builds his arrangements around his soloists, but in two different ways. On Bud Powell's "The Fruit," for instance, the solo baton changes hands eleven times in the course of eight minutes, with each player making a brief commentary in between high-energy ensemble statements. The title track proceeds similarly, except the soloists are featured mostly in pairs. Other tracks, such as "Cranky Takes a Holiday" and McNeely's wonderfully dark rendering of "Silent Night," feature extended solos from only three or four players.
All the soloists are meticulously identified on the CD sleeve, although there's one minor mistake: on John Coltrane's "Village Blues," Billy Drewes is said to follow Tom Varner, when he actually precedes Varner.
McNeely's arrangements amaze not only on the level of craft, but on the level of imagination. Consider the five-bar vamp that ends "Silent Night"; the 7/4 subsection in the middle of "Group Therapy"; the descending figures that erupt like fireworks during the concluding Caribbean groove of "Cranky Takes a Holiday"; or the strange fanfare that fleetingly appears during John Hollenbeck's drum solo on "Lost." It's details like these, sometimes hushed or unassuming, other times thunderous, that make Group Therapy a worthy candidate for jazz album of the year, even at this early date.
Personnel: Tony Kadleck: trumpet; Greg Gisbert; trumpet; Scott Wendholt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tom Varner: French horn; Ed Neumeister: trombone; Dick Oatts: soprano and alto saxophones, flute; Billy Drewes: soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet; Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Cameron Brown: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums; Jim McNeely: piano.