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Meet John McNeil

By Published: May 19, 2005
I've got another project that's going to take the most time right now. Pulse is a group of seven composers here in New York. They're writing an orchestral suite for John Abercrombie and me to improvise over. The music uses a lot of 21st century harmony. The improvising won't be jazz as such—it will be jazz informed. We want to try to integrate the improvising and the written music. We don't want a hokey thing like a jazz rhythm section with strings added to it. John and I have been talking about it for maybe four years. We thought about doing it with Jeff Beal who writes for the movies in LA, but he's been too busy to do it. When I talked with Pulse they were on it from the beginning. With seven people contributing, one guy doesn't have to carry the whole ball, but a problem may be getting coherence. Everybody is working together, and I think we can solve that. I'm pretty excited about it. We want to perform it at IAJE in New York next year. I think we're going to do our first performance in June when some of it will be done, maybe at a gallery. We don't have a label on board right now, but it seems like an ECM thing with a crossover audience.

My Band Foot Foot (The Shaggs cover band)

The Shaggs was a rock band with three sisters, teenagers in 1968-69. A bunch of New York musicians are into them. It's the best or the worst thing you've ever heard. They didn't know anything about music. The drummer was inept—sometimes she'd be playing in two different tempos at once; and their melodies were unstructured. There's a cult following—people know the lyrics. We're doing largely instrumental versions. It's trumpet, trombone, squeezebox, violin, guitar, bass and drums, and we all sing a little. We turned one thing into a barbershop quartet. It's so unconventional it's hard to find a treatment that makes sense. I sing on one thing, a blues, and I do a little hollering. We've recorded a couple of tunes to see what they sound like, and we have enough for about one set. It might have to be at one these cabaret places. We'd like to get some of the cult following of the Shaggs to come out.


I tend to write arrangements with improvisation integrated into the composition instead of head-improv-head. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just boring if you do it on every tune. These days, when it's time to write, something clicks, and I can usually just do it. I usually write early in the day for a couple of hours at a time. The thing I'm good at is not writing the same thing over and over. My wife Lolly is a professional trombonist, and I can rely on her opinions of my music. I throw away three times as much stuff as I keep. If I were going to give advice to anyone about how to write I'd say, "Don't fall in love with what you write." I used to have a lot of trouble, but in later years I've worked as a professional writer/arranger. I've gotten commissions to write entire CD's for other people so I've gotten pretty efficient.

New England Conservatory (Boston)

I go up there and teach once a week. Some of the others on the faculty are Bob Brookmeyer, Cecil McBee, Dave Holland, and Fred Hersch every once in a while. Half of the faculty is with the Boston Symphony, so NEC has to be very flexible about touring schedules. The NEC faculty doesn't have to choose between teaching and playing, unlike a lot of colleges. The school is about teaching you to be a player. Students get from me in the classroom what they would get playing in a band. I'm not big on theory for theory's sake. I teach students how to play better, how to put things together. It's a very practical kind of thing. "Over this chord progression you can do this and this." I'm also kind of a brass troubleshooter. I had a lot of trouble learning to play the trumpet, a lot of problem-solving experience, so I became a good brass teacher. There's a whole range of people that call me up for lessons from time to time, which is ironic considering I've been known more as a creative trumpet player than technician.

Flexus (trumpet book)

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Download jazz mp3 “Brother Frank” by John McNeil