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Jim McNeely: On the Up and Up

By Published: May 5, 2008

From Stan Getz and Phil Woods to Bobby Watson

AAJ: Let's talk about this jazz giant. What in your opinion made him so special and great?

JM: I've learned that people respond to three essential elements in a jazz player: sound, time, and absolute belief in what he plays. All of the great players had and have them, and Stan had all three to the max, especially his sound. In a way he was the greatest singer I ever played with. When we would play a ballad in a club, I would look at the first few tables of customers. Women's faces would go soft, and men would either look involved or nervous.

I was also struck by how big Stan's sound was. He had that whole cool school reputation; but while his sound had a very rounded, soft edge, it was huge. He came up during a time when your job was to fill a room with your sound, and he could really do that well.

AAJ: Was it easy playing with him?

JM: Well, when I came into the band I was following Lou Levy. He was a fine pianist rooted in an older tradition of playing than I was. So the biggest initial challenge for me was in comping for Stan. I didn't want to play just like Lou, but thought I should start out a little more conservatively, so Stan would be comfortable. As time went on, I took more chances, Victor, Marc and I gelled as a rhythm section, and Stan seemed to like it.

Musically I wouldn't say that it was easy playing with him—if it was, everyone could do it. But he was such a strong player, I'd say that after a while I felt comfortable playing with him. I got to know his harmonic tendencies, and how he liked to shape his solos.

I'm sure that you're aware of Stan's reputation for being a difficult person to deal with. I know that I'm glad that I didn't have to deal with him back in the '50s and '60s. By the time I came along he'd beaten back many of his demons. We had a few screaming arguments about this and that, but it was nothing compared to his early days. We got along okay. I have fond memories of sitting around his pool with Stan and Adam Nussbaum, the three of us reading joke books to each other.

Jim McNeely AAJ: Do you see anyone in the new generations of tenor players that can match him one day? What do you think of Scott Hamilton?

JM: Scott is certainly a great player in Stan's tradition. So is Harry Allen. But I don't think anyone can match Stan, nor would they want to. There are many younger tenor players today like Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Ralph Lalama and Rich Perry (my Vanguard Jazz Orchestra colleagues), Mark Turner, and Branford Marsalis, who have those three elements—sound, time, and belief—in heavy quantities, but they don't sound like Stan.

AAJ: You recorded five albums with Stan Getz. Is there any one in particular that you feel best represents your playing and Getz's playing?

JM: In my opinion the closest is Blue Skies (Concord, 1982). It's made up of extra tracks left over from the Pure Getz (Concord, 1982) sessions. When we recorded Pure Getz there was talk of a double album. It was ultimately released as a single disc, but there was a lot of music left over. It was all recorded in the middle of a two-week gig in San Francisco and the following two weeks in New York at Fat Tuesday's. Blue Skies has a relaxed feel, and to me captures the way the band really sounded in clubs. Pure Getz has more of a studio sound to it.

I'm on a couple of albums recorded with Stan and Chet from a tour in Europe in 1983. For The Stockholm Concert (Gazell, 1983) I'd just arrived that afternoon after a forty-hour trip from Sydney, Australia. My brain was still on the beach in Aussie.

AAJ: Your compositions are featured in two of these albums you recorded with Getz. I'm thinking of "There We Go" (Blue Skies) and "On the Up and Up" (Pure Getz). As a composer do you think anyone can ever better his interpretations of your songs?

JM: The best part of writing a tune for Stan was hearing him play through the melody a few times, and observing how he would gradually add little subtle touches to the phrasing and the rhythm. The tune would morph from "a tune" to a "Stan Getz tune." As to those tunes that you mention, I've never recorded them with anyone else. They are the definitive versions. Of course, Stan got the publishing rights to those tunes, so that might have something to do with it, too [laughs].

AAJ: When did you realize that Stan wasn't going to be around for much more time?

JM: I believe that it was the summer of '87 that he told me he was going to have surgery to have a large tumor removed from his chest. At the time he said that it was a benign growth, but I wasn't so sure. I played with him some in '88. He was a little weak, but otherwise playing well. I don't remember when I heard that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but when I did hear the news I wasn't surprised, given the tumor he'd had removed. When he died in '91 I heard the news from his brother Bob, who called me with the news.

Jim McNeelyAAJ: In the 1990s you were a member of the Phil Woods Quintet. How different was it working with him?

JM: In some ways it was very similar. Phil is also a very strong player, with a huge sound, great time, and absolute belief in what he is doing. But Phil comes out of the traditions of Benny Carter and Charlie Parker, so his voice and energy are different than Stan's, who came primarily out of Lester Young's tradition. Comping for Phil required a little more energy than comping for Stan.

Another big difference stemmed from the fact that Stan didn't write his own tunes, and depended mostly on band members to write or find material to play. Phil writes a lot, for both his quintet and for big band. So he's always bringing in his own music. He's equally into playing music written by other band members. So I wrote a lot for the band, as did Hal Crook and Brian Lynch. Phil's group is as much a composer's workshop as it is a performing quintet; this is a reflection of the importance of both arts to him.

AAJ: You have also played with Bobby Watson, Art Farmer and Joe Henderson. What have you learned from each one of them?

JM: Well, they're all great distinctive, individual players. Of the three you mention, I played with Joe the most. His mind was so quick! Comping for him felt like being in the last car of a roller coaster. I'd strap myself in and hang on for the ride. Art was such a lyrical player. Every solo he played could be published as a new melody for that song. Bobby is equally lyrical, but with a hotter edge.

From all three of those guys I learned how to vary my comping, to get into their individual rhythmic and harmonic zone. I also learned the importance of improvising melody, as opposed to simply running the changes. I could say the same thing about a number of other great soloists I've worked with over the years, like Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, David Liebman, and John Scofield.

AAJ: If you could go back in time who would you like to work with again?

JM: Thad, most definitely. And this time I would pester him with a ton of questions about arranging and Count Basie.

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