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Jim McNeely: On the Up and Up

By Published: May 5, 2008

Trio Music

AAJ: When did you start leading you own trio?

JM: Around 1983. I made a demo recording with Marc Johnson (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums), which was Stan's rhythm section at the time. It was released as From the Heart (Owl, 1985), and we played some gigs after that. I was using a couple of synthesizers and a sequencer for some of the tunes—the "big trio," as opposed to the "small trio," which was acoustic. I don't play with a trio very often, but when I do I really enjoy it. It's a nice release from the big band and orchestra projects that I do.

AAJ: How has it evolved over the years?

JM: I think that the music has become less complicated. When I started in '83, I wasn't doing much large ensemble writing. So some of my trio music was rather involved, because I was trying to do a lot with just three players. As time has gone on, and I've done more big stuff, I don't feel the necessity to do a lot of composing for the trio. In '06-'07 I spent five months writing a huge piece for the Frankfurt (HR) Symphony Orchestra and Big Band; then I conducted it in March of '07. After that it felt nice to play some blues and standards with a trio, and just get into the moment with those tunes.

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Composing, Arranging and The Return of the Big Band

AAJ: You are regarded as a terrific composer. What's your goal when you write music?

JM: In one sense, my goal is to create a story; a drama with characters and plot, atmosphere and improvisation, grooves and surprises. I see myself as a playwright, composing a script for sixteen or twenty people that will unfold over a length of time. In a very different sense my goal is to meet a deadline. I have developed quite a neurotic relationship with the deadline. Fear of failure is a powerful motivating force. Maybe instead of terrific I'm a terrified composer!

Jim McNeelyAAJ: How was it like writing for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band in the '90s?

JM: It was great in several ways. First, by 1993 I had quite a reputation as a big band writer in certain parts of Europe, but virtually none on this side of the Atlantic. Writing for the CHJB gave me the opportunity to present some of my writing in New York City. It was a matter of traveling 25 minutes via the Lincoln Tunnel as opposed to 8'½ hours on Lufthansa!

The CHJB was also comprised of great players with a lot of collective history under their belts. People like Slide Hampton, Frank Wess, and Jerry Dodgion. Even the young guys like Steve Turre, Ralph Lalama, and Lew Soloff had been around for quite awhile. They brought a maturity and seasoning to the music that you wouldn't get with younger players.

Also, the Carnegie Hall approach to repertoire was interesting to me. The idea was to take music from the history of jazz and not reproduce it exactly, but re-work it for the spirits of the players in the band. To be honest, this had mixed results. But I believe that some of the concerts I was involved in—especially the Benny Goodman tribute and Chick Corea concert—were absolute masterpieces. It's a shame that the band released only one CD.

AAJ: You have since then been involved in writing and arranging for quite a few big band projects. You have recently been appointed artist-in-residence with the Hessian Radio Big Band (Frankfurt). You have also worked extensively with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the West German Radio (WDR) Big Band and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. How do you see the future of these ensembles in a world ruled by more and more individualism and starving for stardom? Can this be orchestrated?

JM: One of the most important threads throughout the history of jazz involves the relationship between written and improvised music. While jazz has always been considered an improviser's art, people—listeners and players—have always been attracted to the sound of a large group providing a framework for the improvisation.

Many times the writing is a reflection of an improviser's style. Benny Carter's saxophone solos sound like harmonized versions of his own playing. After Louis Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson's band, Don Redman wrote ensemble sections that sounded like Armstrong's solos, in block harmony. Dizzy Gillespie's big band was a large-scale summary of the be-bop language—harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic—that was developed in small-group settings.

Jim McNeely

At the same time, good composer/arrangers have always known how to use improvised solos as key elements, if not the focal point of their work. Ellington is the acknowledged master here, but let's not forget Redman, Carter, Gil Evans, Thad, Eddie Sauter, Bill Holman, Sy Oliver, Bob Brookmeyer, etc., etc. All of these people excelled at balancing the elegance of the improviser with the power and color of the larger group.

When I've worked with the bands that you mention, it's almost always been with a guest soloist. Whether that soloist is old or young, American or European, they are usually knocked out by the sound of the band, and the excitement that comes from being a featured soloist with a world-class ensemble playing really good music. In keeping with the tradition of writers I mention earlier, it is entirely possible to compose and arrange for great individual soloists, using the resources of these great bands. The best projects I've conducted always involve music written for a specific soloist with a specific band.

But this leads me to another important point. These ensembles cannot be defined purely by their guest soloists. Each band must have its own sound, its own time feel, and some interesting soloists of their own. It's the responsibility of the band to keep developing these elements to form a strong, individual identity, with or without a well-known soloist out front. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming a faceless radio band, and their days are numbered.

AAJ: Besides your joining the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in 1996, most of these bands are European. Is the big band era over in the USA?

JM: What we call the Big Band Era has been over in the USA since around 1950. That was the era of big dance bands. Even the bands we now revere in the jazz world—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman—were, essentially dance bands that toured constantly.

We are now currently witnessing a different kind of Big Band Era—we might call it the Jazz Orchestra Era. There are institution-supported ensembles like Jazz at Lincoln Center, and The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. There are other groups, most notably the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, that survive through a combination of a steady gig, tours, and grant money. Maria Schneider's orchestra is a living, breathing ensemble, with gigs. Many other composer/leaders have bands that perform less frequently, but steadily. And, of course, in the US there are many university-level ensembles that serve as training grounds for players and composers.

Jim McNeely

As opposed to the older Big Band Era these groups are in general concert, not dance ensembles. They don't tour like in the old days; some only play concerts in their home area. But the commitment by the leaders and players is consistent and ongoing. So while modern-day jazz orchestras may not lead the kinds of commercial lives of their older predecessors, they thrive in their own artistic ways.

One thing lacking in the US is the European model: the big band supported by government arts money, or by state-subsidized radio companies. And in Europe, some of these groups now face shrinking funding from their official sources. It will be interesting to see how these groups deal with this challenge. I hope they can survive. You cannot talk about the current state of the big band without including these European groups.

AAJ: I know in May [2008] you will be playing with Orquestra de Jazz de Matosinhos, from Portugal. What is your involvement in this project and what do you think of this orchestra?

JM: I'm really looking forward to my visit with OJM. We are performing as part of the Festival de Jazz de Matosinhos on May 22. I have sent a full concert's worth of my big band music to them. The program will consist of pieces I have written for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra; also some pieces from my Swiss Jazz Orchestra CD, based on paintings by Paul Klee. I will be conducting the concert, and playing on a few of them. To be honest, I haven't heard the orchestra yet. But they have done some very interesting projects over the last four or five years, with Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow and Carla Bley, and some of Thad Jones' music. So I am excited about working with them. I also really like Portugal, so I look forward to my visit.

AAJ: You are the musical director of the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop, and you have recently joined the jazz composition faculty at the Manhattan School of Music. You have also been very deep involved in teaching jazz. What message have you been spreading all over the world?

JM: Message? Hmm, I guess the most important thing I try to impart to my students is that they should find what they are really passionate about, and develop the tools to excel at that passion.

In my composition teaching, I work with them on technique as relating to rhythm, form, harmony, etc. But I also tell them that, to paraphrase Stravinsky, a composer's primary job is to speculate. A composer asks "What if?" rather than "May I?" or "Is it in the tradition to...?" And you've got to be completely honest, with yourself and with your audience.

The same goes for improvising. The great musicians aren't concerned whether they're pleasing critics, teachers, or anyone else. They play what they absolutely must play; write what they absolutely must write. If you start to feel that your true passion lays somewhere else, then you should pursue that something else. Another message is that to play or write this music well, it takes work—a lot of work. I'm amazed at how many young folks don't get this.

Jim McNeelyAAJ: It's not easy to find you as a pianist at the main jazz festivals. What have you been doing recently?

JM: Over the last ten years I've spent a lot of time writing music and conducting large ensembles in Europe and the US. I've got a family, so I've cut back on my live performing so that I'm home some of the time. I intend to get back into playing more in the next couple of years.

AAJ: What do you expect to accomplish in jazz in the future?

JM: To keep doing things that I haven't done before.

AAJ: Is there a future at all for jazz?

JM: I'm sure that there is. Jazz is the most important musical development of the 20th century. I don't think it's going away. On the other hand, I hope that jazz remains a vibrant, living music, and doesn't become an ossified museum piece. It's all up to us, isn't it?

Selected Discography

Jim McNeely/Kelly Sill/Joel Spencer, Boneyard (Origin, 2007)
The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Up from the Skies: The Music of Jim McNeely (Planet Arts, 2006)

Danish Radio Big Band/Jim McNeely, (Cope, 2006)
Paul Klee, The Swiss Jazz Orchestra & Jim McNeely (Mons, 2006) Jim McNeely, In This Moment (Stunt, 2003)
Dave Liebman Big Band, Beyond the Line (OmniTone, 2003)
Jim McNeely Tentet, Group Therapy (OmniTone, 2001)
Jim McNeely, Sound Bites (Dragon, 1997)
Lickety Split: The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Plays the Music of Jim McNeely (New World , 1997)

Phil Woods and Jim McNeely, Plays the Music of Jim McNeely (TCB, 1996)
Jim McNeely, Live at Maybeck, Volume 20 (Concord Jazz, 1992)
Phil Woods with Jim McNeely, Flowers for Hodges (Concord, 1991)
Phil Woods' Little Big Band, Real :Life (Chesky, 1990)
Jim McNeely, East Coast Blow Out (Lipstick, 1989)
Jim McNeely, Winds of Change (SteepleChase, 1989)
Jim McNeely, From the Heart (Owl, 1984)
Stan Getz, Blue Skies (Concord, 1982)
Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Village Vanguard> (DCC, 1980)
Jim McNeely, The Plot Thickens (Muse, 1979)
Jim McNeely, Rain's Dance (SteepleChase, 1976)

Photo Credits
Bottom Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Jim McNeely

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Download jazz mp3 “Ernie Banks” by Jim McNeely/Kelly Sill/Joel Spencer
  • Ernie Banks
  • Jim McNeely/Kelly Sill/Joel Spencer
  • Boneyard