John McNeil: Sleep Won't Come (2004)

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John McNeil: Sleep Won't Come
In this varied set led by trumpeter John McNeil, ostensibly an homage to his own difficulties with insomnia, the term "chamber jazz" is given a slightly different twist—far from the light counterpoint of the MJQ, passages of intense freedom and effortless propulsion mark the improvisations of McNeil, pianist Jeff Jenkins and bassist Kent McLagan.

Like Dave Douglas, McNeil has worked extensively with Horace Silver, and not unlike Douglas, he has a penchant for odd instrumentation (viola, flute and baritone commingle on one recording), more than a taste of freedom and a strong tinge of classicism in his phrasing. Originally intended as a duo between Jenkins and McNeil, the addition of a third player certainly pushes the music into a highly cooperative and unified trio aesthetic. McNeil's phrasing is certain and bright, edgy and responsive, echoing such bastions of small-group chamber jazz as Don Ellis and Bill Dixon (the instrumentation of Ellis' unrecorded trio with Jaki Byard in the early '60s is not lost as a comparison). And like both of those notable comparisons, the "trumpeter's bravura" doesn't overshadow his ensemble companions, something difficult to do without a saxophone or another horn in the mix. Part of this is certainly due to Jenkins' weighty tone clusters and rhythmic intensity, the frantic stepchild of Byard and Cecil that has marked several early '80s underground pianists (Cooper-Moore, Joel Futterman, et al.).

In the more pell-mell passages of the music, on pieces such as "The Other World" and Jenkins' brief number "Wired Together," the propulsiveness of the music is so frenetic as to render the bassist's contribution slight. McLagan's touch is, after all, somewhat softer than such dense explorations might warrant. On more sparse affairs, such as the somewhat minimalist "Each Moment Remains," pastoral repetition and trumpet sketches meet McLagan's melodious side and this is where the bassist truly shines. Ditto "Escape from Beigeland," its melody a direct quote of Don Ellis' "Four and Three," pleasantly mated with a strong Eastern European flair.

On John McNeil's latest installment for the OmniTone label, it is plain to see that the merging of classicism, freedom and eclecticism has made this trio a drummer-less powerhouse. Despite the references to sleep deprivation, this set is as engaging and unpredictable as any bright fall afternoon.

Track Listing: Sleep Won't Come; The Other World; The Water is Wide; Wired Together; Each Moment Remains; Escape from Beigeland; Penumbra; Polka Party; Somnabulation; Nanotech; World Without Velcro.

Personnel: John McNeil: trumpet; Jeff Jenkins: piano, prepared piano; Kent McLagan: bass.

Record Label: OmniTone

Style: Modern Jazz

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