Anyone who has suffered from a bout of insomnia knows what trumpeter John McNeil is talking about with Sleep Won't Come. First there are the mental gymnastics as you try to settle your mind down, but instead you find yourself plagued with a barrage of ideas that just won't quit. Then you try the relaxation devices: visualization and deep breathing. Then you look at the clock, realizing that it's already 4:00 AM, and even if you do manage to get some sleep, you'll only get three hours of it and no matter what happens, you're going to be exhausted at work. Back returns the jumble of ideas. And so on.
McNeil has a wicked, almost relentless sense of humour as he takes the listener through a sleepless night on Sleep Won't Come. Collaborating with pianist Jeff Jenkins and bassist Kent McLagan, there's enough texture available to simulate the frustrating mind cramps that happen, but the trio is also sensitive enough to portray attempts at relaxation and emptying the mind. The album opens with the title track, a peaceful tone poem that finds Jenkins developing long, sustaining chords, over which Jenkins muses in a quiet and tranquil way. But it doesn't last long, and in short order the trio is into "The Other World," where cacophonous, ham-fisted piano chords and jagged trumpet lines create a sense of busyness. McNeil, Jenkins and McLagan seem to work in tandem while, at the same time, seeming somehow at odds with each other, simulating that sense of an unquiet mind that just can't stop working.
Other tracks find the McNeil trying, time and again, to create a sense of peace, but they never last long. From a lush reading of "The Water is Wide," where McLagan delivers the theme with a stately arco, to the longer "Each Moment Remains," where Jenkins' sustained arpeggios create a thick ambience over which McNeil's muted trumpet evokes a certain In a Silent Way Miles mood, the trio tries hard to settle things down and create a quiet space conducive to drifting off. But for every attempt at relaxation comes a more jarring alternative. On "Wired Together" Jenkins's prepared piano is punctuated by siren-like trumpet wails, while on "Escape from Beigeland," with its Ornette-like bop line and free middle section, the trio sits somewhere between the organized and the disorganized. But all is not purely serious; McNeil brings some humour to the table with "Polka Party," simulating those times where, in the midst of all that sleeplessness, the mind has "a brilliant ideawriting it down and then reading it the next day and realizing it's how to make toast."
All analogies aside, McNeil is a fine and highly underrated player who has also written one of the most acclaimed trumpet method books around. With a breadth of style, a clear sense of humour and understanding of the human condition, Sleep Won't Come works because, in many ways, it is simply all too familiar.
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Personnel: John McNeil: trumpet; Jeff Jenkins: piano, prepared piano; Kent McLagan: bass.