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Jim McNeely / Frankfurt Radio Big Band: Barefoot Dances and Other Visions

Jack Bowers By

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Barefoot Dances and Other Visions is a contemporary seven-part suite written by composer/arranger Jim McNeely in 2014 for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with whom he has worked since 2008. "I tailored my musical visions," he writes, "to fit each player in the ensemble, and placed each soloist in a framework both familiar and challenging." Challenging it is, starting with "Bob's Here," a well-drawn homage to one of McNeely's mentors, the late composer / valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, written in Brookmeyer's modal style.

"Bob's Here," which features crisp solos by valve trombonist Christian Jakso (sitting in for Brookmeyer) and guitarist Martin Scales, segues into the more introspective "Black Snow," introduced by pianist Peter Reiter and accentuated by Martin Auer's probing flugelhorn. The exuberant "Barefoot Dances," which follows, was inspired in part, McNeely writes, by Henri Matisse's painting The Dance, and in part by "years of dreaming." Gunther Bollman starts the dance on trombone, and Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn ends it on soprano sax with yeoman support from the ensemble.

The cerebral "Glimmer of Hope," McNeely writes, "is optimism struggling to survive in an ocean of darkness." The murkiness is personified by baritone saxophonist Rainer Heute and bass trombonist Manfred Honetschlager, the longing by trombonist Peter Feil whose solo leads the ensemble to a consummation that is neither dark nor hopeful but somewhere in between. A second tribute is up next, this one to composer/saxophonist Don Redman who was known among other things for his writing for clarinet trios. The clarinetist on this upbeat (and, toward the end, clamorous) number is Oliver Leicht who is part of a "real" clarinet trio and forms a "virtual" trio with his harmonized clarinet.

Once "Redman" runs its course, tenor Tony Lakatos takes the reins on the pensive "Falling Upwards," handing them later to fellow tenor Steffen Weber who delivers one of the session's more tantalizing solos before the orchestra glides to a finish behind Jean-Paul Hochstadter's tasteful drum fills. Then it's on to the suitably named end-piece, "Cosmic Hodge-Podge," a vision of "a cosmic soup where galaxies are replaced by blocks of sound." If that seems a touch ambitious, it is. The melancholy opening, underscored by bassist Thomas Heidepriem, leads to a blustery ensemble passage with solos to match by Lakatos, Hochstadter and trumpeter Axel Schlosser. At its end, "Hodge-Podge" is sealed by a single black hole, followed by who knows what.

As is true of any theme or series of themes written by McNeely, there is much on Barefoot Dances to ponder and absorb. In other words, he writes for a seasoned audience. Some may find the music equivocal and demanding, others clear and temperate. Whatever the verdict, what is beyond question is that McNeely is a world-class composer and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band a world-class ensemble. While McNeely's music may not be for everyone, it should greatly please those at whose hearts and souls it is aimed.

Track Listing: Bob’s Here; Black Snow; Barefoot Dances; A Glimmer of Hope; Redman Rides Again; Falling Upwards; The Cosmic Hodge-Podge.

Personnel: Jim McNeely, composer, arranger, conductor; Frank Wellert: trumpet, flugelhorn; Thomas Vogel: trumpet, flugelhorn; Martin Auer: trumpet, flugelhorn; Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn: soprano, alto sax, flute, alto flute, bass flute, clarinet; Oliver Leicht: soprano, alto sax, flute, alto flute, B flat and alto clarinet; Tony Lakatos: tenor sax, flute, alto flute; Steffen Weber: tenor sax, flute, bass flute, clarinet; Rainer Heute: baritone sax, bass clarinet, alto flute; Gunter Bollman: trombone; Peter Feil: trombone; Christian Jakso: trombone, euphonium, valve trombone; Manfred Honetschlager: bass trombone; Peter Reiter: piano; Martin Scales: guitar; Thomas Heidepriem: bass; Jean Paul Hochstadter: drums.

Title: Barefoot Dances and Other Visions | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Planet Arts

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