When today's top composer-arrangers of large ensemble jazz are discussed, Jim McNeely's name sometimes gets overlooked. He deserves the recognition. He's been a long- time associate of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and its descendant, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and he's also done a lot of work with several European big bands. It could be that simply his large ensemble writing seldom gets recorded. That makes Barefoot Dances special. It's a powerful suite McNeely wrote for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band recorded in 2014, a collection of imaginary musical scenes and tributes to a couple of his departed influences.
It begins with "Bob's Here," a shout out to one of McNeely's mentors, Bob Brookmeyer. It's an energetic piece full of shouting brass and tense, staccato rhythms highlighted by a punchy valve trombone solo by Christian Jakso and shrieking rock guitar by Martin Scales. Peter Reiter's piano lightly dances through the waltzing introduction of "Black Snow" before it turns into a warm ballad with lovely meshed horn harmonies and a haunting flugelhorn solo by Martin Auer.
"Barefoot Dances" starts with Gunter Bollman's trombone strutting over the slippery drum work of Jean Paul Höchstädter before the full band kicks in with waves of pealing chords and twisty dance riffs over Hochstadter's martial attack. "A Glimmer Of Hope" gives things over to the low horns. Rainer Heute plays subdued baritone sax against soft, deep undercurrents from the trombone section, then duets with Peter Fell's trombone until the entire orchestra starts slowly pushing lush, radiant harmonies along and Fell takes his own gorgeous, melancholy solo.
The "Redman" in "Redman Rides Again" is the 30's bandleader and composer Don Redman. McNeely bends the knee to him with a dreamlike wave of brass led by Axel Schlosser's flugelhorn that gives way to a hot, shimmying 30's style clarinet trio that seems about to break into Duke Ellington's "Rockin' In Rhythm" but instead flies into spiraling unison accompanied by shouting brass and edgy electric guitar. "Falling Upwards" is a rich ballad that features two tenor players. First Tony Lakatos lays down a beautiful statement over spectral guitar and drums. Then as the orchestra glides into a slow, sophisticated mood, Steffan Weber steps to the front, blowing his sax with grace and eloquence over rich band harmonies. Finally there's "The Cosmic Hodge-Podge." This features Thomas Heiderpriem taking a deep, pizzicato bass solo over hushed ensemble chords, bubbly sax and trumpet passages, an Aaron Copland quote, flying trumpet by Schlosser, frisky tenor by Lakatos and an steadily increasing feel of excitement and urgency.
This is a showcase for the kind of superb big band music Jim McNeely can compose. His sound is squarely in the jazz tradition of shouting horn sections and sweeping ensemble movement, but carries a tough edge through the judicious use of aggressive drumming and electric guitar buzz. He also demonstrates a feel for arranging orchestral colors that is magical. He is really an unsung hero among today's jazz arrangers and this CD is full of the kind of wonderful large scale music he can create.
Bob’s Here; Black Snow; Barefoot Dances; A Glimmer of Hope; Redman Rides Again; Falling Upwards; The Cosmic Hodge-Podge.
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.