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John McNeil: East Coast Cool

Budd Kopman By

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The best jazz is always at least a bit subversive—it does the unexpected, perhaps even setting the listener up for something, only to slap him about it later. Jazz can be the epitome of unpredictability and subversion when musicians play around the melody or forego it altogether, when they fracture the harmony and stretch it to its limits, or when they purposefully thwart a rhythmic pattern. This is the jazz you remember, the albums that get played over and over, the music about which you say, "Listen to this...."

John McNeil's East Coast Cool is one of the coolest releases I've heard in a long time and most definitely one of the most subversive. The music and the playing stands on its own without needing any reference to the original Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker quartet from the early fifties. If you're not familiar with that music, there is still much to hear and learn from here, since most of the tunes are McNeil originals in which he refuses to do anything predictable. While there is a lot of deep musical thinking on display, many spots also produce a good laugh—since McNeil, while serious, does not take himself too seriously.

If, however, you are familiar with Mulligan and Baker, then you will know about the "shocking" piano-less quartet, which was a then-revolutionary sound. You will know how the cool and laid-back West Coast sound was full of tension beneath the surface, carried to the extreme by Mulligan and Baker. It was a reaction to the "hot" East Coast sound and, yes, was intended to subvert it.

Along comes McNeil, who has connections back to Mulligan's music and who wanted to created a homage to Mulligan and his sound, but within the framework of his own modern (and admittedly somewhat twisted) sensibilities. Go back and listen to the original "Bernie's Tune," then the version here, and be prepared to scratch your head and then laugh out loud as the essence of a nice, catchy tune is turned inside out.

McNeil brought in Allan Chase for the Mulligan role, and he not only helped bring the project to fruition, but manages to be cool and maniacally free at the same time, pushing the music and McNeil himself constantly. John Herbert (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) have a very difficult job, since they not only lock into a cool groove but must turn on a dime when the music demands.

It's hard to list all the wonderful musical details on East Coast Cool, but the very long drum roll in "Delusions" stands out, as does the way "Deadline" sounds like quintessential Mulligan and yet uses the Elliot Carter technique of "metric modulation." "A Time to Go" is just funny—it makes fun of itself and the West Coast "happy tune"—while "Schoenberg's Piano Concerto" uses twelve-tone rows from the original and yet sounds cool in a (subverted) way.

Easily a top ten pick from 2005, East Coast Cool will spin in your player and your consciousness many times.

Track Listing: Deadline, A Time to Go, Brothr Frank, Bernie's tune, Duet #1, Delusions, Wanwood, Internal Hurdles, Duet #2, Waltz Helios, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, GAB

Personnel: John McNeil: trumpet; Alan Chase: baritone saxophone; John Hebert: bass; Matt Wilson: drums

Title: East Coast Cool | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: OmniTone


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