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John McNeil: East Coast Cool

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John McNeil may have stumbled onto something worthwhile here. Of late, the trumpeter/leader/composer has been recording for OmniTone, a Brooklyn-based label which specializes in the edgy music that one might encounter in many of New York's downtown jazz clubs. McNeil goes back some time and has been part of the jazz scene there since the 1970s, also having worked with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Horace Silver's quintet. I especially liked his dates as a leader on the Steeplechase label.

After the death of Gerry Mulligan, McNeil was asked to write for a Mulligan tribute band. His experience got him thinking about a concept in which the baritone legend's style could be incorporated within a free jazz approach, thus creating a new style. Utilizing the same piano-less quartet format, McNeil sought to begin with a replication of the popular West Coast group which served as a springboard for individual careers of that quartet.

Allan Chase (baritone sax), John Hebert (bass), and the critically respected drummer Matt Wilson are important to the success of this album. Chase's work is especially impressive not so much as a Jeruvian imitation, but in his ability to play in the same mode and swagger (a la Pepper Adams) at times without being derivative. These dozen tracks only include two associated with Mulligan and, in truth, McNeil's version of "Bernie's Tune" spends so little time on the melody that it is a veritable non-tribute. On the other hand, most of the originals do indeed capture a specific feel for the mid-tempo, balladic style of the West Coast foursome.

On the opening "Deadline," McNeil and Chase trade lines in the patented Mulligan-Baker mode. When McNeil solos, there is no similarity with Chet Baker, but he does transform his statements, taking the music considerably further out than one might expect from this setting. Allan Chase, in beginning compositions like "A Time To Go" and "Wanwood," takes the melody in the same style as Mulligan and solos, likewise, in a comfortable and largely mainstream manner. Chase was formerly known as the "wild alto player" who accompanied the fiery Rashied Ali.

The guys who are really doing all the work are Hebert and Wilson. During the melody statements and mainstream solos, they are the very model of timekeeping and brushwork. When the music heats up, Matt Wilson goes off in many directions in tandem with McNeil's trumpet, as does Hebert, who will be appearing as Andrew Hill's bassist on the soon-to-be released Time Lines.

The liner notes offer a bit of conjecture as to how the combination of West Coast cool and East Coast cool (quite a different beast) yields a fusion of styles that works to bring out the best in both. I've listened to this album about four times so far and keep going back to learn more. It's fully listenable from a mainstream perspective, never sounding too extreme, and the Mulligan-Baker flavor remains intact. Could this be the start of something?

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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