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Pianist Jim McNeely has proven his excellence at large-group writing many times, with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (later to become the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra and more. He proves it again with this exceptional CD, his first for the young OmniTone label.
Leading a ten-piece ensemble through eight fabulous pieces (four are originals), McNeely creates a sound that is futuristic yet rich with bop reference points. His work tends to grab listeners by the throat more than, say, Maria Schneider's, although he has in common with Schneider a mastery of dynamics and tonal variation. He builds his arrangements around his soloists, but in two different ways. On Bud Powell's "The Fruit," for instance, the solo baton changes hands eleven times in the course of eight minutes, with each player making a brief commentary in between high-energy ensemble statements. The title track proceeds similarly, except the soloists are featured mostly in pairs. Other tracks, such as "Cranky Takes a Holiday" and McNeely's wonderfully dark rendering of "Silent Night," feature extended solos from only three or four players.
All the soloists are meticulously identified on the CD sleeve, although there's one minor mistake: on John Coltrane's "Village Blues," Billy Drewes is said to follow Tom Varner, when he actually precedes Varner.
McNeely's arrangements amaze not only on the level of craft, but on the level of imagination. Consider the five-bar vamp that ends "Silent Night"; the 7/4 subsection in the middle of "Group Therapy"; the descending figures that erupt like fireworks during the concluding Caribbean groove of "Cranky Takes a Holiday"; or the strange fanfare that fleetingly appears during John Hollenbeck's drum solo on "Lost." It's details like these, sometimes hushed or unassuming, other times thunderous, that make Group Therapy a worthy candidate for jazz album of the year, even at this early date.
Track Listing: The Fruit;Cranky Takes a Holiday; Silent Night; Lost; Group Therapy; Village Blues; Body and Soul; A Perfect Six.
Personnel: Tony Kadleck: trumpet; Greg Gisbert; trumpet; Scott Wendholt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tom Varner: French horn; Ed Neumeister: trombone; Dick Oatts: soprano and alto saxophones, flute; Billy Drewes: soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet; Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Cameron Brown: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums; Jim McNeely: piano.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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