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Meet John McNeil

Craig Jolley By

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One-of-a-kind trumpeter John McNeil is not as well-known as he might be, but things are looking up for him lately after putting out a couple of varied, personal, and idea-filled CD's. The concept for the second of these, Sleep Won't Come, came out of his long-time battle with insomnia and the sense of frustration that hits him when he sees the sun come up. Of course I interviewed him at 3 A.M. after he'd played a gig at Cornelia Street Cafe with his quintet, Insomnia.

Cornelia Street Café performance

It was great, a full house for both sets. There were some sound problems at first. I have a clip-on mike, and I just go through the house system. The regular sound guy wasn't there, and he sent a sub who had zero experience. For the first set he turned on a subwoofer on my channel. It would pick up the sound of the valves and amplify it and generally distort me. Bill McHenry figured it out at intermission, and it was OK after that.

Sleep Won't Come and the Insomnia Quintet

The album Sleep Won't Come uses piano, trumpet, and bass. We were going to do the record release at the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) here in New York last August. Dave Douglas and a couple of guys put FONT together. It's at Tonic and various places around the city for a whole month. Jeff Jenkins and Kent McLagan [piano and bass on the CD] had other commitments, so rather than scout around for a different pianist and go through trying to get the right vibe I decided to arrange the music for something with no piano at all so there couldn't be any comparison. I took some of the music from Sleep Won't Come and adapted it for trumpet, tenor, trombone, bass and drums. Some tunes wouldn't translate, and some like "Polka Party" turned out quite different. We got a good response, and I said, "Why don't I write some more music for this group." It's turned into a band with its own identity. Curtis Hasselbring, the trombone player, is out of his mind. My pal Bill McHenry has been leading bands around town, at the Vanguard and elsewhere. Mike McGuirk, a virtuoso bassist, has been playing every gig of mine. I don't know how long that will last because he's been discovered by John Abercrombie and others.

This Way Out (OmniTone CD)

Joe Smith, the famous Spanish drummer, lives in New York half the time. He hooked me up with a little tour in Spain, three weeks. I wrote a bunch of music for the tour, with no idea of recording. Joe hired Gorka Benitez, a Spanish tenor player (who I'd never heard of). He's actually very famous there. Gorka played great, and the music started coming together after a few gigs. I said, "I'm not going to let this go," and I booked a studio at the end of the tour for two days. I did the editing in New York and took it over to Frank [Tafuri] at OmniTone, a guy who I've known for years. He called an hour later and said, "I want it." Some of the music on This Way Out is very Spanish-influenced. "Mi Tio" is like a 3/4 Flamenco thing with groups of 5 against the 3. They do stuff like that all the time. "A la Orilla," is a tango that has a real Iberian vibe. "Flor de Viento," one of Gorka's tunes, is named for a horse which belonged to some old Spanish hero. Being in that culture, you can't help having the music reflect it, although most things on the CD are pure New York.

Current bands

I'm psyched about my three bands. Urban Legend uses guitar and is oriented around [chord] changes and harmony. Steve Cardenas [the guitarist] and I have written some music for it. The last gig we played, the crowd really loved the music—it's listenable and accessible but not dumb. I'd like to get it recorded this year. Insomnia is pretty free, with very little actual harmonic structure. I just started another band with Bill McHenry [tenor player] using the same instrumentation as This Way Out: trumpet, tenor, bass, and drums. We played One Station Plaza in Peekskill, north of the city. We had a hip crowd, and it's a great place to play, great sound system. I don't know where it will lead, but I hope it's somewhere

Orchestral project with Pulse

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