As a partisan of straight–ahead big–band Jazz, I approach cautiously any album encompassing Jim McNeely’s music, as I can never be sure before listening which of the two McNeelys may show up, the laid–back moderate or the wild–eyed extremist. Happily, Sound Bites, recorded with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra in ’95 and featuring on four tracks McNeely’s amply endowed teammate in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, saxophonist Dick Oatts, is about as plainspoken and swinging as a big–band date can be. McNeely’s seven charts (and four compositions), while no less demanding than one usually envisions from him, offer the SJO a picturesque landscape through which to romp, and the orchestra takes every advantage, achieving, in McNeely’s words, a “wondrous combination of precision and looseness” that enlivens every number in this superlative studio / concert recording. Oatts is a high–grade explosive, whether on soprano (“Sound Bites,” “Yesterdays”) or alto (“305,” “The Song Is You”), and the SJO is sharp and responsive throughout. The orchestra boasts some top–drawer improvisers of its own, notably trumpeters Gustavo Bergalli (“Pete’s Feet”) and Peter Asplund (“The Song Is You”), bassist Jan Adefelt (“Pete’s Feet”), tenor Magnus Lindgren and drummer Jukkis Uotila (“Empty House”), trombonist Bertil Strandberg (“305”) and alto Johan Hörlén (showcased on Ellington’s “Sentimental Mood”). McNeely, as splendid a pianist as he is a composer / arranger, solos on “Sound Bites” and “Empty House.” McNeely and the band nestle into a buoyant groove on “Pete’s Feet,” named for the pianist’s son who was learning to walk at the time, and stay there most of the way. An exception is the darker–hued “Sound Bites,” written for Dave Liebman and played wonderfully by Oatts. “Empty House” is packed with swinging commentary by Lindgren, McNeely, Uotila and the ensemble, while “305” honors the Caribbean influences that overspread McNeely’s former neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. McNeely and the SJO seem to be a near–perfect match, and we hope their alliance leads to more albums as admirable as this one.
Track listing: Pete’s Feet; Sound Bites; Yesterdays; Empty House; 305; In a Sentimental Mood; The Song Is You (68:21).
Jim McNeely, conductor, piano; Dick Oatts, alto, soprano sax soloist; Fredrik Nor