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The John McNeil / Bill McHenry Quartet at the Village Vanguard

Budd Kopman By

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The John McNeil / Bill McHenry Quartet at The Village Vanguard
The Village Vanguard
New York City
August 22, 2007

Trumpeter John McNeil, whose release East Coast Cool was on many "Best of—" lists for 2006, has created a band that fulfills his personal musical vision. This quartet, with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jochen Ruekert, plays regularly on Sundays at the Biscuit BBQ restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and thus is a finely honed unit.

The Vanguard is a small club, and to hear jazz in a purely acoustic setting was in itself a wonderful experience. To fill the club on a Wednesday in August is saying something about McNeil, and the intimacy between the performers and the audience was apparent. In fact, McNeil played to this connection with his banter that showed his rather unique sense of humor and viewpoint on life.

McNeil combines modern harmonic and phrasing sensibilities with lesser known tunes by either obscure or famous songwriters from the forties and fifties. Hearing this mixture live is just as subtly shocking and subversive an experience as listening to the music on East Coast Cool. The familiar Golden Age of hard and cool bop, or the East/West Coast sound that for many is what defines jazz, was deconstructed and then put back together into an attractive, humorous and just plain cool package.

Although the quartet separates naturally into front and back lines, and the structure of most tunes follows the established pattern—declamation, front-line solos (sometimes bass and/or drums), trading fours and then recap—the music sounded like anything but an historic recreation. A good measure of the credit for the music's freshness must go to Martin and Reukert. While the music did swing, Reukert did much more than timekeeping and Martin supplied more than harmonic walking bass lines. They seemed to play melodies and worked together to fill in the parts not covered by the two frontline players. Moreover, the rhythm was supple and alive, carrying the music along.

Having such a fine rhythm section allowed McNeil and McHenry, who are true musical equals, to leave lots of space and to play elliptical lines full of rhythmic inference. When advanced harmonies were added to the spare melodic textures, the music entered that wonderful zone, for musician and listener alike, of seeming timeless. The music filled the room, and McNeil, McHenry and we the audience became part of the music.

Playing unknown tunes separates the music from the past: the selections could just as well have been current compositions. This was as true of "Soft Shoe" by Gerry Mulligan as it was of Dizzy Gillespie's "Caprice." As if to make it crystal clear that familiar chestnuts could sound equally current and fresh, the band played "Moonlight In Vermont." While the harmonies used in the solos were still "out there," the distinctive intervals that make the tune so recognizable jumped out and added flashes of color to the solos. Yet, despite the fact that this tune is so well known, the band's treatment abstracted it into pure jazz.

McNeil and McHenry love to quip and joke, but it was also evident that they're dead serious about making music that lives and breathes.

Visit John McNeil on the web.

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