Interview with John McNeil for release of East Coast Cool on OmniTone
by Frank Tafuri, producer

John McNeil doing what he does best

McNeil: I think that saying he didn't know what key he was playing in was probably a real overstatement. I think people make statements like that about jazz musicians that somehow make the sound more "serious," like they were hit by a bolt of lightning from Zeus and could just "play."
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What it was with Chet was that he didn't articulate things exactly. But I think you can't play in that organized a fashion and not know something.
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Anyway, I was always interesting in exploring what would happen if the Mulligan-Baker thing happened with modern sensibilities. I mean Baker-Mulligan was a long time ago; a lot of music has happened since then. Also, Mulligan never involved the rhythm section at all. They were sort of just there as a backdrop.

Tafuri: A "canvas."

McNeil: Yeah, basically wallpaper, for providing a groove or whatever, and there was an occasional bass solo, but not very often. Maybe, there'd be occasional trading with the drums. Even in his later years, Mulligan hated it when drummers would play across the barlines. He would say, "The only people that like that 'hide-the-one shit' are other musicians. He was sort of cranky about that. At the same time, he would have these great drummers play with him. Billy Hart played with him a lot. I think Billy just adapted to what was required, and I think that was one of the best-sounding bands he'd ever had.

Tafuri: Chico Hamilton played with him, too, didn't he?

McNeil: Oh, yeah. For years and years. But when you're thinking about Billy Hart, you're thinking about playing across the bars. Man! I went to see that band, mostly just because I was curious.
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I was curious to see what would happen if I took some of the sensibilities that the Mulligan-Baker band had and applied it to modern music. In their time, they didn't really play "free" music, as such; everything was playing changes. It was oriented around tonal harmony or, at least, functional harmony. A lot of ii-V-I, key-oriented standards, and a lot of the original tunes they played were based on standards or, maybe, a couple of standards — they use the bridge of one and the outside of another. So, I decided, 'Well, let's not do that. Let's take what was done in free music and apply certain 'organizing principles' to the Mulligan-Baker thing.'
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It took a long time to do it. It took a year-and-a-half of writing and rejecting. I studied their music more thoroughly that I ever had. Before, this was music that I had just "listened to." I used to copy Chet Baker a bit when I was first starting out, because he was easy to copy. (Well, some of it was easy, and some of it was hard.) When you're just learning to play, I was just learning the fingerings, so I couldn't copy Clifford Brown, so I thought, 'I'll just copy this guy.' But when I started this project, I hadn't really listened in a long, long time to that music in any serious way. So, I went back and studied it and tried to figure out what sonorities they used and what other things they did, and I tried to figure out the different ways Mulligan got variety in what they did. One of the things they did a lot, which we didn't do a lot in this record, was to use a lot of polyphony — where they're both improvising at the same time.

Tafuri: Listeners got a little taste of that on This Way Out in that tune you did with Gorka.

McNeil: Yes, "West Coast Memories." The idea for doing this album came from doing that tune. I was thinking, 'Damn, what if we actually did that and made a whole album like that?' Doing one tune is one thing; that's a sort-of "vignette" or a "snapshot." But to have a big enough concept to support an entire CD, that's entirely different. It was problematic. It wasn't that I couldn't write tunes. I mean, in that year-and-a-half, I wrote other tunes but, a lot of times, it was the wrong type of tune. We even tried to record this album one time previously with some other personnel and that didn't work out, I think largely because the tunes weren't developed enough. When we listened to the playback, you could hear that some of the tunes were just "wrong." They were the wrong thing for the concept; they were not bad in and of themselves, but just didn't fit.

Tafuri: They didn't fit the concept.

McNeil: It took "a minute" to find a bass/drum combination who would "understand" that old music, but not play it that way. One thing I didn't want to do is to just replicate what Mulligan and Baker did. I mean, they already did what they did.

Tafuri: Well, I think we've all had enough of "recreationist" projects — especially if you're into New Music.

McNeil: Oh, yeah. I'd imagine that, from you're perspective, you get recreationist stuff in the mail all the time, and you say, "Ah, great, another Art Blakey thing." . . .

McNeil: We were trying to find the right kind of thing to do and the right people, and we realized that everything we played couldn't be totally free. I think that with everything we recorded, there was always an organizing principle.

Tafuri: Your definition of "free" is different than other people's definition of "free."

McNeil: Definitely. I mean, I've played absolutely "free," but for this we're playing "free" with some organizing principle mixed in. For example, we might play one tune that's harmonically free and metrically free, but not free regarding tempo. Or there might be a key center, but there'd be no tempo; that'd be free. That way, there's always at least one non-free item that's working for you.

Tafuri: When you say "key center," you mean you'd base a tune around some tonality.

McNeil: Some tonality in the sense that you'd play some tune in E — it's up to you whether it's E-major or E-minor or E-Phrygian — but there's always going to be that E pedal tone going on.

Tafuri: Although Phrygian is often times selected because it's the fun-to-say choice.

McNeil: [Laughs.] Yeah. And that's basically where you keep your beer cold.

Anyway, I realized that we couldn't have "no harmony" going on, so I created some tunes that had a very definite harmonic movement, but with a long time between chord changes, so we wouldn't have the kind of chord-chord-chord bebop feel.

Tafuri: Changing chords every two beats or something. . .

McNeil: Yeah, we didn't want to do that. There is a ballad where there's one chord per bar, but it's very, very slow, so that still gives the effect of a lot of time between chords. On "A Time to Go," there's a very simple chord progression. There are only four chords for four bars apiece at a pretty-medium, even-eighths tempo, so there's a lot of room to expand. If you have that, you have something to play off of and, yet, your choices are really open; you have a lot of room to superimpose your own ideas. It just makes it a lot more interesting. I figured if I had a few tunes like that, I'd have to have other tunes that provided some contrast. I noticed that Chet and Gerry were able to get tremendous contrasts from tune to tune. I mean, given that it was the same guys and the same instruments, the tunes were really quite different — and Gerry didn't even involve the bass or the drums in it either.

Tafuri: Well, I think the other thing you gotta remember — and my chronology may be a little off here — but I think that a lot of that early stuff was on 78s (or on a much-more-limited format than an LP), so you had three-and-a-half minutes or so to say musically what you wanted to say, and there was an A and a B side of the 78 to fill. The limited format certainly forced musicians to be more succinct — and, perhaps, clever — and, because the record companies wanted diversity on each 78, the custom was to have something contrasting between side A and side B.

McNeil: That's interesting. I never thought of the Side A/Side B thing. The contrast is so immediate when you hear it like that, with one idea on each side.

Tafuri: So, when you listen to a CD (or even later LP) compilation of those sides, they contrasts are dramatic.

McNeil: I think that, just from an orchestration point-of-view, Mulligan was kind of an orchestrating genius. I'd seen him do on-the-spot rewrites of other people's orchestrations and, from the first time through, they'd work. To bring that sort of mentality to a small group was really interesting because, when you hear the music, you can hear that in his mind he heard a lot more possibilities. I think I've succeeded in having lots of different types of things — for "sonic relief," you know, from one tune to the next — on this album. I even have a couple of short duets that are reminiscent of short tunes Mulligan would have on some of his ten-inch LPs of some little ditty — maybe 55 seconds — that Mulligan would write and they'd just "do" and that would just be stuck between other tunes on the album. So, I thought, 'Okay, that hasn't been done in a while, so let's do a little thing and then, 'What?!' and then it's over.' Even those little tunes have some unifying factor behind them, and they're about a minute-and-a-half long, give or take. . . .

McNeil: For example, they never did any metric modulation.

Tafuri: What do you mean by "metric modulation?"

McNeil: Metric modulation: music where the tempo speeds up or slows down, and it's actually done mathematically, so the tempo doesn't just gradually speed up or slow down.

Tafuri: It's like going from 2 to 3 while you're speeding up.

McNeil: The way we did it on the album is that we superimposed a dotted-quarter note on a half note, so it became just that much faster. Or quarter note triplets become the new quarter note. . . .

McNeil: . . . One of the things that made Matt and John perfect for this is that they're really adaptable to all different kinds of music. There's basically nothing you can throw at them that they doesn't understand. Also, they have great musical intelligence. I to Matt explained what I wanted, and I could see — from the very first moment — that he understood exactly. I didn't have to go into detail; I just said, "I want the ethos of this to be that of contemporary music." His eyes lit up and he said, "That's great! What a good idea." . . .

McNeil: To be a jazz musician, you have to be a "professional listener." That's I've always been, and I feel like Matt is that way. There's basically no kind of music on this planet that I don't hear on a semi-regular basis. And New York's a great place for listening, because there are great radio stations. I can remember in the heyday of punk rock there was a station (I don't remember which one) that played punk rock with no commercials, starting at three in the morning, and I'd never know who these people were. But I'd come home after a gig and turn that on.

Tafuri: Something nice to calm you down after a gig, eh?

McNeil: Yeah. Some of the people couple really play instruments, so some of it was great . . . like someone singing through a ring modulator. You know, like [imitates] "Wow, wwwowah, wwowh. . ." It would just take your head in completely different directions. In just about every kind of music, there's something you can take for yourself. Jazz is like Imperial China; it just absorbs every influence. Like when the Moguls invaded China, they said, "Hey, okay, we gotcha now. We're the boss." And China just said, "Okay, we'll just wait. How many more years you got?" Then, after a couple hundred years, no more Moguls; it was just China again. It was like, "Okay, we got all the time in the world." Jazz is like that. It takes on influences that you'd think, 'Oh, that'd never go as jazz,' and, before you know it, it gets transmogrified into a jazz statement. I continue to do that. I hope that this album isn't viewed as some kind of retro statement; it wasn't intended to be that. We did do one of the old tunes that Baker and Mulligan did. We did "Bernie's Tune, but we did it without constant tempo." It's with a sort-of contemporary time feel of moving fast, but not at any particular rate of speed; the tempo just rises and falls, but the vibe is fast. You can hear where everybody's lines speed up and slow down and speed up and slow down — and the rhythm section is also doing that — but it never drops below a certain point. So, you always feel that it's at a forward tempo.

Tafuri: We may have to put a warning on the CD to the effect of 'No, your CD player is not skipping' for when listeners hear the way you arranged the head of "Bernie's Tune."
Well, talking about collaborators, one of the things I love about this record is how Allan Chase — at least, tonally or timbrally — sounds like he's sometimes "channeling" Gerry Mulligan, which is pretty amazing because, at the same time, he's also playing with a more modern sensibility — not recreating the past. How did Allan get involved in the project?

McNeil: I recorded an album a few years ago, before I started recording with OmniTone, that's called Fortuity. On it, I wrote a piece where I used two violas and two flutes, and I asked Allan to play baritone saxophone, because he had told me he played baritone. (I think, I'd heard him play bari very briefly one time before.)

Tafuri: Which is something a lot of people who know Allan don't know he plays.

McNeil: Yeah. Most people think of Allan as the "insane alto player" who played with Rashied Ali. Really, I mean, those guys would just play for an hour and freak out, and that was the set.

Tafuri: That was free.

McNeil: Yeah, that was free with a capital F and R . . . and an E-E, too . . . and an exclamation point.

Tafuri: So, you did Fortuity with Allan.

McNeil: He played baritone on it on this one very slow tune, and I think he may have played on another track, as well. I heard that sound, and I said, "Boy, I sure would like to use that sound some time." And when I started thinking about this project, I said, "Man, that'd be perfect!" We played a concert that was a tribute to Charlie Parker. (I think maybe it was his birthday or something like that. It was a nice concert. It included Bob Brookmeyer and Steve Lacy — the late, lamented Steve Lacy.) So, we played these Bird tunes and just took 'em "out" — all the way out. You know, Cecil McBee, who had played with all those India Navigation guys, he had that correct time feel to just "play wrong" but "right." So, we played the concert, and I remember that Bob Brookmeyer told Allan, "Allan, you gotta play baritone all the time. That's your instrument, man. You gotta play baritone." Besides that, we just played perfectly together. So, that sort of solidified my choice when I started putting this project together. And I would consult with him. We would get together and rehearse, using different people, and I'd ask him, "Does this work or does it not?" One of the things I mentioned earlier, that we didn't have a lot of polyphony, was because we tried that in the beginning. There's a lot of music that calls for that, but it seemed like polyphonic playing didn't contribute to a lot of the music we're playing. So, it was a conscious, collective decision not to do that. I mean, there's a lot of interplay back and forth, but not polyphony per se. When we tried it — I don't know if it was us or the kinds of tunes we were playing or what — there was something about it that didn't quite "have it." What we do have is interplay where we're playing backgrounds behind each other, but that real intense polyphony — which usually happened on more up-tempo tunes — we couldn't seem to make happen. So, we said, "Well, since it's not so successful when we do it, let's don't do it." . . .

McNeil: A few years ago, after Fortuity, I wrote a bunch of stuff for this Gerry Mulligan tribute that the rhythm section Gerry was using when he died was trying to get together. (There were a lot of Mulligan tributes at that time. They'd be a Mulligan tribute until the first bari solo, and then they'd be like a tribute to Pepper Adams or Nick Brignola. They'd be like, "Forget about him. . .") So, I wrote some arrangements, and Allan ended up doing the gig, and everybody was sort of amazed. He just nailed it . . . without replicating. This may sound like I'm saying Allan's a Gerry clone, but everybody's sound comes from somewhere. There's a basic influence in one's sound, or maybe two. With Allan, Gerry's sound is at least one of them. What makes Allan such a fascinating guy is that he's able to bring all these "free" influences to Gerry's sound. (I think maybe all those years of playing with Rashied Ali influences everything he does.) If there's a creative way to play something, he'll find it and, as you'll notice on this album, he gets a wide range of sounds, which is something Mulligan never did. I think Mulligan had basically one or two sounds, maybe. . . .

McNeil: "Internal Hurdles" is a hard tune to play. You give yourself whiplash trying to play the head. We decided to have a tune where Allan and I would trade solos back and forth, but he plays in one key and I play in another. If you notice, we don't change at the same time. It's approximately every 16 bars, but it might be 15 or 18. What the rhythm section did was: when I begin playing, they'd go to E-flat and, when Allan began playing, they'd go to G. If we overlapped, then they'd stay with whomever was playing first. Then we'd start running them a little closer together, so Allan would play nine measures, then I'd play six. Then, after going back and forth, we'd predetermined that, at a certain point while Allan was doing he "G thing," we'd go back to the melody. It was a different way of going about things. It wasn't really all figured out, but you don't really need it all figured out. "When he's playing, do that; when I'm playing, don't worry about it — just do this." . . .

Tafuri: It's interesting to listen to you talk about your music, because it sounds as though, in your music, you like people to play games. For people who know you, that motive fits right into your witty, sometime off-beat, often wry, creative sense of humor. It makes sense, because you like to play word games. I remember that you wrote me an e-mail once where all the words started with the same letter.

McNeil: Yes, and there was one where all the words were anagrams of Frank Tafuri, because logic wasn't the guiding principle. So, that resulted in this sort-of surreal story.

Tafuri: I remember getting that e-mail and thinking, 'Okay, now John has finally, totally lost his mind.' That was my initial reaction, because all of us who know you knew it was just a matter of time.
How do you think playing this kinds of games in your music has an effect on the listener?

McNeil: I think it makes the listener more involved. One thing it does is it tends to keep tunes from sounds the same in the solo section. There's a tendency among jazz musicians, if there of a sort-of "non-creative" type, of 'well, play the melody, and let's get that over with, and let's get on to my solo.' For one tune, that's okay, but not tune after tune. So, setting up certain devices like that tends to make each tune unique. Mostly what I try to do is to incorporate parts of the tune into people's solos. You always try to look for different ways to organize the music, it's not always the same. And the organization can't be really complicated, because then you can't really internalize it and then you can't get it across to the audience. So, usually, simple things, simple devices, simple organizing principles will be surprisingly effective. If you try to have a different approach to every tune, that carries over into the solos. . . .

McNeil: "Delusions" is one of those faux-minor, "misterioso" tunes. The line appears to have changes, but it doesn't; there are no chord changes, as such. In the interest of finding things that weren't done elsewhere on the album, I had Allan start playing this intervallic bass line in half-notes and have everyone else play, but not interact with that line. When we were rehearsing, Matt said, "When I come in, why not have me doing a press roll? If they're not interacting, why don't I not interact either?"

Tafuri: And it's great, because you're waiting for something to happen the whole time you're hearing it.

McNeil: So, I held my note as long as I could as the sound of the press roll was swelling up in my "cans" — I had no thoughts of my own at that point. The idea then was to dramatically come out of it. When we did it, it actually sounds like an edit, but it wasn't. That's the way we did it. . . .

Tafuri: Frank is basically a street person. I wrote it, because I wanted a medium-tempo, contrasting tune on the album. I remember that Mulligan wrote some of these medium-tempo things but, in the case of this tune, there's of course no harmony. . . .

McNeil: For a lot of these things, you don't have to know anything about music to like them. Also, with a couple of exceptions, the solos aren't very long. They're generally brief and to-the-point, which was also the case with the Mulligan-Baker stuff — probably on account of what you mentioned earlier, the short track length imposed by the 78 RPM format or, at least, a format more limited than on an LP or CD. It made them sort of "get to the point;" it made them get in and out. That kind of concision will also force you to put a little more shape to what you're doing; you can't afford to meander for very long. . . .

McNeil: [regarding "Wanwood"] That word is from Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall," following in the time-honored English tradition of "if you don't have a word, invent one." . . . Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this poem . . . It's interesting, too, in that it's half "free" and half not. It's hard to write a "free" ballad, so I basically sandwiched the free sections between sections of harmony. . . .

McNeil: [Re: "A Time to Go"] One of the things West Coast guys would do is write ridiculously happy-sounding tunes. (People like Russ Freeman, and I think Stan Getz recorded some of those things. It was like, "HI!!!") Instead, I thought, 'Let's have a happy tune and have it be happy for about four or five bars before, very obviously, you realize that there's someone creeping up your back stairs ready to kill your family.' Or 'Although you seemed to be happy earlier, now something bad is happening.' Seriously, "A Time to Go" is about trying to come to grips with the fact that, as you get older, you realize that you have fewer years

McNeil: There's a certain feeling you get from a truly atonal line — where all pitches are present — that you can't get from a chromatic line. . . Whenever I write arrangements for people, I tend to sneak 'em in there. . . . Sometimes when I get a commission to write some "inside" music, I can get a tone row in there and they won't even know it."

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