Liner notes for John McNeil: East Coast Cool (OmniTone 15211)
"Hipness is not a state of mind, it's
a fact of life."
John McNeil is hip. Not in a beret-wearing, jive-talking, Beat hipster sort of way nor in an overtly trappingless, near Emperor's-new-clothes-shamlike guise of the minimalist ultra-cool hipster. John's hipness lies somewhere between those two extremes. "Being 'hip' is being in the know … having an insider's point of view," explains John, something he demonstrates with his keen insights on music, language, history, and literature and by putting that knowledge to work bettering the lives of those around him with his unpretentious, often witty, always inquisitive, and occasionally offbeat, "cool" sort-of manner.
"To be a jazz musician, you have to be a 'professional listener,'" notes John, preparing to make an unlikely-yet-insightful multi-disciplinary reference. "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?' After a couple hundred years, no more Moguls; it was just China again."
Creating something new and inviting by combining together apparently disparate elements or by applying contemporary sensibilities to classic concepts is what makes listening to John's insights — and his music — rewarding. Like working a crossword puzzle, he starts with things you already know, posits some new connections, gives you a few clues, and sets you on the road to discover for yourself. (How hip is that?)
The excursions of self-discovery on which you'll embark while listening to East Coast Cool are the result of John's bringing together of Modern and Classic to create something fresh and new, in this case, by applying the classic West Coast jazz sound of the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet to the sensibilities of modern creative improvised music.
The project started about a year after Mulligan's death, when John — who had worked with some of Mulligan's ensembles — was hired to write a concert's worth of arrangements for a Mulligan tribute band. "This led me to study Gerry's music more closely than I had before, and I started thinking about how it would be to apply his arranging principles to free music with contemporary bass and drums," recounts John. "It took a few years to flesh out the concept and a few more to find a bass/drum combination who would 'understand' that old music, but not play it that way."
For the part of Mulligan in the pianoless quartet, John enlisted Allan Chase, with whom John had worked previously in concert and in studio, on baritone sax, though Chase was perhaps better known (according to John) as the "insane alto player" who played with Rashied Ali. "What makes Allan such a fascinating guy is that he's able to bring all these 'free' influences to Gerry's sound," adds John. Chase also helped John hone, refine, and expand the project. And finding especially sympathetic collaboratorsin bassist John Hebert and drummer Matt Wilson, was the coup de grâce for completing the project. "There's basically nothing you can throw at them that they don't understand," says John.
The satisfying musical results typify a new music perhaps best described by the CD's title, East Coast Cool. As John explains it, "The word 'cool' used to imply a kind of laid-back attitude, an understated way of playing. 'East Coast Cool' implies music with a lot more East Coast edge and intensity, but with the same West Coast economy of expression."
The tunes on East Coast Cool are mostly reminiscent of the Mulligan-Baker Quartets. They contain elements of the sound and feel of that quartet's music without being re-creationist or imitative. Though there are a lot of really sophisticated musical things happening to satisfy listeners with well-developed ears, there's also a cleanness, simplicity, and sense of play that makes anyone feel good about and groove with the music. In that way, the music here should appeal to contemporary listeners as the then-new sounds of the Mulligan-Baker Quartet pleasantly perked up listeners' ears in the '50s.
A twist here is that almost all the pieces incorporate some "organizing principle" both to regulate how "free" the playing on each tune would be and to add a sense of gameplay, something John thinks makes the listener more involved. "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," explains John. Examples of those techniques can be heard respectively in the band's slightly daffy take on "Bernie's Tune," a West Coast jazz staple and one of the few non-original tunes on the CD, and on "A Time to Go." The latter shows how John's offbeat sense of humor embeds itself in his music. "One of the things West Coast guys would do is write ridiculously happy-sounding tunes," burbles John. "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.'"
Metric modulation, where the tempo is mathematically sped up or slowed down, gives "Deadline" a certain stop-on-a-dime urgency. The gently loping "Brother Frank," written as a contrasting tempo tune for the album, is reminiscent of some medium-tempo Mulligan tunes but, in the case of John's tune, there is (of course) no harmony. The teasing "Delusions," which John calls "one of those faux-minor, 'misterioso' tunes," is a melodic line that appears to be based on chord changes, but isn't. And the melancholic ballad "Wanwood," which John describes as "half 'free' and half not," is a word coined by writer Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem "Spring and Fall."
After hearing original music on John's first two OmniTone CDs ranging from tipsy Spanish waltzes to demented polkas, it's not surprising to find this pianoless quartet performing "Schoenberg's Piano Concerto," John's piece adapted from the twelve-tone rows used in the original. "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," admits John. "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." (Now that's cool. Real cool.)