Jim McNeely at the pianoInterview with Jim McNeely
(by Frank Tafuri)

Tafuri: A lot of people know you as an arranger, and some people know you as a pianist with some of the groups you've worked with, but I don't know how many people think of you as a composer.

McNeely: There are people in Europe that do. I have a reputation in the Rhine Valley in Germany that's unlike any other perception of me anywhere [else] in the world, because I did so much composition for the West German Radio.

Tafuri: There was that album on Lipstick...

McNeely: Yes, with John Scofield, but I did a lot of projects. I was going over once or twice a year. Most of the time, I had carte blanche to write what I did, whatever I wanted to. Some of the projects were with particular soloists like John or [Dave] Liebman, and some of them were just my own thing. I got to cover a lot of ground and a lot of bases, and I knew there were people who were coming to those concerts who just wanted to hear what I was writing.
Over here [in America], because of the Carnegie Hall stuff, I got a reputation as an arranger. I was writing down, a few months ago, a list of everything I had written for Carnegie. I probably wrote about 40 arrangements for them, and only one of them is an original composition, the rest of it was all arrangements of things. And then Lickety Split is mostly composition; that was probably the first American release that really showed the big band composition that I do.  So, that's a side of me that's probably not so well known over here in the US.

Tafuri: How do you compare arranging and composing?

McNeely: Well, obviously, there's a lot that is similar, and certain "arrangers" —like Gil Evans or Bob Brookmeyer —had the ability to blur the lines between the two; they'll do an arrangement which really sounds like their own composition. But to me, an arrangement is a process that's done to a song. I think of the song as the main character of the whole play, and your job as an arranger is to present that character and, by the end of the arrangement, we have some insight into the tune, into the character.
A composition might have a song at the heart of it, but it might not. A lot of Bartok's music or Stravinsky's are not big melodies, but a series of ideas that are churned around and worked over. A lot of the compositional stuff I do —especially very lately —tends to be done along those lines.
The things on this album Group Therapy represent my most recent thinking along those lines. There's a little bit of melody here and there, but it's more that the plot is the progression of the piece. It's not about presenting a melody that you come away with saying "What's the main theme here?" —that's not the point. The point is that it's a plot, it's motion towards some kind of conclusion.
Sometimes I use what I call "disposable melodies." It's like that from time to time, everyone [in the band] agrees to make a melody together, and then it goes off. Sometimes they might agree to make that melody again, but sometimes they just say "Aw, forget it," and they abandon that, and they go off into something else.

Tafuri: It's interesting to hear you talk about not necessarily developing a grand theme and working it, but using a variety of themes. There are several pieces on the album that are episodic (for want of a better word). They really are like a story like, for instance, "Cranky Takes a Holiday."

McNeely: Well, originally I wrote [a tune called simply] "Cranky" back in around 1990 for Dave Liebman and the West German Radio Orchestra. I came up with this tune [sings the opening theme]. So, that was "Cranky"; I did a whole arrangement on that. When I was writing music for the ten-piece group a few years later, I knew I wanted to do that tune, but I thought "Hmm, well..." And my wife (she didn't come up with the name of the tune, but she) was telling me that when I was writing that piece for Dave, she said, "You know, you get awfully cranky when you write music," 'cause I snapped at her about something. So, I thought, "Aw, 'Cranky,' that's what I'm gonna call this." Now in my head, there's this character "Mr Cranky." So, when I did the arrangement for the ten-piece group, I thought 'Well, it's time for Mr Cranky to lighten up and go to the Caribbean for a little bit.' I can see, in the next ten years, doing another episode in the life of Mr Cranky —"Mr Cranky Gets a Day Job" or "Mr Cranky Goes to a Disco" —I don't know.

Tafuri: Oh, I didn't realize it was part of a potential series...

McNeely: Part of a potential series, I mean, it may be the second of only a two-part series ... but there may be more life to Mr Cranky. Who knows?

Tafuri: Well, you have another piece on here —"Lost" —that's episodic. There's a theme that runs through that, but there is also quite a variety of other things that happen in that piece.

McNeely: That started out as a small-group thing that I wrote, actually, for Phil Woods' group. Again, when I did it again for the ten-piece band, a couple of things entered into my mind. First, when you have all these other potential forces and when a guy's playing a solo —[like] if Dick Oatts is playing a solo —you've got six other horn players just sitting around just lookin' at the ceiling. So, for me, there's this "social" aspect of a band, where you get everybody involved playing, and there's the sound of the full band playing, doing what they're doing. So, the solo becomes one element of that overall texture, then the background material starts to come in and lift the soloist. So, when I'm writing for a bigger group, the tendency is for the piece to get more episodic, because you have more forces to express form and shape and a plot. And the drum solo thing is, well... When I write larger-ensemble things, when I write a drum solo, I like to give the drummer something to play off of, number one; it gives him something to grab onto, rather than just play a generic, open drum solo. And then, the other side, traditionally when the drum solo starts, the band leaves the stage or else they're just sitting around lookin' around, so I like to get the band involved with the drum solo, as well. What, to me, is funny is that it's second nature to write backgrounds behind horn solos, but, when the drummer comes along, everyone stops. I like to get the band involved, too, so I came up with these little motives. I just conduct each motive as a number; I hold up fingers showing the numbers, and it comes off different every time we do it.

Tafuri: So that wasn't actually notated that way?

McNeely: There are about six little motives notated on the page, with a number on each one. The drum solo starts, and I hold up [fingers to indicate] which one we're gonna play, and I give a downbeat, then I cut 'em off. Sometimes I might hold up one number, then give a downbeat and cut it off, then give a downbeat, cut it off, go to another one, then downbeat and cut it off...

Tafuri: How interesting!

McNeely: So it comes off different every time.

Tafuri: And it keeps people on their toes.

McNeely: It keeps people on their toes. The guys that recorded this wouldn't do this, but the bigger the band gets, there's this kind of "Rehearsal Band Syndrome" where guys are just sittin' around and just wanna play a little bit. One of the reasons I picked the guys whom I did on this recording is that they're all real players, and they just don't want to sit around either; they want to be involved in the thing.

Tafuri: Speaking of "the larger the band gets," how did you arrive at a tentet, the ten-voice thing?

McNeely: Between the Vanguard Orchestra, which is sixteen [pieces], and the Danish Radio [Orchestra], which is twenty [pieces], and the Metropole Orchestra —that's a much bigger thing —65 with strings...

Tafuri: That's including the strings...

McNeely: Yeah, if you strip away the strings, I think it's a seventeen-piece big band; it's a very good big band, but there're other forces with it. So, normally sixteen to twenty pieces.
There are a couple of reasons why I picked the ten-piece thing. First of all, as far as I was concerned, the world doesn't need another big band. Maybe some day, I'll put one together, but I do so much work with existing bands, and I really get a lot of satisfaction from that. (There are limitations —in some bands there are certain players you wish could be different, but, in general, I'm satisfied working in that kind of situation.) I wanted to have my own band that was larger than a trio or quartet, but I wanted to have —I mean, the phrase that always comes into mind is "lean and mean" —something that's a little more flexible. It's like the F-16 versus the F-14; the one is smaller, and you can do more manual stuff with it, but the bigger one tends to be a little more clunky and mechanized. Not that I'm saying that big bands are clunky and mechanized, but I wanted something that had a little more of a streamlined quality to it. The thing with ten pieces is that when you want to make it sound like a big band, you can get pretty close to that, and that's one reason I wanted someone like Tony Kadlick or Greg Gisbert to play lead trumpet: I wanted a person with real lead trumpet experience to do that when it had to be there, you know?
But then, at the same time, there's a challenge writing for this kind of group because you can never just kick back and say "Well, I'm gonna write a five-part saxophone solo here," which is easy because you just figure it out at the piano and you just write it out for the five saxes. Here, in a group like this, you're always having to think about blending different instruments; there's not five of any one thing. So, I have three saxes, but if I want four or five parts, well, I've gotta think about how I'm gonna blend maybe the French horn and the trombone in there. If I want a six-part brass thing but I've only got four, I've gotta think about how I'm gonna blend a couple of saxophones in there. If I'm using a trumpet doubled with a flute, well, that takes one of the woodwinds out of the picture, so you have to think. Like moving chessmen around the board, you have to think about how you're allocating your people. I like that challenge, and there's still a lot of colors you can get from it. All the bands I work with regularly —as much as I like working with them —none of them, unfortunately, has a French horn player in it. And, to me, I've noticed that you put a French horn in the middle of almost anything, and it sounds better.

Tafuri: It's a different thing.

McNeely: Yeah, it's a different thing, and it sounds better. And like we were talking about at the mixing session, in "The Fruit," I wrote a couple of these little Tadd Dameron kinda tooties. [In] one of them, there's no French horn —the first one; in the second one, the horn's in there, and it really has a rounder quality to it. And then to have someone like Tom [Varner] who, besides dealing with the instrument well, is also a player, you can turn him loose. I mean, I had one guy some years ago that, in the sections where he would play solos, was playing Till Eulenspiegel.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: He was doing orchestral excerpts, because that's all he knew. He wasn't really a jazz improviser. With Tom, you get a guy who's not only an improviser and who can play on changes, but he's also got that kind of wacky edge...

Tafuri: And he's a composer himself...

McNeely: Yeah, he composes, so he has that kind of head. So, to have him in there, you get the French horn sound plus you don't have to compromise and say "Well, I got a French horn player, but he doesn't really play jazz." Here, you get a French horn and you get a real improviser, too.

Tafuri: Well, how did you come up with ten, though? Did you just say, "Oh, I'm gonna have so many reeds and each guys gonna double on this and that..." I mean, why not nine or eleven?

McNeely: My short answer is ten is smaller than eleven and bigger than nine, but that...

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: First of all, I thought I wanted three saxes.

Tafuri: OK.

McNeely: Because I wanted, at least, the ability to play a triad in the saxophones without compromising anything else. Then, in terms of putting together the brass, I knew I wanted two trumpets, and the question was: 'What else do I use?'

Tafuri: I gotcha.

McNeely: I could've gone two trumpets and trombones, I could have gone trumpet, French horn and trombone, but I wanted four brass for the fullness I could get if I had to use the brass just by themselves. With four, that's enough to be full; with three, it wasn't quite enough. And, I have to say, [Ed] Neumeister's the only one who's played the trombone book in this band and, one reason I like Ed, is [that] he's played enough lead trombone that he can do that kind of thing. But he's also been a section player.

Tafuri: So, he can lay back.

McNeely: Yeah, the trombone writing in this book goes all the way from pretty high to almost what you would write for a bass trombone. I've thought, for some time, what would the next two or three instruments be that I would add, and they'd probably be a guitar player/percussionist —first of all, non-horn kind of stuff —and then I'd add something like a tuba or some other really low brass instrument, 'cause when you fill out the bottom, it really helps fill out everything. But that's somewhere in the future.

Tafuri: And then you have the French horn that can have a warm, sort of woody quality to is as well...

McNeely: Yeah. It's no coincidence that one of the instruments in a woodwind quintet is a French horn. It really bridges the gap. Although it's a brass instrument, it's got such a different sound, it can really blend really great with saxophones, it can blend really well with other woodwinds. It's a very flexible instrument.

Tafuri: One of the tunes I really like on the record —and I think it's gonna surprise people a little bit —is the Bud Powell tune you mentioned earlier, "The Fruit." When we were talking about your conceptualization —how you work motifs and so on —it sounds like you were working out some motific stuff here.

McNeely: I had this idea ... a couple of things. First of all, there was a subtractive process to the way I did the melody: I took the melody and then I just started taking notes out, and then I reversed the process. Let's say, every eight bars I took more notes out, then I just reversed it. So, what I ended up —the real sparse thing —is how we start.
And then there's this little phrase in the bridge. Sometimes what I like to do [when I arrange] —and I do this in my own writing with my own tunes —is that some little phrase that goes by and you hardly notice it —it's in the middle of a line or something —all of a sudden, you latch onto that, and it becomes a key pivot point or a real strong structural device. And, with "The Fruit," there was this little [sings opening phrase, minus last stinger chord] —it's part of the bridge, the second half of the bridge —and I thought [repeats the phrase with the stinger chord] kind of sets the tone. It starts off with this kind of bebop line, and then you get this tremolo in the bass and the French horn note. In fact, I was playing it for my wife when we were going up to Vermont, and she hears [sings opening phrase with stinger, into the tremolo], and she starts going toward the CD player saying "Is the CD player stuck?"

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: "What is that?" "No," I said, "It's a bass." She thought it was tracking wrong. So, the idea is to start of with just a lick and then boom, as if to say "You thought it was gonna be that, but now check this out." And then you get this kind of deconstructed version of the song that eventually takes shape. Then I wanted to have a thing where everybody got a little bit of a solo statement, rather than really long solos from everyone. So, I constructed this thing where there are just little fragments of the melody, and each little fragment of the melody is a send-off for each little solo.

Tafuri: Yeah, that's very hip...

McNeely: And wherever the little fragment ends, I'd come up with a chord, the harmony of which has nothing to do with the original tune. Wherever the melody would end, I'd find a chord that would work under that, and then the next player would play over that for eight bars or sixteen bars. Then another fragment would come in, and someone else would play. It's kinda like "Meet the Band" —here's everybody.

Tafuri: It's a great way to start the album.

McNeely: Then I reach back, and there's a little bit of kind of Tadd Dameron-kind of stuff, and there's this cascade at the end —it's really just a cannon —at all different kinds of pitch levels. It's the melody, but the melody has this [sings first 6 bars of melody] real up-and-down shape to it, and you get everyone playing it out-of-phase and at different pitch levels. Finally, it all congeals together at the end.

Tafuri: Sometimes, you take a commission to do a project, like you did the Benny Goodman project a few years ago for the Carnegie Hall band. But, when you're just freewheeling, when it's your decision, what draws you to tunes ... to make the investment to arrange them?

McNeely: It can be several things. Sometimes, it can just be a song that impresses me as being particularly beautiful ... like "In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning," like I did with the Vanguard Orchestra, and that I based on the way I used to play it with my trio. There's just something about the melody and the atmosphere of the lyric —that's what I call an "adult song": "In the wee, small hours of the morning, that's when you miss her most of all." When you're twenty years old, you don't know what that feels like; when you're 45 or 50 and you've been though that, then that song takes on a depth —the same with "Body and Soul." For me, the two most "adult tunes" I play —as just a jazz musician —are "In the Wee, Small Hours of the Morning" and "Body and Soul." "I long for you ... body and soul."

Tafuri: Right, right.

McNeely: I didn't know what that meant when I was twenty years old. (I was just trying to get laid and stuff...) When you get to the depth of that lyric —and "Body and Soul['s]" a tune I've been working with for a long time with all kinds of different bands and people, it was something I felt really strong about. Sometimes, it's this atmosphere (maybe I've created it myself) about the tune, but it has an intrinsic atmosphere (or maybe it's both), buy there's something about it that really attracts me to it.
Other times, it might not have much to do with that; there's just something that I see potential for development. I think that's what gets me about "The Fruit" and I started to play the tune. I love the line, but, too, there's just the idea that Bud Powell to me has been...

Tafuri: Right.

McNeely: Everyone acknowledges him as a great father of bebop piano —or, maybe, he's the second-generation, but he's really the guy that codified it. But his tunes have very interesting stuff about them.

Tafuri: And you don't hear them with big groups very much...

McNeely: No, people do small group versions of them...

Tafuri: "Head arrangements"...

McNeely: So, to me he wrote some tunes that are very interesting. They're definitely of the time and bebop-kind-of-oriented. Sometimes the form takes a little bit of a left turn, sometimes the melody has a little bit of a funny angle to it, and so "The Fruit" just attracted me.

Tafuri: So, we know you're motivation now of writing an arrangement on "Body and Soul," as an "adult tune" —

McNeely: It was expressing, for me, the meaning of that song. And then, at the same time, there's the musical thing of knowing (when I wrote the arrangement) that Dick Oatts would be playing. Having worked with him for a long time, I know his [musical] voice and sound, so I wrote that for him; his sound inspired that, too.

Tafuri: What motivated you to do an arrangement of "Silent Night?"

McNeely: [Laughs.] Well, you know, it's funny.

Tafuri: Because I love that arrangement. I remember that when I was in the studio —and I didn't know all the tunes you were doing —and you called "Silent Night," I thought, "Oh, this is an original composition that just happens to have the same title." Then, I'm listening and listening, and it takes a while to pick up on the actual Christmas carol.

McNeely: This'll be my 51st Christmas coming up. You know, I've been singing "Silent Night" every year, and I have to admit I'm an old sap when it comes to Christmas songs. It's a very simple song —three chords —with very simple harmony. And, again, the spirit of the song —it's a quiet atmosphere, the Virgin and all that —it always gets to me in a way that a lot of more sophisticated Christmas tunes don't. So, a few years ago, I had it in my head that instead of sending Christmas cards to musician friends of mind, I would do a reharmonization of "Silent Night." I was playing around with it and thought, 'I'll just fax this to my friends.'

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: So, I did it, and I got a lot of nice feedback.

Tafuri: You sent lead sheets?

McNeely: Yeah, I faxed lead sheets to people, you know, musicians who could play through it.

Tafuri: I love it. It's a great idea.

McNeely: You know, and I put "Merry Christmas to You" on it. So a month or so later, Steve La Spina was doing an quartet or quintet album for an Italian label...

Tafuri: Red?

McNeely: No, not Red. Gillalupi or something...

Tafuri: Oh, yeah, Raimundo Meli Lupi —RAM Records.

McNeely: Yeah, RAM records. So, he said to me and Steve, "You know, it'd be nice to do a trio tune, if you'd want [to]." So, Steve said to me "Do you have anything?" and I said "When we come back tomorrow, we'll do something." So, I printed off on the computer this thing of "Silent Night." That's when I first started to play it, and I thought, "Yeah, this is really nice ... the way the harmony is." We play it very simply. Then, a couple of years ago, I was doing a gig with the ten-piece band —I had three Sundays in December at Birdland —and I thought, "You know, I'm gonna do a little thing on that harmonization of 'Silent Night.'" So, I got into it and I knew that Scott [Wendholt] would be playing trumpet on that gig, so I thought, "Yeah, let's see what we can get into." Then I found this [sings first 6 notes of vamp] little bluesy, kind of Miles-Davis-kind-of vamp. [I] incorporated that into it, and it kind of grew. What's on the CD is kind of the present state of it.

Tafuri: It sounds like it took on a life of its own, almost.

McNeely: Yeah, it really did, but I really tried to keep this pastel, kind of subdued atmosphere that I've always associated with the song.

Tafuri: Well, it's interesting to hear —with such a simple tune as that —the kind of [harmonic] suspensions that you use. They really keep things nice and open.

McNeely: It's also interesting, too, that after we recorded it, I had a cassette of the thing and, so, I'm taking my kids somewhere one day, and I said, "Tell me what the name of this song is." They're hearing all of the piano solo and then Scott Robinson, and they had no idea. Then they hear this [sings last 7 notes of the melody, as arranged], and that started to ring a bell. And you could see that with each section of the tune —and there's a little more of the tune that's in there —they'd start to guess "It's a Christmas song, right?" "Yeah, right," and I'd just keep driving. And finally, at the very end, "Aw, 'Silent Night'!" And that's what I was going for: at first, you have this set of changes and a lot of three-bar phrases that could be some original tune and "Silent Night" kind of grows out of emerges out of that, so at the end we're hearing "Silent Night." But you're really not aware of that at the beginning.

Tafuri: That's great.
Well, let's talk about the title track. Talking about "episodic," that's quite an excursion. Where did "Group Therapy" come from?

McNeely: Sometimes the title comes to mind before I write something, sometimes in the middle of it, and sometimes it takes months for me to finally come up with the title. This was in the middle category. I wanted to write something new for the recording session, because most of the music had been written a few years before. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to write something that was fresh and that kind of reflected where I am now with compositional stuff. Then, the other thing is that, when I'm left to my own devices, I want to start writing things that employ groups of soloists —not the thing of where a soloist plays, then there's another solo. I mean, that's fine, it's worked for years, but I wanted to start getting into things where there might be two soloists playing together or three, so my job as a composer isn't to write melodies, it's to write form. It's to provide a structure for those little solo groups to happen in a particular order —to be an organizer of the freedom of the soloists.

Tafuri: It's very Cageian.

McNeely: Yeah, sort of. A lot of times when I compose something from scratch, I'll just write a one-word description of the piece and, with this, I just wrote "groups." There are groups of people playing melodies, there are groups of people playing solos. And I didn't ever want to have just one person playing a solo; at the least, there were going to be two people playing together. Then, I had this chorale that I know I wanted to have in there, and I started to play around with some different vamps. I wanted the whole thing to build in a particular order. Then I started to write it, and I started to make lists of who would be playing. The reason that so-and-so is playing with so-and-so isn't an accident; I was kind of thinking about who the guys were going to be and 'this person would sound good with this person.'

Tafuri: You were thinking of actual players, not just the instruments.

McNeely: Yes, I was thinking of the players, the real people, because by that time everyone had signed on-board to be part of the project, so I knew who was going to be doing it. I know that one of the first things that came into my mind was just Scott Robinson and the drums, to see what they would do together.

Tafuri: [Starts laughing.] I know we had a lot of fun in the studio with that.

McNeely: Yeah, right. So, all those groupings were determined beforehand. And I began to see I was taking this group of people and kind of organizing how they were relating to each other. In the middle of writing the thing, all of a sudden, I had this image of a group of people sitting around, and each one is throwing out experiences that have happened, and maybe two of them are talking at once, and maybe the therapist comes in and tries to restore some kind of sense to the situation —those are the melodic passages. And then it breaks off, and another group starts talking. And, finally, I wanted the whole thing to go into this kind of nasty groove, this 7/4 thing. It's a real simple idea: the vamp is composed of six notes and the melody is just the other six notes. There's this conflict between the melody and the vamp and, at the same time, the notes that were left to make the melody —they were in this order that was this kind of bluesy kind of sound. It made sense as a melody; it's just that it didn't make sense with the vamp underneath.

Tafuri: Right.

McNeely: But if you do both of them with absolute conviction, they're gonna work —the clash works between the two of them. So, the whole idea was this group behaving in a certain way and acting out things and working out things and, finally, at the end, the chorale melody that started off the piece is back, but everyone's kind of doing it their own way. And it ends in an unresolved way, so they're going to have to come back next week ... for another session, I guess.

Tafuri: I guess that's what music's all about, too: you keep comin' back until you get it right, and you never get it quite right.

McNeely: Yeah, yeah.

Tafuri: "Lost" is another one of those amazing pieces. You have a lot of long tunes on this album. Is that a sign of maturing as an arranger or composer?

McNeely: I don't know what it is. I think part of it is I wanted to give ample solo space to the soloists. One of the things that I like about this size group is that there're enough people to write for, but, on the other hand, I like to have it a little more open-ended, like a small group. So, I like the sense that the soloists really get a chance to work on some things and really play a meaty solo.

Tafuri: It's not just eight bars —

McNeely: Yeah, and I realized that with both "Lost" and "Cranky" and, probably, "Silent Night," we could have cut the solos down to make the pieces shorter. That was my call; I just wanted to keep them in this kind of natural-feeling length. That's all I can say.

Tafuri: And that, in and of itself, bridges the gap between the big band thing and the small group thing, because that's one of the beautiful things about small groups: guys can really play a longer solo ... within reason.

McNeely: And sometimes I'll hear that happen, too. It depends on who the soloists are. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: There's a lot of writing in some of the pieces, and I wanted the solos to balance that writing. So, the result is some long things which might not be that radio-friendly. To me, the music was served by the lengths of the pieces.

Tafuri: As one of those extended tunes, "Lost" is a piece with a lot of music happening.

McNeely: There are a couple of different background things and, the thing is, the chorus ends with a vamp —especially behind the alto solo —the vamp keeps going and going and going and building up, so that even adds to [the complexity]. I like to write in a way where you don't just have chorus after chorus. Even if it's a tune that's based on a chorus-type structure, there's more of an organic flow to it. So, when the music's ready to depart from that format, why not? And let's go see where else it can go for a while. Then, maybe it comes back to the chorus. The chorus becomes a structural device that we can either stay in or veer away from for a time. And then, when you come back to the chorus format, then it kind of picks up and moves along again.

Tafuri: The chorus becomes the touchstone for the piece.

McNeely: Yeah, right. So, instead of coming back to a melody, you're coming back to a form that acts like a jazz tune versus some, maybe, free-composed kind of sections.

Tafuri: When you were coming up, how much of an opportunity did you have to play in big bands?

McNeely: I had a lot. Starting in high school, I played all four years in what they called "stage band." In fact, the first one I played in was the "B" dance band, and then I got bumped up to the stage band. It took me eight years to get through college, not 'cause I was necessarily dumb. I dropped out for a while and played country and western for six months —that was a learning experience. But when I was in the university, in those times, I was always in the big band there.
Then, when I finally got through with college —the first few years I was in New York, I didn't play any big band —but then I joined Thad and Mel [the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra] which was really the only big band that I ever wanted to play with. None of the other big bands really appealed to me that much except, maybe, Basie or Ellington —the real classic groups that killed me. In terms of the bands that would be available for me to play in —maybe the piano player in Buddy Rich's band would get to play two choruses at the beginning of the tune and then the rest of it was comping —so Thad and Mel was the only big band that really appealed to me because of Thad's writing, first of all, and then the writing of other people like [Bob] Brookmeyer, especially.
And the role of the piano was a real pivotal role in that band; it wasn't just playing a solo here and there. I learned a lot about structuring an arrangement, because the piano solo in Thad's music was always in a key place where it was usually some kind of transitional element. It was a bridge that you built up into the next thing that was coming up, or you built down into the next thing, or there was something really big happening, and it was your job to play one chorus to let the dust settle before something else happened. So, it was rare that you just had 'Hey, it's your solo —blow!' It's usually not like that.

Tafuri: There was a purpose.

McNeely: There was a purpose, and one of the main jobs of learning the music wasn't learning the changes, it was learning the role of the solo in each chart. To me, that's very important, and I carry that over [not only] into my big band writing, but also in this ten-piece writing. Maybe there's more of a small-group feeling to it sometimes, but still I'm careful about who's gonna play where —especially when you're going to use a piano solo and a bass solo, because they have specific effects on the whole motion of the piece.

Tafuri: That's why I asked the question about playing in big bands, because it's been interesting sitting here listening to you talk about the role of the drum and what happens when you have a drum solo and how music is treated for various sections and how solos work in and out. It seems to me like a lot of what you've talked about is the result of experience, of having done it the other way and saying, "Now"—

McNeely: I mean, it's hearing it the other way. To me, one of the most important questions a composer asks is "What if?" Hearing things the other way, [I say] to myself "It doesn't have to be that way —what if?" And you hear something that would happen in some of Thad's writing or Brookmeyer where they had paid special attention to the fact that 'this guy plays now' —not some other guy —'this guy plays now.' A solo isn't just an open field to play your "thing" on; you've gotta shape it a certain way, because compositionally what's coming up next needs some kind of lift or needs some kind of coming down.
And, I should say, the other big influence on me in terms of all this kind of thinking is reading plays. When you think about it, let's say, I have a ten-minute piece on this album. Tennessee Williams wasn't dealing with ten-minute lengths, he was dealing with two hours. He didn't have a melody. He had a plot, but there might have been two or three streams happening in that plot and characters coming in —major characters, minor characters —who would have an effect on the action. To me, one of my favorite Tennessee Williams devices is what I call "the young stud." There's some play set in the South where everyone's sweating, and you can just feel all the suppressed sexual energy.

Tafuri: Well, I'm seeing scenes from [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] for sure or Cat on a Hot Tin

McNeely: Or even Orpheus Ascending, the play that Maria [his wife] and I saw a few years ago with Vanessa Redgrave, where there's this Southern couple. You know, the guy has been very sick, and he's non-functional —and he was just a good ol' boy who drank with his buddies. Vanessa Redgrave played a woman who is Italian —God knows why this Italian woman came over from Italy —it's this kind of suspension of belief. So, here's this hot-blooded Italian woman who's now been living with this kind of schlub for some years, and she's kind of suppressed everything. Their life is set a certain way, and life is going on. Then, all of a sudden, midway through the first act, the "young guy" comes to town. And, all of a sudden, the men don't trust him, and the woman is feeling stuff she hasn't felt for years.
That thing of the third character —when you've got a comfortable balance between two and then you bring in the third, and you see how that third character disrupts the relationship between the two characters plus creates another relationship with each of those two characters plus affects the outside stuff —the way a playwright will deal with all that motion and movement to a climax over that length of time, to me, ten minutes is nothing. A lot of it was at the end of my college days. I was taking a couple of drama, play-reading classes; I really got into it and just how these characters worked.
So, I like to think of that when I write. The more forces you have at your disposal, the more you can express this. Sometimes the musicians themselves are characters in the play, sometimes it's musical ideas that are characters in the play.
Another one I like is the end of Macbeth where everyone's dead. I've written a few things where the two ideas that are both conflicting, finally they both blow up and kind of die. And, finally, just another little character, that we've never heard from, just sort of comes in from the end and wraps up the piece.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: Yeah, and someone's gotta come in and sweep off the stage at the end; it's like a stagehand coming in.

Tafuri: That's great.

McNeely: Yeah, to me that's had a big effect on my thinking about it.

Tafuri: Well, that's the storytelling element, for sure, and that comes through. It comes through in "Lost" and, how about, "A Perfect Six"? That's a tough tune.

McNeely: That's a hard one. That, again, started out as a tune I wrote for Phil Woods that we used to play with the Quintet. When I did the arrangement for the larger group, I had this idea again of the "What if?" I'm thinking, "Well, what if, after the piano solo, it goes into a bass solo, kind of an open thing" —I just wanted, again, the dust to settle.

Tafuri: Yeah. A transition.

McNeely: Everything just lays low for a minute. So, Cameron [Brown] is the eye in the [middle of] the storm. And then he comes out of that, and it goes into this whole other vamp, again, where this is "other character" coming in. The vibe most of the time is this [sings the portion of the piece before the vamp], this 12/8, almost "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" Mingus thing, then that breaks. The bass solo cools everybody out, and then you've got this more Afro groove. I was thinking that the bass and piano together are kinda like a great big thumb piano.

Tafuri: Oh, far out!

McNeely: I used to play —not very well —a thumb piano and listen to a bunch of recordings of kalimba music. It always fascinated me, the way the harmony was so simple the way they did it, and they'd get a little bass thing with the other stuff. So, I tried to reflect that.

Tafuri: How interesting. That's very interesting.

McNeely: Just to have it be a different kind of texture than bass and piano chords.

Tafuri: Were did the title come from?

McNeely: I wrote the tune, originally, around the time that some Olympics were going on. Some little gymnast was a perfect 6, and the tune was in 6/4, and I say "OK, so that's really what that's about."

Tafuri: [Laughing.] Cool.

McNeely: Maybe I'll re-title it some day, but I think it's too late. So, I wanted to create this other zone for the trumpet solo, then [the 6/4 theme] finally comes back. The thing that occurs at the beginning, the [sings the opening notes] —we never hear from that again —that's part of the piano solo. But then, I thought, 'We don't need to hear that again.' If the opening "stuff" are A, B then [sings some notes] is C, after then trumpet solo, it's just B then A.

Tafuri: I remember the first time I heard it, it reminded me of some Woody Shaw things.

McNeely: There was that, too. It's interesting. I wrote about two or three tunes at this one time, and I was thinking about Woody. It might have been around he died—

Tafuri: And we didn't even talk about this—

McNeely: Yeah [laughs], we didn't talk about it. It might have been around the time he died or, maybe, I had found out he was very sick for some time before he died. For some reason, Woody was on my mind. He's a guy I got to know, just by hanging out at the Vanguard, and he was such a great player. To me, he took the Freddie Hubbard thing and then took it even farther. He had such an amazing way to play on changes —this kind of "crackling" energy that he had —and then his tunes had a very special feeling about them. I remember I was thinking about him when I wrote that and a couple other things at that time.

Tafuri: That's cool. Well, there's one other standard —well, standard for a jazz musician, but you don't hear it that often, and I love it —that Coltrane Jazz album is one of my favorite Coltrane albums —and that's "Village Blues." How did you arrive at doing an arrangement on that one?

McNeely: Well, you know, it's a real simple tune, just a three-chord blues. When I was in college, it was in Champagne, Illinois, which was an interesting town, because here was the University of Illinois, about 30,000 students and all the faculty and all that —that's in the middle, they're two twin cities, Champagne and Urbana, and the university's right in the middle —and then there was the town surrounding it. There was a black community with a lot of good musicians. Jack McDuff is from there. The Bridgewater brothers, Ron and Cecil, are from there. And there were a number of other guys whom I would play with because, you know, some of the local guys would play in bars on campus, and I got to know them, and they'd hire me for gigs, and I'd play in clubs in their part of town. And this one guy named Tony Zamorra, a tenor player, he used to use "Village Blues" —because I'd heard it on the album first, and I dug the whole album at the time, but I didn't think much of it —he used to play it as a break tune [sings first three notes] with organ and tenor. And I though after all the other stuff you go through with the gig, it was so hip —just this simple little tune —and it's always stuck in my mind. So, in the early '80s when I used to play trio gigs, I'd use that as the final tune of the night, especially at some of these clubs where you'd play three sets, and now it's three-in-the-morning, and everyone's dead [sings fist 6 notes]. So then, when I was putting the music together for this band, I thought "Yeah, after all this kind of esoteric stuff," I wanted something that was just real loose, and I could open it, and people could play on it. Just write a couple of backgrounds people could play on. Essentially, it's just an orchestration of the head in the beginning, I just kinda re-did it, and the out-chorus a little more raw. Just have some solos and have it be a kind of loose kind of thing. When we did it in the sessions, it was the last thing we did. I remember that last day of recording, I thought it was going to go really smoothly and we'd be out of there in a couple, three, hours, and we had all kinds of stuff with "Silent Night" and all kinds of stuff with "Group Therapy," which took a lot, of course, to put together. I remember that by the time we got to "Village Blues," I was burnt and I think the guys were, and it felt so good to just play some 4/4 [snaps his fingers] like this. I think the real relaxed nature of the thing comes through.

Tafuri: Now I understand, when you tell me the history of this, why what I heard at the rehearsal —the original ending —was [sings the old ending] that was so corny.

McNeely: Well, you know, when you hear it out of that context. When I rehearsed it with Cameron and he just busted out laughing, I though "Well, this has gotta change."

Tafuri: Well, you did it at the rehearsal, too, and I hadn't heard any of this stuff, and I started laughing, too, and even the guys in the band started laughing. But now it makes sense.

McNeely: And last night, at this duo gig I did with Don Thompson, it was the same thing. We rehearsed on Tuesday afternoon, and we were running through that, and I had the old ending, and he busted out laughing.

Tafuri: [Laughs.]

McNeely: We ended up not doing it last night on the gig. So, I re-did the ending, and I'm a lot happier with the ending that we came up with.

Tafuri: Yeah, well, you've got a lot of new things on this album, but there's something to be said for those good old motifs.

McNeely: They work, I guess, but, as a writer, I like to spin it several different ways. I feel I've spent a lot of time learning about a lot of traditional stuff and I can do that. But, at the same time, I've got all this other kind of stuff that I've been doing over the years, drawing on a lot of different sources than the old, straight-ahead jazz. But there are times when I still feel so comfortable just writing some old, kind of straight-ahead stuff. Sometimes I think I gotta be careful about how I use that because, like in the case of Maybe It's the Last Tune of the Night, maybe that ending on "Village Blues" works, but, in any other context, whatever happened in this arrangement, it's kind of like 'Aw, screw it, it's kind of a joke.' I don't want to be too —to use that word you used —"campy" about it. I don't want it to go on and then, "Hey, guys, it's just a joke."

Tafuri: That's like kids in elementary school writing stories. Then they don't know where they want to go with the stories, so they just write "And then they lived happily ever after."

McNeely: Yeah, right, and I guess that lick is the musical equivalent of "Then they lived happily ever after" ... yada, yada, yada, fill in the blanks [sings the lick again].

Tafuri: I haven't heard everything you've done —though I've heard quite a few things —and it feels to me like Group Therapy is really something new for you, that you really stretched out with the flexibility of the group and the standard tunes and the originals.

McNeely: I agree. It's stuff that, on the one hand, it represents ideas that have been kicking around in my head for a long time, and, on the other hand, like it or not, I haven't really gotten those [ideas] out there, so this is a chance for me to get certain things going, certain things expressed that I haven't [expressed] before. It's not like I'm abandoning anything else I've done or trashing anything else I've done, but I feel like, in general, what I've written on this album is really me. I'm very, very comfortable with everything I hear on the album. I like to think that, on the one hand, I have the ability to do something very tradition and, on the other hand, go pretty far off the cliff ... and then mix the two together.

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