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
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
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
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.
of "the larger the band gets," how did you
arrive at a tentet, the ten-voice thing?
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
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
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.
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,
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...
McNeely: First of
all, I thought I wanted three saxes.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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...
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...
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?"
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.
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.'
McNeely: So, I did
it, and I got a lot of nice feedback.
Tafuri: You sent
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...
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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—
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.