The reason why sleep won't come: too much coffeeInterview with John McNeil about
Sleep Won't Come

Tafuri: I know that the cover painting is called "Sleep Won't Come," and I know that, for some musicians, seeing a painting like that and deciding to use it on the cover is enough reason for titling an album after it.  But I also know you, and I suspect there's something more to choosing that title.  Is there?

McNeil: For one thing, for extended periods of my life I've been an insomniac.  Sleep has been a precious commodity, and when you see the beginnings of dawn —like you do in the painting —and you realize another night is shot to hell and the old sleave of care is staying raveled and nothing to do about it, this has always filled me with melancholy.  The title cut sounds precisely the way that feels to me.

Tafuri: Does the insomnia actually "fill you with melancholy" or put you starkly in touch with melancholy already there? And, if so, do you think melancholy is an essential component of being a true artist and why?

McNeil: I think pain or suffering is essential to being an artist.  That doesn't mean that you have to be suffering currently, but you need to have experienced some suffering at some time.  To answer your question, not being able to sleep when the rest of the world seems to be doing so does in fact fill me with melancholy, knowing that I can't put away the cares of the day.

Tafuri: I agree that the title track sounds like day-after-night-spent-tossing-and-turning melancholy —though that feeling of is more of "misery" when it happens to me.  Maybe it's just the long tones and the Harmon mute, but it sure also makes me think of Miles Davis —and not just for the sound.  I always heard some kind of sadness (or maybe it was anger) in Miles' sound.  And I'm really not trying to put words in your mouth, but is there any connection to him in choosing the way you did to play "Sleep Won't Come"?

McNeil: I've always thought that Miles sounded lonely more than sad or angry, especially when he uses a Harmon mute and plays melodies that move slowly.  That airy sound he gets has always been very evocative, and this is my little (doubtlessly unworthy) hommage.

Tafuri: How did you come across the actual painting "Sleep Won't Come" or Robin Palanker, its creator?

McNeil: I met Robin through a mutual friend, and a few years ago I went to a show of hers at a gallery in New York.  I was very taken with her work, and used one of her paintings on a previous CD.  Last year she sent me a brochure about an upcoming show in L.A. and in it was a series of paintings entitled "Sleep Won't Come".

Tafuri: Over your recording career, you've made albums with and without piano as part of the group.  For example, your last OmniTone album, This Way Out, was pianoless.  Is choosing to use a piano or not part of the advance process in planning a new recording?

McNeil: For me it's as much to do with wanting to play with somebody —a piano player for instance —and then choosing music that uses that person and their instrument.  The person comes first, the instrument second. In this case, it was a tie.  The piano has the broad palette you need to express all the stuff that runs through your mind when you're trying to seduce Morpheus.

Tafuri: Do you compose at the piano? Did you compose any or all of the tunes on Sleep Won't Come at the keyboard or were you, as you sort of indicated, just thinking about the pianistic palette when you wrote the tunes?

McNeil: I wrote "Each Moment Remains," "Polka Party," and "Somnambulism" at the piano.  The rest I either wrote in my head or were concepts that I explained and worked out in rehearsal.

Tafuri: You live in New York and, though I know you travel quite a bit to play, how you did you end up a recording with musicians in Denver of all places?

McNeil: First, Jeff Jenkins was my (and everybody else's) favorite piano player when he lived in N.Y.  Over the years, we've stayed in touch and played a number of gigs together even though he lived in Denver.  I also wound up producing a number of albums at his recording studio, including one for Jeff himself which I did the arrangements for.  When I hit him with the idea for this CD he jumped on it and said he had the perfect bass player for it and I didn't need to bring a guy from N.Y.  He was right, since the CD is mostly a duet between Jeff and myself we needed a guy who could mold seamlessly into what we were doing.  Kent McLagan plays a lot of free music and was a great choice.  Plus we could use him as another voice at times which made the music more sonically interesting. Even better, Kent had a lot of musical insight and had much to do with how the music ended up sounding.

Tafuri: I'm just curious: How free, on a scale of 1 to five, let's say, would you say this album is overall?

McNeil: I would say 4.  Or maybe 3.9, since there is the occasional use of tonality.

Tafuri: Not that you didn't stretch out on previous albums, but I —of course, as chief instigator of a label that purveys "adventurous and listenable" music —feel like you've really stretched out a bit more on This Way Out and now Sleep Won't Come than you have in the past.  Do you agree and, if so, why do you think that is?

McNeil: You're absolutely right.  I think I finally found my voice after nearly four decades of searching.

Tafuri: What do you think Jeff Jenkins, in particular, and the other musicians on the recording do to or for your playing? In other words, how do they effect it?

McNeil: Jeff can set a mood right away, so you always have some place to stand when you're trying to create.  Jeff and Kent both have the ability to respond quickly and appropriately to whatever is happening.  I can decide to go in some direction and I know that they're going to be there.  They can also anticipate where I want to go.  All this makes me feel completely free and unbound when I'm playing -- an enviable state.  At the same time, I have a lot of responsibility since where I go, the music goes.  If I lead us down a blind alley, we may stay there amid dumpsters full of garbage and rats the size of dobermans. 

Tafuri: There is quite a range of music on this record, and the combination works.  That is, it's wide-ranging and cohesive, not eclectic.  There was a range on This Way Out, too, and there was a common thread in that one: the Spanish connection.  On Sleep Won't Come, you have everything from out piano tone-cluster mashing tunes to ECM-like grooves to Milesish-muse to a take on "The Water Is Wide" to even a polka.  What do you hear as a common thread on this one?

McNeil: Without being too slavishly literal, I wanted to have scenes that went through your head when you're laying in the dark staring at nothing or aimlessly padding around your apartment at 4:00 a.m.  The mood pieces speak for themselves in this regard.  "The Water Is Wide" has always been a sad but somehow life affirming melody (hence the ending).  "Polka Party" is just insane.  I listen to it now and can't imagine what I was thinking when I came up with it.  Like having a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, writing it down, and then reading it the next day and realizing it's how to make toast.  It was fun to play, though.  I played it on a gig with George Garzone recently and he swallowed his mouthpiece and had to be taken to the hospital.

Tafuri: Geez.  I know saxophonists get attached to a good reed when they find one, but swallowing it? But seriously, folks... Speaking of a little wacky, it sounds like somehow Fellini brought the circus to town in "Escape from Beigeland." Where did that tune and/or its title come from?

McNeil: That's Jeff's tune.  He lived at one time in a part of town that was exceptionally colorless and devoid of juice.  Jeff called it "Beigeland" and this tune represents an attempt to escape one's monotonous surroundings.

Tafuri: From what I understand, nanotechnology is one of those hot (and still theoretical technologies) of building molecular-sized systems that emulate larger systems.  It's like atom by atom construction.  Why "Nanotech"?

McNeil: First, it's short. Second, it's composed of brief but instantly recognizable fragments which can (in the right hands) be woven into an integrated larger composition, much like carbon nanotubes being being assembled into larger devices.

Tafuri: It's interesting that earlier you mentioned Morpheus, because I think technically Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, not of sleep.  I think his daddy Hypnos was the god of sleep.  How important are dreams —even in the figurative sense of things we want or things we long for —as an impetus behind the some of these tunes?

McNeil: In my case, dreams often contribute to my not sleeping since they are without exception horrible and heart-poundingly scary (the ones I remember). Hypnos sounds like a better guy to hang with.

Tafuri: And, speaking of dreams —and I know this may be kind of a goofy, interviewer-type question —but if you could play with or put together a band of anyone you wanted to, living or dead, who would that be and why?

McNeil: Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Billy Hart, Bob Brookmeyer and and a Saxophonist to be named later.  I would choose these guys because they are never, never boring.  Oh, and don't forget Buddy Greco singing.  No, wait... I lost it there for a second.  Sorry.

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