notes for John McNeil:
Sleep is a mysterious thing. Until recently, scientists haven't had a good explanation why most living organisms need sleep. Biochemically and physiologically, sleep appears mostly unnecessary, and yet sleep deprivation can cause effects similar to starvation. Additionally, the psychological benefits of sleep for humans are becoming clearer. Research indicates that as well as metabolically reorganizing our systems, sleep consolidates memory and task performance.
For John McNeil, the absence of sleep defines its value, an absence reflected in the title track and cover painting of Sleep Won't Come. John comments, "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 [there's] nothing to do about it —this has always filled me with melancholy." John uses Miles Davis's familiar Harmon mute sound and stark tone on "Sleep Won't Come" to evoke that forlorn feeling. "I've always thought that Miles sounded lonely more than sad or angry, especially when he uses a Harmon mute," notes John, "and this is my little, doubtlessly unworthy, homage. "
Beyond the Miles-ish muse of the title track, John concocts a cohesive set of tunes ranging from far-out Charles Ivesian piano tone-cluster mashing tunes ("The Other World") to ECM-like grooves ("Each Moment Remains") to a take of an Irish traditional song ("The Water Is Wide") to a demented polka. This eclecticism is reminiscent of John's OmniTone debut, This Way Out, but Sleep suggests the particular madness of the somnambulist: "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 AM," explains John. For example, "Polka Party" is "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."
John says of his recordings for the adventurous and listenable OmniTone label, "I think I finally found my voice after nearly four decades of searching." That search has not come without the pain that John, like many other artists, feels is essential to creativity. At least some of that pain and suffering has come from too many late nights in the absence of Hypnos, the god of sleep, or, worse yet for John, too many late-night sessions with Morpheus, the god of dreams. "In my case, dreams often contribute to my not sleeping, since they are without exception horrible and heart-poundingly scary —the ones I remember," clarifies John, adding, "Hypnos sounds like a better guy to hang with."
John chose pianist Jeff Jenkins, a New York 1980s new music scene ex-pat now living in Denver (someone John has stayed in touch and collaborated with over the years), for what was supposed to be mostly a duo exploration of Sleep's diversified dreamscape. "The person comes first, the instrument second. In this case, it was a tie," recalls John. "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." But it was Jenkins who recommended including Mile High-area bassist Kent McLagan who, according to John, "plays a lot of free music and was a great choice. Kent had a lot of musical insight and had much to do with how the music ended up sounding."
Jenkins and McLagan brought such large musical vocabularies and so much responsiveness to the project that John felt completely free and unbounded, "an enviable state," as he describes it. "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."
Jenkins also contributed a couple of original compositions. Especially notable is the Ornettishly boppy "Escape from Beigeland." As John explains it, "[Jeff] 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." It abuts the starkly contrasting, partially illuminated fringe of "Penumbra," one of two tunes Jenkins co-authored with John. (The wagging and appropriately slippery "World without Velcro" is the other.)
John's résumé includes work with the Horace Silver Quintet, Slide Hampton, John Abercrombie, Gerry Mulligan, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among others, and he has toured with his own groups for more than two decades. His chosen "dream band" reflects this lifelong commitment to creativity: "Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Billy Hart, Bob Brookmeyer and a Saxophonist to Be Named Later. I would choose these guys because they are never, never boring ... and don't forget Buddy Greco singing. No, wait..." Talk about your nightmares.