He's mild-mannered. He has a wry sense of humor. He has a distinctive gait. On seeing him, you might not expect him to be a jazz musician or, much less, a "way out" one.
After 35 years of professional music making, even some of John McNeil's fans around the world may have a limited picture of who John McNeil is and what he can really do. After all, over the course of his musical career, he's played with the Horace Silver Quintet, Slide Hampton, Gerry Mulligan, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra — all thrilling and significant, but none of which are thought of as particularly "way out."
"I think it started with lack of acceptance here in the City," recounts John of his early days in New York City in the mid-'70s. "You start playing your own thing, and you get a lot of rebuffs from people you admire. It changes you. I see the same thing happen to young guys that come here."
When he came to the Big Apple from Northern California, he had already been playing professionally since graduation from high school in 1966. Born in 1948 in Yreka, California, John largely taught himself to play trumpet and read music due to a lack of available musical instruction in his hometown.
"I didn't know anything about changes when I started playing. I guess you could say it was pretty free if I was playing on a tune," explains John. "I kind of made money as a musician all the time I was going to college." Like many other players, his "training" was on-the-job, utilitarian, playing weddings, Elks' clubs, bar mitzvahs, and the like.
Nevertheless, the difference between simply "running the changes" and virtuoso improvising became abundantly clear in what John refers to as both a "searing" and "transforming" experience of attending a jam session with John Handy, an altoist whose work with Mingus he particularly admired.
"He just carved me up so badly; he just destroyed me," recalls John. "At that point, I started playing everything in every key and transcribing solos a lot ... and learning them ... and started playing piano. I improved about 500% in six months."
Since then, John has worked with the bands mentioned earlier, recorded nine albums for SteepleChase under his own name, and toured internationally. John has consistently led his own groups from about 1980 to the present and, in the last dozen years, has become increasingly in demand as a writer, arranger, and record producer. He continues these activities in addition to his work as a faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music.
For this recording, his debut on OmniTone, John traveled to Spain for a series of quartet dates organized by his friend, the gifted drummer Joe Smith, who divides his time between Spain and the US. John describes the Basque tenorman Gorka Benitez, a rising star on the Spanish creative music scene, as "certifiable," adding, by the way, that he's also "a very gifted player. He seeks to find the essence of the music, and he's into trying different things." And about the young, versatile bassist Giulia Valle, John comments, "she knows how to function in an ensemble, and she responds quickly."
John was so inspired by the group's responsiveness and willingness to rehearse that he wrote five tunes specifically for the quartet. Continues John, "These guys were great with my saying 'Let's do it this way' or 'Can we try this?'"
"Mi Tio" is, as John puts it, "based on a Flamenco kind of thing" with a "very simple chord progression." What makes it thrilling and somewhat exotic is the superimposition of an irregular 5/4 beat over a standard 3/4 (waltz-type) beat. The title demonstrates John's mastery of foreign language by using perhaps the only complete sentence he can say in Spanish, the always helpful mi tio es enfermo (my uncle is sick).
La orilla is the area of shallows on the beach which, in Barcelona, extends out a long way. "I was trying to write a tango sort of thing," John mentions. After visiting the beach and being taken by the peacefulness of the water, gently disturbed by the occasional wave rolling in, he wrote "A la Orilla."
"My Taxi" is an "African reggae" inspired by CD music played by a West African driver on a long drive to JFK Airport. The rhythmic bass line is only four notes, contrasted by the horns playing a simple melody over the top. Adds John, "We got stuck in traffic, so I got a big dose of that rhythm." Likewise, the nearly hypnotic 5/4 "Know Your Limits" is John's pæan to the frontier of his own odd-meter playing. Modestly quips John, "I just gotta tell you, my odd-meter playing is strictly from hunger.... You get into 7 or 11 or like this 19/8 that guys can play, and I stand on the side and wave my cap. That's how I make my contribution."
"West Coast Memories" is one of two hip little "non-compositions" on the session. "In talking with Gorka, I found out he's listened to a lot of West Coast Jazz," recounts John. "I said, 'How about if we try to do Chet and Gerry on acid?'" The result is an improvisation with the sounds of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan in the horn section's ears. The other improv and perhaps the "outest" tune on the album, "Dewey Defeats Truman," replete with Joe Smith on berimbau and a coterie of bells and hand percussion, has John playing an almost psychedelic solo without any electronics. (Who needs that pesky middle slide on the trumpet anyway?)
So, whether its title is interpreted as This, Way Out or This Way, Out, this-here album shows a fully-realized improvisor and crew taking the music to new and ear-tingling places. Way out!