Interview with John McNeil about This Way Out (OmniTone 15204)

John McNeil getting groovy-cool outMcNeil: I suppose that’s how that Italian woman, whose recording you played for me, would say it: “This way out.”

Tafuri: I think it’s probably a good name for this recording. I mean, I haven’t heard everything you’ve recorded, but, in some ways, I think this is your most “way out”recording.

McNeil: It’s the freeist, yes. When I first got to New York, I had a free band, and we’d try to do things like, ‘Let’s play a composition that lasts ten minutes.’My roots were in there, but I basically couldn’t get any traction here in the city at that time.

Tafuri: When was this?

McNeil: It was in the early ’70s. So, I basically changed my style. I mean, I can play changes, so I wound up doing more of that just for work, but I always tried to get a certain amount of free stuff in there.
For instance, it was hard recording for Steeplechase. Nils [Winther] always wanted me to an album of standards. He’d say, “The critics say you never play any standards, and so they don’t have any basis on which to judge you.”Oh, Christ, let me do that. So I recorded an album that was really bizarre, mainly because a promoter took me over there [to Denmark], and Nils was going to use the opportunity to record me, and the promoter wouldn’t let me record at the last minute, because he wanted Nils to share the money for getting me over there.

Tafuri: (Laughing.) This is in Denmark?

McNeil: This is in Denmark, where it’s like clans warring. You get in the middle of a tong war, and you don’t have any idea of who’s side is for what. So, they finally settled it, and, by that time, the studio date had disappeared. I was going to France next, and he said, “Look, before you leave”—we had three hours, that’s all —

Tafuri: —that’s a Nils Winter recording —

McNeil: Yeah, and we get a couple guys in there —the bass player was really good, Jesper Lundgaard —“and we’ll just see if we can record some tunes.”He said to just take one take of everything. One take. I said, “Fine, it’s gonna suck, but it’s your money.”So, I did it. Except for one tune, a Charlie Parker head where we stopped and started again, we did everything else in one take. By the time we got the sound going, it was about two hours and fifteen minutes.

Tafuri: So it was basically like playing a set, at that point.

McNeil: That’s it. And I think we had one extra track. I think he put that on the CD, because it wouldn’t fit on the LP.

Tafuri: You talked about when you came here to New York, you had a free group. Who was in the group? Do you remember?

McNeil: Oh, you’re killin’me now. Mark Plank and (I’m thinking like) Jack Bashkow. It was a rotating group, but it was sort of my thing. Sometimes where would be drums, sometimes there wouldn’t be drums. You know, I haven’t even thought about it. I could go back and find out. I made tapes of some of these sessions, just on a little SuperScope. I play alto saxophone on a couple of them. You wanna hear bad? It’s that saxophone playing. You know that guy we were listening to today? He sounds like ’Trane compared to me.

Tafuri: You said then eventually you played changes. Did you come out of a free thing?

McNeil: Yeah, 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. I kind of made money as a musician all the time I was going to college. For that, I had to learn to play tunes for stuff like in New York you call “club dates”or in Boston “general business.”I’d play for the Elks club and weddings —

Tafuri: Bar mitzvahs.

McNeil: Oh, yeah, exactly. And for those things you have to know tunes. I had a job out in a Dixieland band out in Oregon. It was just for money, you know. So, if only to make money, you learn to play different styles of music.

Tafuri: But you weren’t reading?

McNeil: No, I never played shows or anything.

Tafuri: I mean, you weren’t reading music? You were just playing by ear?

McNeil: Oh, yeah, I didn’t know about harmony, necessarily. Especially if you’re playing something like in a Dixieland context, the chords are so obvious and so clearly played that, if you have any ears at all, you do the right thing. I think I went to a jam session with John Handy. Is he still around?

Tafuri: I don’t know. He put out an album probably ten or twelve years ago, and that’s the last album I remember, so I don’t know.

McNeil: I remember him playing with Mingus, and he sounded really good. Anyway, so I went to a jam session with him. He just carved me up so badly; he just destroyed me. It didn’t matter, because I thought I’d know this tune, so he said let’s do it in B instead of B-flat. He did it on purpose, because I think we wanted to show me I was an idiot, and he certainly succeeded.

Tafuri: So, you’re playing it in C-sharp then.

McNeil: Yeah, yeah! So, I’m thinking, ‘He must mean B-flat; he couldn’t mean B. Obviously he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’Boy, that was a wake-up call! At that point, I started playing everything in every key and started transcribing solos a lot ... and learning them ... and started playing piano. I improved about 500% in about six months.

Tafuri: Getting in over your head’ll definitely do that.

McNeil: It was a searing experience, but, I’ll tell you what, it was transforming at the same time. Six months later, I was an actual player. I wasn’t a really good player, but I wasn’t a yutz like I was before. I could play, and I could handle keys just because it was so searing. A hundred percent of my mental and physical energy went into remedying it, and so for six months you didn’t see me. I’d get up early in the morning and go to bed late at night.

Tafuri: It’s like the story of Jimmy Smith, after switching to organ from piano as a young man, going to hear someone like Wild Bill Davis who was playing in Philly, going into the club cocky, leaving feeling beaten after hearing Wild Bill’s big sound, and supposedly going away for six months to sharpen his chops and find a new voice by practicing in his father’s warehouse.

McNeil: Yeah, it sounds much the same. That was the worst thing that happened to me. I had various splashes of cold water on me at various times. They weren’t painful in the same way, but they were eye-opening, like hearing Frank Foster play over “Giant Steps.”This goes back quite a few years when he was playing with Thad and Mel’s Band. He wrote this arrangement of “Giant Steps,”and he stood up to solo on it. I hadn’t hear him play on it before, but he played on it like it was a blues or something.

Tafuri: He felt that relaxed about it.

McNeil: Yeah, just playing —just like I do —some phrases over it that all fit, but it was so easy, not running data like I did. Well, I could play “Giant Steps.”I thought I was pretty good at it, then, ‘Boy, I’m a child.’It seems like I would come home every night, get home about three in the morning, and just sit there and say, “I’ll be damned. You know, it’s time to practice some more.”I remember hearing Bob Brookmeyer, and it was the same kind of thing. Really sitting there for a whole night and just checking him out and like ‘Boy, I don’t hear anything. I am deaf.’

Tafuri: Did you come to New York specifically to play?

McNeil: Yeah, that’s all, and I had saved enough money that I could make it without working for about six months. I was smart enough to know that I wasn’t good enough to really come here and “kill.”I could play a lot of styles, but I wasn’t physically a very good trumpet player. I was adequate. I knew that the economics would kill me, and I needed all of that six months. I started playing Latin gigs, which were good for my chops and good rhythmically. Then I started playing with Larry Elgart. (Remember that name?)

Tafuri: Uh-huh.

McNeil: Actually, later I wound up being a contractor for Larry Elgart. It’s the only time I’ve ever called up people for a gig and have them be mad at me. And I’m thinking, like, ‘Just say ‘no.’’

Tafuri: (Laughing.) They got mad at you because you were calling them to book them for the Larry Elgart band?

McNeil: Yeah, it was like, ‘How dare you call me for that?’and I was like, ‘Just say ‘no.’Tell me you can’t do it or you don’t want to.’

Tafuri: (Howling with laughter.) That’s something.

McNeil: You know, I lost that job, because I got paid for contracting, even if I didn’t play the band. The last two things I booked, I wasn’t on the band; I was doing another gig, but I got it together for him [Larry Elgart].
I sent him to Buffalo with two extra trombones, not enough saxophones, and an extra guitar player. And then two weeks later, I sent him to Cleveland, and they had an extra drummer and too many trumpets and one trombone or something. Somehow I got it all screwed up and, on the Cleveland thing, I was responsible for putting the band jackets on the bus. I loaded half of them, and the other half were laying on the hood of a car. I simply said, “OK, that’s fine”and walked away and drove off. So, I assume the rest of the band jackets where on the hood of the car.
So, I get a call from Larry a day later, after the gig, after they were back. I get a message, “John, listen, you know all those dates that I gave you? Why don’t you hold off for hiring a band for those? I’ll get back to you.”And now, this is like twenty years later, and I haven’t heard from him yet. I’m still waiting for that call. I think maybe he forgot.

Tafuri: You put two and two together?

McNeil: About five years ago, I put it together. I got to thinking, ‘Maybe he’s not going to call.’

Tafuri: Okay, well, getting back to the album: this album’s really different for you. A lot of the recordings I know of yours are pretty “straight ahead.”And when you called me the first time over a year ago, I knew who you were. I had interviewed you years ago on WVXU when I was in Cincinnati, and I hear you play at the [Blue] Wisp [a famous jazz club in Cincinnati], and I liked what you did. But it was sorta, like “post-bop”stuff. But this album is really different for you. I mean, it knocked me out. You’re doing something new hear, I mean, really new.

McNeil: Well, it more of who I am. Maybe at this point —and I don’t want to get to maudlin about it or make it greater than it is —but I feel like all I have left is to be myself ... for a lot of different reasons. All fears I had about being myself are evaporated.

Tafuri: And, so, the real John McNeil shows through.

McNeil: Yeah, probably not as much as it will at some point, because it’s been hard to be myself. It’s hard to find my own voice and keep it. I’ll find it from time to time. I’ve more found it in live gigs. In recording, I’ve always felt constrained by the circumstances.
A well-known record I did is that Tom Harrell record. I wanted to do some adventurous stuff, and Tom would not move in that direction. So, I said, “I’m a semi-capable bebop player. Let’s do that.”He and I had practiced a lot when he was getting over Bell’s Palsy and, besides, I’d known him; we’re from the same area in northern California. (He’s from a little way south of where I’m from.) I’ve known him forever. So, I said, “Man, it’d be nice if we had a non-competitive trumpet record. Let’s do that.”[And he said,] “That sounds fine.”I saw that he wasn’t going to be able to go that way [out], to not have changes to rely on. That’s why I said, “Okay, let’s don’t do that. We’ll do some of your tunes, and we’ll do some standards, and we’ll do just that.”And it came out good, but that seems to be the record everybody identifies me with. And it is probably the least like me of any record that I’ve ever done.

Tafuri: Why do you think it was so hard to find your own voice?

McNeil: I think it started with lack of acceptance here in the City. 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. I jam a lot with people. I’m always getting into jam sessions; my upstairs neighbor has a good place to play. So, we wind up playing with every new guy that comes to town. And you see these guys and say, “Here’s an original guy,”and six months later he sounds like a totally “inside”bop guy, just because of the pressures of acceptance.
I’ll tell you one guy who’s never really gone along with that, and that’s Dave Douglas. I’ve always admired that.

Like me playing with Horace Silver, for example. If you didn’t make the changes, you’d get fired. I mean, that’s plain and simple. I mean, if you didn’t go right down Broadway with those things. On some of the modal things, you could go out a bit but, with most of the stuff I was playing when I was with him, you’d change every beat or every two beats. And he has good ears. He could tell right away. A couple times he said, “Man, you gotta try and play the changes better.”I said, “Well, I can play ’em. I was just trying to do this other thing.”“Yeah, but that doesn’t sound good. You gotta play the changes.”Besides the way he comps. I mean, it does sound lame if you don’t play that shit. I mean, there’ve been a lot of things like that.

Tafuri: Yeah

McNeil: I remember, I would cover some sets with Art Blakey for Bill Hardman. I could tell he was getting tired of the gig, I guess. And then, playing with Art Blakey, playing “The Blues March”and “Along Came Betty”and stuff like that —

Tafuri: —which aren’t easy tunes, either —

McNeil: —yeah. So you have to play what’s there. So I think it’s a combination of things. Economics. Maybe lack of personal courage, I don’t know, to say, “Well, this is who I am and, if you don’t like it, too bad.”I don’t think I’ve ever had that kind of courage; I think I’ve always yearned for acceptance, I think to the detriment of my own music.

Tafuri: Well, then, how did this very different session and these tunes come about? Because it was kind of interesting to me. You went to Spain to make the record. Or you went to Spain to hang out or work or play some gigs, or you went primarily to make the record?

McNeil: It started out primarily just to work. Joe Smith, well-known Spanish drummer, Joe Smith. (Laughs.) He spends about six months in the United States and six months in Barcelona. When he was over here, we were hanging out playing, and I said, “How about you hook up some gigs for us over there? I’ll come over, we’ll rehearse, and we’ll get to play some gigs over there. Do you think you could do that?”and he said, “Yeah. No problem, I could do that.”So I gave him a couple CDs and a couple promo packets (some pictures and stuff). He went to work and scared up three weeks worth of gigs. They were all around Barcelona. We stayed in Barcelona, and we’d travel around and play in these medieval towns around there, and then we’d return to Barcelona, even if it was quite a drive. It was easy that way. And it was Spain, so they had days off, you know. (Chuckles.)

Tafuri: Yeah, it’s the Mediterranean mentality.

McNeil: So, it was a very easy time. I found that these people were really into rehearsing. So, I said —after I heard that the band was going to be really good —“Why don’t we see if we can record over here? We got a couple days, so we can do it before our last three gigs.”We had two days off, so I said, “We could record right then.”So, he says, “Okay.”He got this studio —it’s a really nice studio, though the only thing about Spain is that in 2002 the price structure from when the money was still the peseta was in Euros, but the prices were low —and the studio was really reasonable.

I thought maybe Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sounds might even pick it [the record] up. I don’t know; he’s not interested, because I’m too old. That’s what he told me. He says, “You’re too old. You sound like you’re about the age of Bud Shank and these other guys, but you don’t play like him. You play like the young guys. So, I don’t know where to put you, so...”“Well, screw it then.”And there’s another thing: I guess if I played like Bud Shank or Conte Condoli or whomever —those are the guys he records.

So, we went in there and recorded this music. I wrote these tunes —“Mi Tio,”“My Taxi,”“What Comes After,”“Know Your Limits,”and “A La Orilla”—specifically for this combination of people. I wrote some here [in the US], and I wrote a couple tunes while I was there that’d I’d been knocking around, that I heard would work. I kind of tweaked them so they [the songs] corresponded with what they could do well.

Tafuri: So, much of the music on here is new.

McNeil: It’s all new. It was all written either two months before the record date or while I was there.

Tafuri: This is some interesting group, because I think a lot of listeners who hear this album are going to have any idea of who Gorka Benitez is or Giulia Valle.

McNeil: Yeah, Giulia, I would say, is not a very complete soloist, she doesn’t have a lot of chops but, like a lot of bass players, she knows how to function in an ensemble, and she responds quickly. So, as to the free music we were doing, she’ll change things up and she’ll not be afraid to play in vamps for a long time. She doesn’t really solo much on this record; she’s not really a soloist, which puts additional burdens on me and the tenor player, but, at the same time, I like the hookup so much between her and the drummer. That was really comfortable, so I said, “Well, we don’t really need the bass solos.”

Tafuri: But you know what happens after the drums stop?

McNeil: “Very, very bad thing happens.”(Laughs.) “Very, very bad.”

Tafuri: Is she like a young person there who plays in Barcelona and teaches?

McNeil: She’s maybe 30, and I think she does nothing but play gigs. She knows tunes and stuff. She plays in tune pretty much. Her time is good, you see, that’s the thing. She knows tunes and’ll walk her way through harmonies and has good instincts of what to do and really pays attention.

Tafuri: That’s evident.

McNeil: Yeah, plays attention. You know, I’ve played with guys who were really great soloists, but are really not in the moment. I think they’re thinking about what they’re going to play for their solo or something like that. They’re not living there with you at that time.
So, I thought this was a good thing. So, mostly the soloists are me and Gorka.

Tafuri: Tell me about Gorka.

McNeil: Well, he’s a Basque. Say no more. That means, he’s certifiable. (Chuckles.)

Tafuri: I like the rest of this.

McNeil: Gorka’s from Bilbão, I believe, up there. I believe he’s the only musician in his family. In Spain, he’s quite famous. You see him interviewed in magazines —you know, their equivalent of Down Beat and stuff like that.

Tafuri: Quadernos del Jazz?

McNeil: Yeah, or something like that. So, I saw his picture in there. And everybody knows him. I mean, he’s not just a guy who musicians know, but everybody seems to know him. He’s a terrific guy ... and the women love him, needless to say. I wouldn’t say he’s an exceptionally good-looking man, either, but he radiates and energy that, well, we can only wish... I think he’s a very gifted player. He seeks to find what is the essence of the music, and he’s into trying different things.

These guys were great with my saying, “Let’s do it this way”or “Can we try this?”They’d say, “Okay, let’s try it. Let’s see if we can make that work.”And he’s totally experimenting and “Let’s try this”and that and the other thing, and he’s not wedded to a particular approach. It was so much fun to play with him and, I’ll tell you what, on a live gig, I’d better make sure my jock [strap] is really tight, because it’s like I have to raise my energy level to keep up with that fellow.

Tafuri: Well, maybe that’s why this album is a different thing for you. You were in a different place. You were with some different people who you hadn’t really spent too much time playing with. (I mean, it was a concentrated amount of time.) Wasn’t it one of the Blakey recordings —I don’t think it was the Birdland one, but it was a live one —where me makes an announcement saying he’s always getting younger guys to play with because they’re the ones that —

McNeil: Keep the mind active —

Tafuri: —keep things going. Let’s talk about the tunes a little bit, if you don’t mind.

McNeil: Sure.

Tafuri: “Mi Tio.”

McNeil: This is based on a Flamenco kind of thing. And it’s not very exotic chord progressions, very primitive. Instead of ii-V-I, you go IV-V-I. It’s that kind of thing. It’s in 3/4, and what I did was filter it through a jazz filter. It’s probably not obvious, but that [sings the opening measures], that’s actually 5/4 laid over a 3/4. And then I did the 5/4 thing toward the end of the tune. I did like five groups of eighth notes, so it’s like [sings the passage], so that gave it that offset rhythmic thing. That’s basically what that was. This music is very much in the spirit of —there’s a Flamenco thing, I wish I could remember the name of it, that’s in 3/4, that it sounds like.

Tafuri: Like “Pasa Doble.”

McNeil: Yeah, but then they do two against three. But that’s the [starts singing the rhythms again while clicking his fingers].

Tafuri: Well, it’s great. Out of the gates, you’re roaring like gangbusters. And it’s funny because, when I listened to it the very first time, the thing that popped into my head immediately was [Mingus’album] New Tijuana Moods with “Ysabel’s Table Dance”and stuff like that.
“Mi Tio”?

McNeil: “My Uncle.”

Tafuri: Like “zio”in italiano. Did you write it for your uncle?

McNeil: No. It’s because my Spanish is so limited. I could say “Mi tio es enfermo,”“My uncle is”—

Tafuri: Yeah, “sick.”(Laughs.)

McNeil: So we just called it that as a working title: “Mi Tio es Enfermo.”

Tafuri: (Cackles.)

McNeil: So the kept calling it as “Mi Tio,”like, “Let’s play ‘Mi Tio,’”so I said, “Hell, let’s just keep it.”

Tafuri: Yeah, okay, ’cause from the sound of piece, he’s a pretty vital guy to be that sick.

”A la Orilla.”

McNeil: Orilla is the area between sea and the land. What do you call it, “the shallows”? And around the beaches of Barcelona, that extends out quite a way. That’s where you go wading. And the water there is really beautiful.

Tafuri: [Getting up to put the piece on] You were inspired by the water?

McNeil: Sort of. I was trying to write a tango sort of thing. (I’ve been messing around with that idea for a while.) I was thinking, ‘This is really peaceful,’and then a wave would come in. [Listening to the music] See, here.

Tafuri: I played this the other day for Russ Johnson and, it’s funny, because he had been saying to me for some time that he has wanted to have some sort of tango he could do. So, this was the first thing I played for him (from the album), and he said, “Boy, this is great.”Because it is and it isn’t a tango, you know? There’s something else going on there.

So you wrote that while you were over there?

McNeil: Ah, yeah. I sort of had some notes about some various things that I was thinking about in advance, in terms of structure, but as far as melody... Then, when I was at the beach, I said, “Oh, that’s so nice how the water comes in.”

Tafuri: And that experience completed it for you.

McNeil: Yeah.

Tafuri: “Picasso View.”

McNeil: That’s actually Gorka’s little ditty. We do that [sings the first couple notes of the riff], the rest of it we are just trying to keep the 15/4 together. We don’t succeed all that well...

Tafuri: (Laughing.) That’s when it becomes “free.”

McNeil: Well, uh, yeah, but it’s not supposed to be. (Laughing.) Yeah, but I think we come reasonably close. You know, it’s like horseshoes: horseshoes and 15/4.

Tafuri: Ah, there you go. There’s a title.

McNeil: Yeah, “Horseshoes and 15/4.”

Tafuri: “My Taxi”?

McNeil: “My Taxi”is an African reggae. [Sings the rhythmic pattern.] So you have like a triplet-quarter going across the barline against half notes. [Sings it again slower, emphasized the half notes.] I stole this thing from Mingus, where he had the bass playing one simple thing in one key and the melody was in another key. So the bass is playing an Am7(5-) —just the notes of it, just those four notes —and the melody is a D-major scale. So, there are notes in the Am7(5-) that fit that, and there are other notes that don’t. We played it enough times that Giulia sort of came up with the right notes at the right time. I didn’t tell her what to do. I said, “Stick with these notes and make something interesting.”I figured we’d try that first then, if that didn’t work, I’d write something out.

Tafuri: So, you restricted her to the notes of the Am7(5-) chord?

McNeil: And we were just the simple, diatonic melody over it. It sounds peculiar, because you hear this nice little thing. No stress, no strain. Then you hear the bass, and you say, “That’s not quite right, is it?”Then we superimpose a B-flat major scale, a C-major scale, and then like a D. And that’s very typical of that African reggae. It’s sort of like [sings a portion of the tune].

Tafuri: I’ve heard that sort of thing even in the music of Abdullah Ibrahim.

McNeil: I first heard that in a taxi going to the airport. This guy was from West Africa. He had this great music on. He had a CD player, and so I asked him where he was from, and I don’t remember. We talked about the music, and this beat came up a coupled of times. And we got stuck in traffic, so I got a big dose of that in the course of a long ride to Kennedy. Of course, I’m a musician, and I’m back there making notes.

Tafuri: (Laughs.)

McNeil: And I’m back there saying, “Shit, I gotta use this when I get back home.”

Tafuri: So this is “Your Taxi.”

”Last Minute.”

McNeil: [Chuckling] It’s one of those tunes I wrote at the last minute. It’s just kind of a free-bop style.

Tafuri: That’s cool. It’s a hip tune.
”What Comes After.”

McNeil: What I wanted to do with this band is got a lot more textures than you’d think would normally be available with just two horns, bass, and drums. It’d be boring if you just did the same thing all the time. So, I thought about this. I explored possibilities in my mind. I thought, ‘How about a ballad where the only melody was played by me, and these guys —the bass and the tenor —played together.’So I came up with this thing. I said, “How about if they played 10ths?”There are finger cymbals. I wanted to have a singing melody over all of this that’s like anything else. And the chord progression is sort of non-functional. It’s not ii-V-I. It has a feeling; it’s mostly stepwise. Basically, it was an attempt to play a ballad with some variety that would be different than anything else we have on the record.

Tafuri: It definitely is. It has this sort of mysterious, sometimes somber, sometimes ... I don’t know. The particular theme you play has a particularly wistful nature to it. So, why is it “What Comes After”?

McNeil: After a lot of things. After a sense of loss, I think.

Tafuri: That definitely comes through.

McNeil: Yeah.

Tafuri: How about “Because of You”?

McNeil: That’s a Gorka tune. That’s by Gorka.

Tafuri: Oh, that’s by Gorka?

McNeil: It’s a Gorka tune, I have no idea. He’s insane. This the funniest thing I’ve ever played in my life. Here, listen to this [listening to the music].

Tafuri: Yeah, I was trying to think about it. It’s sort of like a pop-py, pseudo-Beach Blanket Bimbo-type music...

McNeil: So, I’m looking at him, and I said, “You’re serious, aren’t you?”And he said, “YEAH! Yeah! We can play this kind of tune.”So I’m like, “Okay, what the hell? Let’s do it.”Then we sort of played around with it. We did a different thing when with when I started playing. My solo was different than his. I had played on the tune, then I said, “No, you sound better doing this. And I’ll do the other.”

Tafuri: “Know Your Limits.”

McNeil: I just gotta tell you, my odd-meter playing is strictly from hunger. It consists of being able to play in 5/4. That’s what I can do. I can play in 5/4 and not get lost.

Tafuri: (Laughs.)

McNeil: You get into 7 or 11 or like this 19/8 —that guys can play those (!) —and I stand on the side and wave my cap. That’s how I make my contribution. I feel like one has to know one’s limits. My limits are actually 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4. Those are the meters I can play in.

Tafuri: Alright.

McNeil: Those are the meters I can play in and not sound like an idiot.

Tafuri: So no Live in 3 2/3 / 4 Time for you, that Don Ellis album.

McNeil: Ah, yes, but he’s got that trumpet with the extra valve. He had a great lead player on that album. What was his name?

Tafuri: Glenn Stuart.

McNeil: Glenn Stuart! Boy, what a great player he was. Not a jazz player.

Tafuri: So what’s your point about “Know Your Limits”? You’re stretching your limits?

McNeil: No. That is the limit. I’ll leave it to guys like Dave Douglas and John Hollenback who are playing these various assorted meters that are changing all the time. For me, playing in 5, that’s fine. I’m old. (Laughs.)

Tafuri: Well, it’s a very hypnotic tune.

McNeil: Part of it is the 3 over the 5.

Tafuri: That’s what I was thinking. It has this propulsive kind of thing.

McNeil: Yeah. See, I can keep my place in it.

Tafuri: (Laughs.) How ’bout “Skeeter”?

McNeil: That’s a tune by Art Lande. That probably makes sense when you hear it. It’s sort of like the kind of tune like Mark Miller or someone would play. Anyway, I was producing a record he [Art] was on, and I was getting ready to coming over to Spain. So, I asked him. I explained who the personnel was going to be, and I said, “Hey, you got any tunes? Stuff that hasn’t been recorded.”So, he faxed me a couple of tunes. One of them was “My Parents Wanted a Girl,”which I thought was a pretty good title. But what you run into if your tunes have too much complicated harmony if you don’t have any chordal instrument, if the tune requires any chord color, that won’t happen. It’s like “the bass line or nothing.”You don’t have too much of a problem if it’s going to be functional harmony like ii-V-I. But this tune was basically like a free-bop kind of thing like “meet you at the dance”kind of thing —not unlike this other one, “Last Minute,”just faster and a lot more nuts. So, we’re playing this tune in the studio, and Gorka says to me, “What means ‘skeeter’?”

Tafuri: (Chuckles.)

McNeil: I said, “It’s like a bug, you know.”“Ohhh.”And then he plays this solo like bu-de-bh-dh-bh-dh-bh-dh-bh-dh-dee.

Tafuri: It’s like a mosquito.

McNeil: Yeah. It’s a “skeeter.”

Tafuri: “West Coast Memories.”

McNeil: This is my little hommage to Chet and Gerry. In talking with Gorka —and Gorka’s about 36 —I found out he’s listened to a lot of West Coast Jazz. He’s very eclectic. I said, “How about if we try to do Chet and Gerry on acid?”

Tafuri: (Laughing.) On a little bit of acid.

McNeil: On a little bit of acid. We just do a little vignette. “Just a minute-and-a-half, that’s all.”And we won’t have a bass. We just have the drums playing with brushes. We took three takes. This was the best one, but they all were happening. It actually sounds like we’re playing changes, but there aren’t any.

Tafuri: So, it’s basically just an improvisation.

McNeil: Yeah, it is. But sounds like it just must be a standard.

Tafuri: Yeah, now this gives a whole different take on it.

McNeil: Yeah. And I said, “Can you phrase like those guys, and I’ll be Chet. And I’ll do my little Chet imitation.”And sometimes that’s cheesy, but it wasn’t very long and it doesn’t sound like Chet anyway, so it’s sort of “Chet-like.”

Tafuri: I’ll have to say that the one that really gets me —title-wise, sound-wise, and everything-else-wise —is “Dewey Defeats Truman.”That’s berimbau.

McNeil: I don’t know what it is. It’s ah —

Tafuri: Like a bow from a bow and arrow, it has rattles on it and stuff.

McNeil: Something from Spain.

Tafuri: I think it’s a South American instrument, actually. I think it’s from Brazil. They play it down there.

McNeil: Rhwow-wow-rwow [imitating it].

Tafuri: Who’s playing it?

McNeil: Joe.

Tafuri: Joe does?

McNeil: Joe Smith, yeah. And, ah, [chuckling] “Dewey Defeats Truman”—

Tafuri: —and other myths.

McNeil: [Laughing.] And I think a younger person would probably look at that title and say, “I wonder what that means?”And anybody of a certain age will know. As I said, in all humility, I think I came up with the best jazz title ever. I think it blows “Naima”and all these things out of the water and subsumes the entire history of music.

Tafuri: [Laughing into a wheeze] Modestly speaking...

McNeil: Modestly speaking.

Tafuri: [Trying to recover from a full-blown coughing spell] So, was that something you wrote over there?

McNeil: It was just a free improvisation. We talked about the shape of it, what we were going to do.

Tafuri: So he brought his berimbau to the studio.

McNeil: Well, he had a bunch of toys, pods, pieces of metal.

Tafuri: That’s drummers. They always have toys.

McNeil: Yeah, he had some weird whistle kinds of things, too. So, anyway, I sort of orchestrated, “Then you move here to this.”And Gorka conducted. And the trumpet —I’ve had some people ask if it was some sort of electronic thing like backwards reverb or something. All I did was pull the middle slide out.

Tafuri: It’s out?

McNeil: It’s out. It’s gone.

Tafuri: That’s hip.

McNeil: So, every time you hit that, you get “whvrrrrr.”So you play any other valve combination, and they sound normal. But if you play any combination with that one —depending on how much air you put through it —it’ll be some other harmonic you’ve never heard before.

Tafuri: Oh, man, I don’t know, but I think I played a little bit of everything for Russ [Johnson], but I don’t exactly remember his reaction. I think he thought you were mouthing it or something like that.

McNeil: It’s something. And, because it’s not electronic, I can do it live. I can just pop that slide out.

Tafuri: That’s fun. That’s different, too.
And then, “Flor de Viento.”

McNeil: Ah, Flor de Viento is the name of a horse of this Mexican bandito. This is Gorka’s tune, also. I said, “I’d like to end this album with something really sweet.”And he said, “I write you one.”Then he says, “This is a Mexican tune, and Flor de Viento is the name of this horse of this bandito hero.”He told me the name, but I’ll be damned if I can remember —Viva Zapata, or something. And I said, “Boy, there’s something about it that was so peaceful,”so I said to myself, ‘Let’s do this.’And they [the audience] does this [claps three time] —

Tafuri: Yeah, the rhythmic clapping stuff.

McNeil: Yeah, so we do this for an encore. And, at this one concert, this guy came up, and there were tears rolling down his face. I couldn’t believe it. There’s something about it that appealed to who they are or something like that. He says, “Eet is bee-utiful.”And I said, “Thanks a lot.”

Tafuri: It is a nice way to end it. That’s very hip.

McNeil: And my solo is just in a different key. I play in a different key. Because he plays right in that key —the key of B-flat or something —and I don’t. I think I play a major-third away from there. That’s the deal with just the bass.

Tafuri: You can get away with that.

McNeil: Oh, yeah. And you don’t have any mid-range interference from the piano.

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