While one-on-one therapy sessions may take under an hour, group therapy sessions may take a lot longer, because they need time for everyone involved to properly say what they want to say.
Jim McNeely is in favor of that - as leader on Group Therapy, he creates a conducive environment for his players to stretch out, to say what they want to say and to make room for any ensuing drama or comedy.
"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," explains Jim. "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."
"To me, one of the most important questions a composer asks is 'What if?'" poses Jim, and with that question in mind and his Grammy-nominated, highly developed arranger skills in hand, he proceeds to break, or rather redefine a lot of the "rules." Such thinking results in the innovative and even groundbreaking devices contained on this debut recording of the Tentet.
To rewrite the rules, first one has to learn them, and learn them he did, firsthand, starting with high school stage band in Chicago and continued in playing with the groups of Ted Curson, Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Phil Woods. More recently, Jim's work includes projects with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the West German Radio (WDR) Big Band, and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. His currently serves as Permanent Chief Conductor of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra and pianist and composer in residence of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, an organization for which he played in 1978 in its original incarnation.
"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," recalls Jim. "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."
One such place is with Cameron Brown's bass solo in "A Perfect Six," a soaring, high-spirited piece Jim wrote with Woody Shaw in mind and filled with what Jim describes as Shaw's "crackling energy." Describes Jim, "The vibe most of the time is 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" - an instrument Jim played and studied for a while.
Several of his pieces are episodic, such as "Cranky Takes a Holiday." The title character was prompted by his wife's description of his mood when he first started writing the piece. "Now, in my head, there's this character 'Mr Cranky,'" Jim confesses. "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.'"
Another multi-act piece is "Lost," which taps into what Jim describes as the "social aspect of a band," one where there could be interaction even when, traditionally, there has been none. The arrangement allows altoist Dick Oatts' improvised solo to become part of the overall texture of the band, "then," continues Jim, "the background material starts to come in and lift the soloist." John Hollenbeck's drum solo gets special handling, too, through a special series of six motifs for band, which Jim interjects at will by spontaneously holding up fingers corresponding to the motifs' numbers.
One draw for Jim the arranger, the "re-composer," is what he terms "adult songs," such as "Body and Soul." Clarifies Jim, "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." Sometimes seeing potential for a tune lures his arranger's skills, as in his eye-opening reworking of Bud Powell's "The Fruit." Fragmenting the legendary bebop pianist's trademarked linear melody, he employs his ingenious "subtractive process," using each arbitrary fragment as both an anchor point to write a chord unrelated to the melody and as a springboard to launch the next solo.
The impetus for adapting the carol "Silent Night" was to create a special Christmas greeting to fellow musicians by faxing them the reharmonized lead sheet. In it, Jim becomes a classic storyteller, slowly, almost suspensefully rolling out the melody, only to be revealed in the last chorus.
But perhaps no work better reflects where Jim is now as composer and arranger better than the title opus "Group Therapy." "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," reveals Jim. Things turn darker and funkier with a six note vamp that clashes with the six note melody. Continues Jim, "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."
[Read complete interview with Jim McNeely.]