JOHN MCNEIL

East Coast Cool
OmniTone 15211

Dedication with a difference, EAST COAST COOL sets out to recreate the classic sound of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s influential piano-less quartet without copying its tunes or arrangements.

Unlike the so-called Young Lions, composer/arranger/trumpeter John McNeil, 57, is mature enough to have forged his own identity. That means that the 12 tunes here are treated the way a veteran actor would conceive of a personal interpretation of Hamlet, without resorting to the impersonation of a more established performer.

California-born McNeil, who at one time played in a Mulligan band, has been a New Yorker since the 1970s, and was also a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band and pianist Horace Silver’s Quintet. He has also recorded and led his own combos for years. Playing Mulligan to his Chet Baker – though McNeil is a far more accomplished brassman then Baker ever was – is saxophonist Alan Chase, who here sticks to baritone sax. No disgruntled bopper, Chase was a member of drummer Rashied Ali’s, Prima Materia band, has played chamber music and with composer John Zorn, and is also dean of Jazz Studies and Improvisation at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

Playing the Carson Smith and Larry Bunker roles are younger players: bassist John Herbert, who has worked with well-regarded veterans like guitarist John Abercrombie; and drummer Matt Wilson, who is first call for half the bands in New York.

The most noticeable point of demarcation between the Mulligan-Baker combo and the McNeil-Chase one is what the later quartet does with “Bernie’s Tune”, one of the former’s so-called Cool Jazz hits. Taken slightly out of tempo, with McNeil’s tremolo grace notes out front and Chase braying and overblowing, the four are able to suspend time, only retaining the tune’s framework when the trumpeter trades fours with the drummer.

“Bernie’s Tune” is also one of the few non-originals on the CD, with some of the others bordering on atonality, while maintaining a characteristic relaxed lope. McNeil orchestrates “Schoenberg's Piano Concerto” as a swinging West Coast jazz line, complete with shout choruses and Chase rappelling up and down the scale. Equally outside is “Internal Hurdles”, built around double counterpoint from the front line, yet extended enough so that McNeil twitters at the top and Chase’s smooth textures are languid and bottom-scraping.

Other pieces such as “Waltz Helios” and “A Time to Go” – described by McNeil as “happy for about four or five bars before you realize that there's someone creeping up your back stairs ready to kill your family” – show off the leader’s command of his horn. Medium tempo and balanced by smooth vibrations from Chase, McNeil’s tart exposition on the later easily distinguishes his style from Baker’s, which was all blankness and prettiness –when he could make it. McNeil on the other hand often balances grace notes and slurs on a knife edge, pulling back in the improvisation before the patterns tumble and shatter. “Waltz Helios” sounds close to the sort of unforced swinger Zoot Sims would play rather than Mulligan, and McNeil’s chromatic patterning is enlivened with a sort of bugling call to colors that Baker would never have imagined.

Confident in his abilities, the brassman feeds a Miles Davis-like muted quote from “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” into his solo on the Mulligan-emulating GAB”. With Wilson reverberating as if he was swatting a set of bongos, McNeil and Chase contrapuntally circle each other like feeding birds, and to the accompaniment of the drummer’s fiery pops, rolls and thumps, knit variations on the theme until its final recap in harmonic unison.

Parenthetically, EAST COAST COOL’s only negative feature is strictly extra musical. Throughout the booklet pictures, McNeil is pictured puffing away on a cigarette like a jazzman of the 1950s. Considering all the jazz musicians and others who have died from tobacco-related diseases in the 50 plus years since jazzers routinely used smoking for added cool credibility, tobacco addiction is one retro style that doesn’t deserve to be revived.

Negate the bad habit; celebrate the music impressively presented on this CD.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Deadline 2. A Time to Go 3.Brother Frank 4. Bernie's Tune 5. Duet #1 6. Delusions 7. Wanwood 8. Internal Hurdles 9. Duet #2 10. Waltz Helios 11. Schoenberg's Piano Concerto 12. GAB

Personnel: John McNeil (trumpet); Allan Chase (baritone saxophone); John Hebert (bass); Matt Wilson (drums and slide whistle)