Mini McNeely Tutorial

I'm currently with Darcy James Argue. He is teaching me more about Jim McNeely's music.  He has records and scores.


Track 1:  "The Life of Riley" w/Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Track 2: "The Life of Riley" w/HR-Bigband.

DJA says: This chart is my favorite recent McNeely work -- I included it in a listening session I hosted at Banff last spring, kind of a quick-'n-dirty survey of rhythmic techniques in contemporary large ensemble music. The studio version is from the Vanguard band's Up From The Skies, and the live version is by the Frankfurt-based HR-Bigband, of which Jim is the Artistic in Residence. Of course, Ethan's ulterior motive for having me over is to prepare for the upcoming The Bad Plus + HR project, as arranged by Jim.

Anyway, "The Life of Riley" was written as a feature for longtime Vanguard Orchestra drummer John Riley, and it's chock full of tricksy-but-elegant metric modulations and superimposed time feels. The result is very seamless-sounding -- it's a deceptively fluid and catchy chart that only really reveals its secrets upon repeated listening. (Having the cheat sheet [score] to refer to, as we do, also helps... )

EI says: I remember an NYU composition class with Jim where he analysed "Daydream" by Strayhorn.  Among other things, he pointed out that the fat A-flat 7 b5 chord in the bridge "had a bagpipe" in the bottom.  "The Life of Riley" also has a lot of clanging fifths moving around in the bass.  Not an unfamilar sound to TBP...

Track 3:  "Bury Me Standing" by Dave Douglas performed by Dave w/Mountain Passages

Track 4:  "Bury Me Standing" by Dave arranged by Jim

DJA says: This is from A Single Sky, Dave's collaboration with HR, featuring several of his original bigband works, plus Jim's arrangements of DD's small group tunes. Obviously my agenda in playing "Bury Me Standing" was to show how Jim transforms what might seem a very unlikely candidate for bigbandization -- Dave's stately, somber chamber elegy to his father -- into something that works in a large ensemble setting. The original is a three-voice chorale over a D pedal, which Jim faithfully preserves -- but he frames it with some striking and inspired original material. Dave's own entrance on this is saved until the last possible moment, à la Harry Lime in The Third Man.

EI says:  Well, this is really something.  The song is beautiful, and what Jim does with it is stunning.  I wasn't worried about the upcoming collaboration, but now I'm completely relaxed.

Track 5: "Blue Note" by Jim McNeely performed by the Mel Lewis Orchestra

DJA says: If I'm not mistaken, this 1985 chart is the earliest large ensemble McNeely composition to be recorded. I think he once told me it was his third bigband chart ever? What's amazing to me is how fully-formed and instantly recognizable it is -- all the elements of his later style are in place.

EI says:  Clockwork touches in the piano, right away -- that's clearly part of the McNeely style.  Of course, as a great pianist himself, Jim knows how to write for the instrument as part of a big band.  That's one thing I always hated about reading so many big band charts in college: they were just a march of chord symbols with no relationship to the song.   Darcy's own pieces also have "chamber music" piano parts.

Track 6: "Paper Spoons" by Jim McNeely performed by the Mel Lewis Orchestra

DJA says: Recorded shortly after Mel's death, with Dennis Mackrel on drums just destroying on this track. This chart was the my first exposure to McNeely -- my arranging teacher at McGill, Chuck Dotas, brought in the score and recording, which was a wee bit of a mindfuck for all of us 19-year old kids just trying to get a handle on the basics! I actually haven't listened to this in many years but I realized playing it for Ethan just now I can still sing along to the whole thing.

EI says:  Hah!  Jim played this for me in composition class, too -- what was that, 18 or 19 years ago?  I love paraphrases of standards, and this is just a total decontruction of "It's Only a Paper Moon."  Actually, I don't think the form is really used, just cute quotes of the melody.  Ralph Lalama plays a strong solo.  I was in Lalama's ensemble at NYU:  he told me Paul Bley couldn't play and to stop bringing in a new tune every week.  Oh well.  Those roadblocks are also part of the jazz tradition! 

Track 7: "Extra Credit" by Jim McNeely performed by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra


DJA says: The opening track from Lickety Split, Jim's first full album of music for the Vanguard band, a big formative record for me. Jim's detailed liner notes go really deep into the composition woods, including a form graph for this chart, which is, as he calls it, a kind of "moving rondo." Great piano solo from the Maestro on this cut.

EI says:  Rich Perry is an underrated player. Next month he joins Fred Hersch, George Mraz, and Al Foster at Birdland in what is sure to be a killer straight-ahead gig honoring Joe Henderson.

Funny to think about Jim, Fred, and Kenny Werner (who's on the Mel Lewis Orchestra cuts).  They were the young piano mafia of a certain era.  All three are doing great these days.  I've been blessed with my interactions with Jim and Fred.  Kenny I don't know as well but he certainly has been an influence.

Impressive form on "Extra Credit."  With a lot of the TBP stuff, Jim won't get a chance to stretch like this.  However, we spoke Saturday and he is already working on an original composition with modular sections.  I expect that will be a highlight of the concert.


DJA and I ran out of time...Part two of the Tutorial is scheduled for next week.  See also Jim's interview with Ronan Guilfoyle.



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