John McNeil is what jazz is all about: a guy who has been around forever and plays like an absolute MFer, but who—somehow—you’ve never heard of. Sure you’ve heard of him, like he was with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, right? And didn’t he play for Horace Silver for a while, maybe around ‘79? But you don’t know him. Shit, maybe he’s your next door neighbor.
If so, then you’ve got a bitchin’ creative trumpeter just over the fence.
East Coast Cool is a self-conscious attempt to fuse the instrumentation and arranging approach of the classic Gerry Mulligan Quartet (trumpet, baritone sax, bass, and drums—the classic “West Coast” sound) with the harmonic adventure and freedom of Ornette Coleman’s classic pianoless quartet. Mr. McNeil works with an extraordinary player of the big horn in Allan Chase (another guy no one really knows), and the rhythm team of John Hebert (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums). But the star of the session is the leader, whose endlessly interesting arrangements improve on both his sources, and whose trumpet playing is conversational, puckish, cliché-free, and tender.
The trick of the Mulligan group was to write parts for the two horns such that the harmonic underpinning of the song was fully apparent despite the absence of a chording instrument like the piano or guitar. Ornette’s group, on the other hand, took advantage of that missing element precisely to unground itself from harmonic restriction. And in these arrangements, Mr. McNeil steers a precise path between extremes so that this music freshly examines both approaches.
On “Internal Hurdles”, for example, the theme is stated in unison over a mostly pedal point bass tone, with minimal harmonic information. Moreover, the theme is a series of jagged intervals with minimal melodic contour. The performance is given shape, however, by alternating 8-, 6-, 4- and 2-bar solo sections, such that the guidance and form of the piece is in the conversation. Here, Wilson plays like an old-school free drummer, implying time rather than playing it. “A Time to Go”, in contrast, begins with just the baritone gently over rhythm, adding trumpet in wide harmonic spread to the sax with the bass and drums cutting out here and there to emphasize the pungent harmony. This is a genuinely pretty tune that brings to mind Dave Holland’s “Conference of the Birds”, however, as much as any Mulligan material.
The most obvious homage to Mr. Mulligan is the band’s take on “Bernie’s Tune”, a staple of the Mulligan Quartet’s performances. Here, however, Mr. McNeil has warped the familiar melody by repeating the three-note motif in odd ways, even slowing it down. The melody almost dies out going into the trumpet solo, which moves in squiggles and flurries between out time and straight swing, as Wilson plays it syncopated and off-kilter like a mad Billy Higgins. Mr. Chase plays counterpoint under the solos, spurring Mr. McNeil to briefly touch on and play with the theme again. It is masterful.
It is followed by the first of two bari/trumpet duets that play with sound in post-Ornette ways. The first bookends a mysterious unison line between a series of harmonized tremolos, and the second finds Mr. Chase thumping his pads in a string of harmonics, with Mr. McNeil playing stabbing, echoed counterpoint around this odd bass line. Also wonderfully odd is a tune titled “Schoenberg’s Piano Concierto” that is nothing of the sort. Like Mr. Mulligan, Mr. Chase plays a continual harmonic counterpoint under the stutter-step trumpet solo, which line seems to harmonize with Matt Wilson’s carefully tuned tom-tom playing. The result: a kind of pianistic sound.
OmniTone, Mr. McNeil’s label over three discs now, has a catchphrase: “Adventurous and Listenable Jazz”. Which is dead-on truth in advertising. This music is consistently daring and surprising, yet it proceeds with a certain logic and even humor that keeps you tuned in. Though players are meaningfully “free” throughout and play beyond conventional harmony, there is little or no harsh honking or squawking. The intent is to bedevil the listener, not alienate her.
The album’s last tune is emblematic. On “GAB” (written by frequent front-line partner to Mr. McNeil, Kenny Berger), Mr. Wilson plays entirely without his sticks, and the bass joins the horns in stating a harmonized theme, setting up a transparent sound that allows bass, baritone, and trumpet to interact in a chamber music style. Mr. Hebert can drop into a walking swing line, then pull back out too, and the band members all play a kind of hide-and-seek, disappearing from view, then popping back in again.
The effect is simply fun. I’d be tempted to call it “serious fun” or maybe a kind of “avant-pop”, but why suggest anything too academic? Though Mr. McNeil has played and analyzed Gerry Mulligan’s music, East Coast Cool is the farthest thing from studied. Rather, it’s effortless and breezy even as it’s bold. And it is also cool, as the title promises. You’ll pop your fingers and bend you mind.
What more do you want?