John McNeil
Keeping It Flexible, Careful Not to Raise a Ruckus

John McNeil

The trumpeter John McNeil’s imagination is right on the line between jazz at its most secure and coded and jazz as an open window, letting anything in and out of its house. For the last five years or so he’s been running bands that tend to have a slightly arch repertory concept: the pointed and airy West Coast jazz of the 1950s or the pains and pleasures of the infamous amateur rock band the Shaggs.

His new quartet, in its third month of weekly gigs at Puppets Jazz Bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn — three sets every Wednesday — has no concept in particular and uses more of his own compositions. Perhaps it’s more flexible as a result.

Mr. McNeil’s tone is soft and thin, sort of ribbonlike; he doesn’t use the trumpet for its ruckus potential, and he’s interested in even and elaborate melodic improvisation through moving harmony. The young tenor saxophone player in his band, Noah Preminger, works beautifully through chord changes, but he’s also interested in speed and sound: split-tones and big Ben Webster-like notes that are three-quarters air and one-quarter music. But they don’t settle into purely opposite roles. Mr. McNeil goes foggy and abstract at times, retaining a singing feeling.

With the bassist Mike McGuirk and the drummer Rudy Royston, on Wednesday the band played a couple of standards — a slow “Where or When,” with a long, expressive trumpet solo, and “Try a Little Tenderness,” with a gradual, inventive wind-up toward the core of the song. It also played “Rondette,” an obscure and dryly beautiful piece by Bob Zieff that Chet Baker recorded in 1955. (With its tricky, rapid chord changes it could have been an étude for improvisers, had it ever had its moment in the sun.)

Looser and more exciting, the band also played an original, a fast line based on a sturdy model — “I Got Rhythm” — with references to a bebop song based on those same chord changes, Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” Mr. McNeil is a respected figure among a few generations of jazz musicians, and there’s an intricate hipness about his performances: in his late 50s now, he’s old enough to remember the jazz musician’s consensus language of secret references.

There’s also a funny defiance about him. He couldn’t say the name of the last tune, he said, because it was too rude. (As written on top of the sheet music, it’s a common insult, perhaps for a common set of chord changes.) And when the audience pressed him on it, he wouldn’t budge.

The John McNeil Group plays Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Puppets Jazz Bar, 481 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 499-2622,


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