I really enjoy Jim McNeely’s piano work. Now there’s a sentiment you don’t hear expressed too often–not because McNeely’s no good as a pianist, but because he’s best known as a composer and arranger for jazz orchestra. His writing–first for the Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 80s, then for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and most recently as chief conductor (and de facto composer in residence) of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra–challenges the listener without abandoning swing or melody, and his achievements in this field have all but eclipsed his playing. But McNeely is a terrifically engaging musician. He sets smart, spiky solo lines against percussive, brightly voiced chords at fast tempos, and burnished harmonies against discursive melodies on ballads. (His 1990 Steeplechase disc Winds of Change provides the best introduction to his piano work.) A Chicago native and graduate of the U. of I., McNeely now lives in New Jersey and returns home way too rarely. But when he does he finds a warm embrace in the rhythm section of bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer. They’ve known McNeely as long as they’ve known each other–since the 70s, when the three met downstate as students. Fronting the quartet is trumpeter Bob Lark, who runs the well-regarded jazz program at DePaul. This rare showcase of his playing is a demanding one too. For some reason, no horn sounds as exposed in a traditional jazz quartet as a trumpet: that’s why, while sax-led foursomes pop up like weeds, you hardly ever see this kind of matchup. Wednesday, April 9, 8:30 PM, Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, 1557 Sherman, Evanston; 847-328-0399.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.