In the late 70s and early 80s, after stints with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Horace Silver’s quintet, trumpeter John McNeil first pursued a solo career, for which he received strong notices from a handful of influential critics around the country. They admired the subtle iconoclasms of his style: a pure, slightly pinched tone, which contrasted sharply with the brashness of the day’s reigning horn men (such as Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw), and solos marked by graceful, even ethereal melodic contours. (Those descriptions could also apply to McNeil’s ultimate stylistic ancestors–Chet Baker and, before him, Lester Young, the Prophet of Cool.) On seven well-regarded discs for the Steeplechase label, McNeil crafted carefully skewed compositions and stately, thoughtful improvisations that seemed to offer a viable alternative to both the excesses of the fusion era and the nascent orthodoxy of Marsalis-style neoclassicism. He capped six years of furious activity with two releases in 1983, and then–nothing. He’d taken a faculty post at the New England Conservatory (in 1993 he published a two-volume book on jazz trumpet technique), but rumors of his poor health circulated as well; whatever the reasons, McNeil didn’t record again for more than a decade. Yet when he returned to the studio for the 1996 album Hip Deep (Brownstone), with reedist Kenny Berger, he sounded pretty much the same; if anything, he had a more measured authority. McNeil’s three subsequent albums–which include a collaboration with like-minded trumpeter Tom Harrell–bristle with delightful new tunes, and his trumpet work still projects the mix of bravura and vulnerability that appealed to the critics almost three decades ago; inside his solos, you can occasionally hear the struggle that leads to the happy ending. Since 1979, McNeil has preferred to tour with an unusually naked quartet, with his trumpet the only horn and a guitar replacing the piano; the current edition features guitarist Andrew Green, bassist Tom Hubbard, and drummer Ron Vincent, known to Chicagoans from his appearances with pianist Steve Million. Wednesday, March 6, 7:30 PM, Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel, Lake Forest College, 555 N. Sheridan, Lake Forest; 847-735-5169. Friday, March 8, 9 PM, and Saturday, March 9, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Herman.