Jim McNeely is among the most interesting jazz composer-arrangers and pianists around today. He always thinks big and fresh when it comes to his writing, and he plays a gorgeous, sensitive piano. His latest album, Barefoot Dancers and Other Visions (Planet Arts), is an original seven-part suite that he arranged and conducted in 2014 with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. The album was only recently released.
A veteran of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, McNeely was mentored by Bob Brookmeyer, who also thought expansively when scoring for large jazz ensembles. On this album, McNeely's ambitious suite ranges from the mildly avant-garde to beautifully phrased panoramic ballads. The result is a bouquet of moods and contrapuntal collaborations reminiscent in places of Brookmeyer's own Music For String Quartet & Orchestra in 2009, with the Metropole Orchestra and the Gustav Klimt String Quartet.
As McNeely writes in the album's liner notes:
It take a few years of writing for a band before you really get to know them. I started working steady with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band in 2008. After three or four projects, I began to see the musicians' face on the score. I could hear their sounds; imagine their improvising. I could hear how they laugh. I was making thousands of arranging decisions based on the characteristics of each player. By the time I wrote the piece on this CD, I knew the ins and outs of this band so very well. I tailored my musical visions to fit each player in the ensemble and placed each soloist in a framework both familiar and challenging. This is truly a collaboration between the members of the band and myself."
A provocative and engaging album at a time when recording an original score with a top-notch jazz orchestra is becoming increasingly rare.
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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