At first blush, you might have trouble distinguishing Jim McNeely from some of the other portmanteau pianists of the late 20th century: players whose styles effortlessly contain and reference the last 40 years of jazz piano history. But with a little practice, it's not hard to pick up on his subtler virtues. His considerable technical facility serves a sprawling improvisational sense, which casts his solos across the instrument while tying them together with musical rhymes and obvious reason; and always, there's a startling energy, which makes his fast tempi bristle but can also provide a delicious restraint on slow pieces. McNeely was born in Chicago, and his hometown connections remain surprisingly strong. That's because while studying at the University of Illinois in the early 70s, his already advanced style attracted and influenced many of the students a few years his junior--many of whom (drummer Joel Spencer, bassist Kelly Siff, saxist Ed Petersen, pianist Kelly Brand, to name a few) anchor the current Chicago jazz scene. Spencer and Sill will round out the trio for McNeely's short stay. Monday, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 472-1000.