A fine pianist in anyone's book, over the past few years Jim McNeely has dropped back a little in the ranks of jazz keyboard wizards--not because he's lost any talent or imaginative drive, but because he's plowed so much of both into his work as an arranger and composer. On recent albums like Group Therapy (Omnitone) and Lickety Split (New World), McNeely has used large canvases, writing for a tentet and for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the resident big band at New York's Village Vanguard since the demise of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis orchestra (in which McNeely played piano in the 70s and 80s). His arrangements--mostly of his own tunes, but also of iconic compositions by Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane--borrow from Jones, but not obvious elements like voicings and rhythms; instead his debt to his old boss makes itself heard in his layering of musical events and, more importantly, in the way he dissolves this thicket at just the right moment to showcase a soloist or reemphasize a theme. McNeely's writing has a nice dose of New York wit, but also an openheartedness that reflects his Illinois roots (born in Chicago, he attended college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The combination makes for hale, full-bodied works whose appeal reaches beyond these shores--they undoubtedly helped land him the directorship of the prestigious Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, for instance, a post he's held since 1998. I happen to love McNeely's piano style, which has a steely architecture beneath its decorative finesse--especially on his own smart tunes, such as "Winds of Change" and the sprightly "Ernie Banks"--but I wouldn't trade it for his writing. This coming week, I don't have to. For the first three days of his engagement at the Jazz Showcase, McNeely will conduct the remarkably professional-sounding DePaul University Jazz Ensemble in his arrangements; for the last three, he'll play piano in a trio with bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer, both of whom he first worked with over 25 years ago. Tuesday through Thursday, May 7 through 9, 8 and 10 PM, Friday and Saturday, May 10 and 11, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, May 12, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.