Though perhaps best known as arranger/pianist for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, an association that goes way back, Jim McNeely has written plenty of original tunes for big bands and orchestras both in the States and overseas. With Group Therapy, OmniTone set McNeely up in the studio with an agile little big band and a chance to show off all his tuneful goods at once. McNeely, in turn, set the band loose on a host of his own wild originals and his creative rearrangements. The band is just big enough to give McNeely a thick big-band sound when he wants it, but small enough to encourage/force McNeely to get creative with his voicings. With wildcard French hornist Tom Varner in the mix, the band gives McNeely a pretty rich sonic palette with which to work and he certainly works it.
Within the first 3 seconds of Group Therapy's first tune, Bud Powell's "The Fruit," a punchy horn line suddenly terminates and Cameron Brown saws away at his bass as if playing for a suspense film soundtrack. At 13 seconds, the band segues into Powell's melody line, now looted of half its notes, and it's already abundantly clear that McNeely's inventive writing is the focus of this recording. Despite some fine solo statements from the professional group (trombonist Ed Neumeister, trumpeter Scott Wendholt and McNeely himself, in particular), it's McNeely's tunes, like the clever reharmonization of "Silent Night" and the title track, an original that pairs up soloists and pits them against a constantly shifting group passage, that shine most brightly.