May 2006

John McNeil
East Coast Cool

In case the name isn’t enough of a clue, East Coast Cool comes with an emblematic black-and-white cover photograph: John McNeil, trumpet in hand, taking a drag of a cigarette while Allan Chase, clean-cut in shades, blows into a baritone saxophone.

Yes, this album addresses the Chet Baker-Gerry Mulligan quartet of the 1950s, and McNeil is well aware that he’s up against an iconography as well as a signature sound. Happily, he also knows how to tweak the formula. Flanked by Chase and backed by a superb rhythm team—John Hebert on bass and Matt Wilson on drums—McNeil takes the concept of cool beyond its usual limits. His methods are subtle: rhythmic elasticity, open harmonic terrain and ingenious small-group interplay. (It should come as no surprise that he’s also taking some cues from Ornette Coleman, that other sage of pianoless settings.)

McNeil is a trumpeter of easy poise and bright imagination, and he sounds like he’s having fun here. He also sounds like he’s found musicians equally given to morbid mischief—read his comments on “A Time to Go” in the liner notes, to get the full picture—and equally attuned to a smart but never cerebral small-group ideal.

Originally published in May 2006

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