Jim McNeely is best known as a composer-arranger for large jazz bands. On Boneyard, he applies the mindset of a big-band arranger to the minimalist format of the piano trio. He also gets space (rare in his discography) to display his considerable prowess as a fleet, sophisticated, percussively ornate pianist.
McNeely is able to approach this recording architecturally because he is so familiar with its building blocks. McNeely, bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer all came out of the Chicago scene and have played together off and on for 35 years. In McNeely’s plan, Sill and Spencer function rather like two opposing or complementary sections of a big band. Sill is in charge of riffs and vamps and counterlines. Spencer runs his own busy call-and-response department within the ensemble. McNeeley’s concepts for standards like “Speak Low” and “Con Alma” and Wayne Shorter’s “Fe Fi Fo Fum” are therefore uncommonly orchestral.
Yet the best performance here is the most straightforward piano-trio piece. McNeely plays the hell out of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” for almost nine minutes, quietly, without repeating himself, in heartfelt single-note lines of genuine grace. Not bad for an arranger.