After hearing Louis Armstrong as an eight-year-old, John McNeil decided he wanted to become a jazz trumpeter too.
Born in 1948 in the small, Northern California town of Yreka, McNeil eventually migrated to New York in 1975, where he worked with Horace Silver and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band. It wasn’t until 1978 that he cut his debut as a leader, Embarkation for the Danish SteepleChase label. Now, 23 years later, McNeil’s Copenhagen connection is still going strong with the release of Fortuity, his eighth album for SteepleChase; it’s his 10th album overall.
McNeil, who has taught at the New England Conservatory of Music since 1980, works in a quartet on Fortuity with alto/baritone saxman Allan Chase, bassist John Sullivan and drummer Eric Thompson (and on one track, “Faun,” violist Kate Vincent). The trumpeter prefers to work without a pianist these days, although he’s employed a guitarist on some occasions to provide chordal foundations. “It leaves a little more space; our choice of notes is less limited,” he says.
McNeil supplied most of the original tunes for the album. Some selections don’t have chord progressions, but even on the ones that do McNeil and Chase step outside the harmony. There’s a 32-second track included, “Midrange Interference,” on which McNeil employs a split tone and Chase uses harmonics. “It’s a change of pace track to keep listeners on their toes,” notes McNeil. Chase and McNeil wrote “ECM,” which the trumpeter describes as an “atmospheric piece reminiscent of some of the things Manfred Eicher recorded.”
McNeil’s playing is relaxed throughout Fortuity; he seldom uses the upper register. “On ‘I Will,’” McNeil notes, “what we’re doing is basically playing a calypso in E flat. What I try to do is play melodically, and the further away from the changes I get, the more melodic and simple my work becomes. You can play real sweet and wrong sometimes. I like to do that. You don’t necessarily have to be outside and complicated; you can be outside and simple.”