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.