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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: Music of Jim McNeely

The continuation of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra (1979-90), which was a continuation of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (1966-79), is now, seven years after its last release, once again back in the recording business. Save for a highly original reworking of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” this album consists entirely of new works written and arranged exclusively for the occasion by Jim McNeely, who having served as pianist during the band’s transitional 1978-84 period returned to the fold in 1996, just in time to undertake this challenging project. The band’s legendary, steady Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard is now in its 31st year, thereby outlasting the entire lifetimes of Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton and Fats Navarro and almost those of Bunny Berigan and Charlie Parker.

Equally amazing is the quality of the music and performance level sustained over that period. In terms of both longevity and seriousness of purpose, only the orchestras of Ellington and Basie may compare, but even that comparison breaks down when one considers the relative time frames involved. These two institutions developed and flourished within periods of vast stylistic change, from the ’20s and ’30s through the ’70s and ’80s, while the Vanguard phenomenon has existed only within a single period, one conveniently referred to as post-loop. Thus, to compare a 1966 Jones/Lewis track with one on the present album would not reveal half as many differences in style, performance, and compositional development as, say, recordings made by Ellington in 1926 and 1957, or by Basie in 1936 and 1967.

That said, it only remains to underline the continuing value of McNeely’s solo contributions of trumpeter Scott Wendholt, trombonist Ed Neumeister, altomen Dick Oatts and Billy Drewes, tenormen Rich Perry and Ralph Lalama, baritonist Gary Smulyan, and, of course, pianist McNeely and the rhythm team of bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer John Riley. Specific details of the individual tracks are amply provided in the booklet by both McNeely and Bill Kirchner, so there is no need to paraphrase them here.

Originally Published