Chicago-born pianist/composer/arranger Jim McNeely has a week-long residency at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next week, starting on 31 January 2022. The focal point will be a concert at Milton Court on 3 February, at which he – and the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Scott Stroman – will perform his “Paul Klee Suite”. Feature by Charles Rees.
Jim McNeely has been a strong and constant presence in the big band world for the last four decades and is one of the most skilled and experienced promoters of the art form, earning twelve Grammy nominations for his work. His writing lineage can be traced back through Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones and Gil Evans to as far back as Duke Ellington and the earliest exponents of the jazz orchestra. Today he continues their legacy, evolving and expanding the parameters of what large-scale jazz composition can entail.
In addition to these prestigious big band credentials, McNeely is a celebrated pianist and accompanist – some of his roles in that capacity include: pianist in Stan Getz’s quartet in the 1980s, recording several albums with the saxophonist during this time; five years (1990-95) with the Phil Woods Quintet, and numerous projects of his own – such as his tentet.
Perhaps most famously, he held the piano chair and in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra for more than a decade, starting in 1978. In this era, he contributed many charts to the band and, in many ways, became their principal writer following the passing of Thad Jones in 1986. Since 1995 he has been Composer in Residence of the Orchestra’s modern iteration, the Vanguard Orchestra, and continues to perform in it alongside many other Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra alumni.
He is also an avid art lover, particularly the work of Swiss-born painter Paul Klee. This enthusiasm inspired him compose the “Paul Klee Suite” – which he recorded with the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, based in Bern, Switzerland, in 2006. The Swiss capital city is home of the Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to his paintings. McNeely has said: “The Klee thing was a challenge, because it’s the first time I had really to use some other kind of stimulus as the inspiration for the music […] I found I had to do a lot of research. I felt like I had to get to know Klee as well as the paintings.” The suite consists of eight movements, each of which is inspired by a specific picture.
McNeely, now 72, is set to make a rare appearance in the UK where, as part of his five-day residency at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he will perform his “Paul Klee Suite” with the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Scott Stroman.
Stroman is quite clear as to the reasons why he wanted to devote the concert to the Paul Klee Suite: “This is absolutely top drawer stuff, it’s a cut above. The writing is at another level, and I say that as a writer myself. I admire this music so much.” Stroman also revealed his own passion for Klee’s paintings, and that he discovered McNeely’s suite while researching a potential suite of his own: “When I first heard it, I thought… this is just magnificent. I’m not gonna write my own suite, I’m gonna get Jim over to do his.” Though the pandemic put Stroman’s plan on hold for two years, he has done the UK music scene a real service in bringing McNeely over (at last).
The concert, which will also include big band charts by Bob Brookmeyer, will be a rare opportunity for those of us in the UK to witness Jim McNeely work his magic. Stroman says: “We’ve pulled in our best players for this one. We have terrific young players on the program, and this particular project, who are really rich, mature players and they’re very keen to get the most they can out of this.”