Album reviews

Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring Chris Potter – ‘Rituals’

Jim McNeely & The Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring Chris Potter – Rituals

(Double Moon Records. Album review by Charles Rees)

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Jim McNeely‘s extraordinary catalogue of works as composer/arranger have earned him a total twelve Grammy nominations and one win. In his role as pianist with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s, he made a major contribution of charts to the band, and his renown has continued to build ever since.

He works frequently in Europe, and collaborated with many of the major radio bands and also bands such as the Swiss Jazz Orchestra in Bern. In particular, he works regularly with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, where he was initially appointed as ‘artist in residence’ in 2008, but soon after as their ‘chief conductor’ (a position he still holds).

A recent collaboration with the band, and his first post-lockdown release, is Rituals; both the name of the album and of the work which accounts for a majority of its runtime. “Rituals” was originally commissioned by the band as a tribute to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for a performance marking the 100-year anniversary of the Paris premiere of the “Rite”. Featured soloist was saxophonist Chris Potter, who’s hard-hitting, intense yet sensitive style is perfectly suited to anyone’s take on the controversial work; particularly McNeely’s…

From the get-go it is clear, without needing to know the background of the piece, what inspired it. The album opens on a lone bass clarinet, which plays a motif similar to the bassoon figure which opens “The Rite of Spring”, and also at the very vulnerable height of the instrument’s compass. Soon, other winds begin to swarm the lone voice, alongside the unusual addition – for a big band – of a harp. This all builds as the brass enter to a much more powerful recap of McNeely’s opening motif, this time on tenor sax, performed by Potter… It is fascinating to observe how McNeely pays tribute to the source while creating a work that is distinct, separate and his own.

There are also moments reminiscent of other composers, such as during that latter part of “Rituals, Sacrifice Part III”: The guitar plays a three-note riff underneath the melody in the trombones and tenors, aided by another unusual instrument for the setting, a french horn, thus giving a more orchestral texture. Occasionally the winds play fast runs and the trumpets join the rest of the brass for short, biting stabs. Bizarrely enough, this all creates a sound evocative of John Barry’s James Bond soundtrack! In no small part due to – what sounds to be – bongos, played with mallets (as opposed to the player’s hands), which creates a background noise similar to the pulsing of helicopter blades: just one example of how McNeely is extremely perspicacious with his orchestration techniques.

In the course of Chris Potter’s solos and cadenzas in “Rituals”, he seems to capture the essence of the work’s fecund chaos. It sounds as though he is giving his absolute all and relishing every moment (in this position, it is hard to imagine any other soloist doing a better job). He is also composer of the final four tracks on the album, all still arranged by McNeely. These four songs are audibly Potter’s; he has established a very personal sound. They are songs from older Potter records and McNeely has done a wonderful job developing them while still retaining their essence. It also feels as though they arrive at the right time; after some fairly heavy (though enjoyable) music, they break-up the through-composed nature of McNeely’s compositions and bring with them a more conventional ‘jazz’ listening experience.

The union of a composer such as Jim McNeely, at the height of his abilities, with the virtuosic powerhouse that is Chris Potter, supported by one of the world’s most accomplished bands, has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, this is an album that seems to successfully fulfil expectations and keep delivering new revelations. All it takes is a keen ear and an hour of time.

LINK: Rituals at Presto Music

Categories: Album reviews

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