[JPL] Jazz Review | John McNeil-Bill McHenry Quartet

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February 28, 2006
Jazz Review | John McNeil-Bill McHenry Quartet

West Coast Cool Explored in a Particularly East Coast Milieu
By BEN RATLIFF


In 1953 and 1954, Russ Freeman worked for Chet Baker. He was Baker's
pianist, the composer of a lot of his repertory and, in some ways, his
minder. And during that period, Freeman nearly wrote himself out of history.

Baker looked good enough back then to make his sidemen almost invisible. But
he was also playing the trumpet fantastically well in those years, before
his physical deterioration. And he didn't need a lot of interaction with the
rhythm section; this was what made West Coast jazz special, what set it off
from bebop in the East. Freeman, who died in 2002, was a decent,
of-his-time, Bud Powell-inspired pianist. But there may be more to remember
him by in his compositions, which are smart and sleek, tricky and bright.

John McNeil, the trumpeter, and Bill McHenry, the tenor saxophonist, have
taken up that challenge of those pieces. The two led a quartet through a
Freeman-centered gig last Sunday at Night and Day, a restaurant in Park
Slope with a jazz room in the back. Neither one is an early-50's West Coast
jazz worshiper. (Such people do exist, in small numbers, and aren't terribly
convincing.)

Mr. McNeil started reconsidering Freeman's music last year while working on
"East Coast Cool," an album dealing with Gerry Mulligan's early music. At
Night and Day, in a quartet without a pianist, he and Mr. McHenry have taken
on a bunch of Freeman's pieces for Chet Baker's band. On Sunday these
included "Batter Up," with a fast, rippling line; "Happy Little Sunbeam,"
which combined two older standards; and "Bea's Flat," with beguiling
rhythmic accents. They also played other music from the first wave of
so-called cool jazz, including George Wallington's "Godchild" and Mulligan's
"Soft Shoe," as well as some of Mr. McNeil's own work.

The two bandleaders ‹ backed by Tom Hubbard on bass and Jochen Ruckert on
drums ‹ treated the pieces as pure structure, just grist for their mills.
They didn't try to cozy up to them any more than that.

Mr. McNeil played ideas, cruising from figure to figure, using advanced ways
to approach harmony; he has a dry, even-toned projection that you could
compare to Chet Baker, if you wanted to. Mr. McHenry was looser, with more
attitude, more flamboyance and grit, and more brusque silences. Still, in
his tone and his easy-to-follow soloing style, he suggested Lester Young
more than anyone. (Cool jazz owed the world to Lester Young: the whole
endeavor was based on his soft tone and melodic improvising.) Since early
cool jazz had Bachlike tendencies, with contrapuntal lines of straight
eighth notes, the two played around with that device as well.

As a repertory idea goes, it's a smart construct; nobody plays Russ
Freeman's music anymore. But for Mr. McNeil and Mr. McHenry's playing, its
reward is the opposite of a repertory gig. It's a show of originality, and
how much of it exists in New York jazz, even at this casual level.

The John McNeil-Bill McHenry Quartet will perform every Sunday through
March, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m., at Night and Day, 230 Fifth Avenue, at
President Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn; (718) 399-2161.



Copyright 2006The New York Times Company


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