John McNeil: More Than Just Notes, Man
AAJ: That must've been a good challenge because you had to work within the confines of that block of time and come up with ideas that made sense and were connected.
JM: I always felt that everyone was more creative if there were limits. It seems counterintuitive but it seems like it forced things to happen. It established a common goal, I think maybe that was it. Since we all shared the common goal everything tended to contribute towards that. When I played with Horace Silver it wasn't about free music, it was about you making the changes [without] fucking any of them up. On one chorus maybe he'd let you slide. Two choruses, he'd tell you about it on the break. [He'd say] "A flat minor, flat five, man. You know, I wrote that for a reason. You gotta play it.
Now, with these OmniTone records I started playing like a lot more free music and the stuff doesn't really have a lot of changes to it. On the last record I did, East Coast Cool (2004), I knew I had a winner 'cause I'm talking to these guys about it and I said, "Can you walk this line between free music and the music without the restrictions that used to be there? Can you kind of reference that? and [bassist John] Hebert and [drummer Matt] Wilson said, "Yeah, we can do that. I can truly say that even though I ostensibly wrote the music those guys had a big hand in a lot of it and how it went. You've gotta be careful as a leader asking people for advice because some people interpret that as indecisiveness or weakness and you wind up firing them because they no longer respect you as a leader.
AAJ: Out of all the people you played withthe people that mentored you, specificallywho taught you the most?
JM: The guy who gave me the best advice, advice that changed me overnight, was Thad Jones. The first time I played with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, [Jones] invited me to sit in and I played a blues or something like that, and then I believe I covered a set for Cecil Bridgewater. So Thad called me over [after the set]. Did you ever see that guy? Thad looked like he could have been a boxer or something, kind of big, imposing guy. Intimidating. And such a great musician in all ways. So he calls me over and he's not pleased. And I'm thinking, "Ohhhh shit. I'm fired. I'll never ever work with this band again. I've been discovered. So he puts his arm around me and says, "You know, you have lots of ideas and I get your drift. But you just throw 'em away. Why do you do that? You never know how many ideas you're gonna have. What if you run out?
He said, "That's the way to communicate. You take an idea, you gotta work with it. You play it again, you turn it around, make a sequence out of it. You have to think like a writer. That's what makes people remember your playing. Otherwise it's just notes, man. And he didn't say anything more. He just walked away. And it was the biggest change I've ever had. I was a different player the next day. Because it wasn't even the skill so much as the way of thinking and I just changed the way I thought and it was different. That conversation was like maybe two minutes [but it] changed everything. The next solo I played he looked back and smiled at me. Oh man, that was the happiest day of my life. That made me a player if I never played another note.
John McNeil, East Coast Cool (OmniTone, 2004)
John McNeil, Sleep Won't Come (OmniTone, 2004)
John McNeil, This Way Out (OmniTone, 2002)
John McNeil, Fortuity (SteepleChase, 1999)
John McNeil/Tom Harrell, Loook to the Sky (SteepleChase, 1979)
John McNeil, Faun (SteepleChase, 1979)
Courtesy of John McNeil