‘Paul Klee Suite’ by Jim McNeely – (Guildhall Jazz Orchestra / Scott Stroman at Milton Court, 3rd February 2022) – London Jazz News

Chicago-born pianist/composer/arranger Jim McNeely has a week-long residency at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next week, starting January 31, 2022. The focal point will be a concert at Milton Court on February 3, during which he – and the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Scott Stroman – will perform his “Paul Klee Suite”. Reporting by Charles Rees.

Jim McNeely. Publicity photo

Jim McNeely has been a strong and consistent presence in the big band world for the past four decades and is one of the art form’s most skilled and experienced promoters, earning twelve Grammy nominations for his work. His lineage as a writer goes back to Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones and Gil Evans to Duke Ellington and the early 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 famous pianist and accompanist – some of his roles in this capacity include: pianist in Stan Getz’s quartet in the 1980s, recording several albums with the saxophonist during this period; five years (1990-95) with the Phil Woods Quintet, and many personal projects – like his tent.

Perhaps most famously, he held the piano chair and in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra for over a decade, beginning in 1978. During this time he contributed to numerous band charts and , in many ways, became their primary songwriter after the death 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 there at alongside many other Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra alumni.

He is also passionate about art, particularly the work of Swiss-born painter Paul Klee. This enthusiasm inspired him to compose the “Suite Paul Klee” – which he recorded with the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, based in Bern, Switzerland, in 2006. The Swiss capital is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to his paintings. McNeely said: “The Klee thing was a challenge, because it’s the first time I really had to use another type of stimulus as inspiration for the music. […] I found that 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 image.

The album cover (2006) with a detail of Paul Klee’s painting “Individualisierte Höhenmessung der Lagen” (Individualized Diaper Measurement)

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 pretty clear about why he wanted to dedicate the concert to the Suite Paul Klee: “It’s absolutely top drawer stuff, it’s a notch above. Writing is on 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 sequel while researching his own potential sequel: “When I first heard it, I thought…it’s all simply magnificent. I’m not going to write my own sequel, I’m going to ask Jim to do his. Although the pandemic put Stroman’s plan on hold for two years, he did the UK music scene a real favor by (finally) bringing in McNeely.

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 see Jim McNeely work his magic. Stroman says: “We recruited our best players for this one. We have some great young players on the program, and this project in particular, who are really rich and mature players and they are very keen to make the most of it.

CONNECTIONS: Line reservationk for February 3 / Jim McNeely with the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra

Jim McNeely website

JMcNeely’s twelve Grammy nominations


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Henry R. Wright