Jim McNeely’s “Rituals”

Rituals cover

McNEELY: Rituals: Adoration I; Adoration II; Adoration III; Sacrifice I; Sacrifice II; Rebirth. POTTER: Dawn. The Wheel. Wine Dark Sea. Okinawa / Chris Potter, t-sax w/the Frankfurt Big Band: Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, Axel Schlosser, tpt/fl-hn; Günter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjö, tb; Manfred Honetschläger, bs-tb; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn, Oliver Leicht, a-sax/s-sax/t-sax/fl/pic; Toony Lakatos, t-sax/fl; Steffen Weber, t-sax/s-sax/bar-sax/fl/cl; Rainer Heute, bar-sax/bs-cl; Martin Scales, gtr; Peter Reiter, pno; Thomas Heidepriem, bs; Jean Paul Höchstädter, dm / Double Moon Records DMCHR 71404

This is exactly the kind of jazz album I live for: innovative, challenging music that gets into your psyche as much as it gets into your appetite for improvisation. Jim McNeely’s suite Rituals, which takes up the bulk of this disc, is based on Stravinsky’s Le sacre du Printemps. It is not the first jazz version of this complex modern ballet, but it is the latest.

Unlike the first of these I heard years ago, Darryl Brenzel’s The (Re)Write of Spring, McNeely’s suite is based on it but wholly original music, as if the Frankfurt Big Band had been asked to come up with their own “take” on every part of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. As a result, if one did not know in advance that Stravinsky was the model, one would not automatically make mental references to his ballet, although there are clearly several “Stravinsky-isms” in the music to act as slight references, not obvious guideposts.

To a certain extent, Rituals swings more than Brenzel’s (Re)Write of Spring, in part because the music is more of a contrafact on Stravinsky. I was also very impressed by the band’s enthusiastic approach to this music; they are “all in” on the concept, completely unafraid to let loose and dig in.

McNeely is no tyro at writing and arranging for big jazz bands, having worked between 1978 and 1984 with the famed Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, then in the mid-1990s with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He was also chief conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band for several years, and has worked with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rituals is that it doesn’t follow the tempo pattern of Stravinsky’s ballet. The music really doesn’t become fast-paced until some ways into the second section, “Adoration II,” and even then an element of jazz swing is retained, forsaking the stiff ostinato rhythm of the original composer. American tenor saxist Chris Potter, who contributed the remaining pieces on this album, is the sole featured soloist throughout Rituals, thus one can almost call this suite an extended jazz concerto influenced by Stravinsky but filtered through the dual minds of McNeely and Potter.

In the fourth track (“Sacrifice I”), for instance, we encounter a modern jazz ballad, the rhythm of which is constantly nudged forward subtly by the rhythm section, but which eventually becomes a sort of fantasia in which Potter’s tenor sax is intertwined with tenor players Tony Lakatos and Steffen Weber from the orchestra in a fascinating counterpoint section. Nothing in any of this music sounds superfluous, routine, unnecessary or uninspired; every note and phrase is interesting, follows logically from what has preceded it and leads into the next section. In terms of orchestral texture the music is not innovative, but rather uses very similar voicings to the sort that the Jones-Lewis orchestra pioneered back in the ‘70s. Nonetheless, McNeely’s score is so innovative in and of itself that this doesn’t matter. He manages to reinvigorate that sound and make it fit in with a Stravinskian concept. (Stravinsky’s music, after all, used exceptionally bright, almost “metallic”-sounding sonorities, even within the confines of a regular symphony orchestra.) After the gentle opening, “Sacrifice I” picks up in tempo and drive. The final section really cooks just before Potter suddenly puts on the brakes to play a warm, relaxed a cappella coda.

“Sacrifice II” retools the Stravinsky ostinato beat, using the rhythm and some exotic chording to give it an almost Middle Eastern sound in the first section. Later on, the tempo increases, and here McNeely does indeed use a stiff ostinato rhythm, which relaxes just a bit for the rhythm section to comp behind Potter’s solo. In the second chorus, there are punctuations by low trumpets and trombones behind him as the volume increases. Things get really frantic near the end, though once again the tempo is pulled back. The final section (“Rebirth”), which also starts slowly, follows without a break. A bit of microtonal writing finds its way into this one as members of the ensemble intertwine various atonal lines around each other. Finally, at the very end, we get a snippet of the opening melody of Sacre du printemps.

Potter’s own Dawn opens with flutes and other high reeds. Although not quite on the exalted level of Rituals, it is an excellent piece, using its own melody and harmonic base to create an interesting mood piece. A couple of minutes in, Potter also uses some overlapping sax polyphony to enhance his piece. It is by no means an “easy listening” ballad although it is not as complex in construction than the McNeely pieces. The Wheel is a funky-groove sort of piece, a throwback to the soul jazz of the late 1950s-early ‘60s except for the polyphonic scoring. Although a pretty good piece, it somehow seemed out of place in mood and style with the rest of the album. For me, these kind of pieces always seem to get stuck in a static groove with the soloist just sort of wailing in a goofy, uninteresting way over chords that don’t change. Fortunately, Potter redeems himself with Wine Dark Sea and Okinawa, both of which are fine pieces with very interesting lines and construction. Okinawa, in fact, is a very complex piece that fits in perfectly with the mood and construction of McNeely’s suite.

Except for The Wheel, this is an absolutely superb album that I highly recommend. McNeely’s suite will bear constant re-listening and study for even the most advanced jazz lover, and most of the accompanying pieces are worth hearing as well.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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