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Jazz trumpeter John McNeil points to his many years transcribing saxophone solos of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson as the foundation for his unique playing style and his original ideas.

"I think that’s why my phrasing is a little unusual," he said from his home in Park Slope. "Saxophonists just play things differently from trumpeters. Their general approach to harmony is different from trumpeters. It’s hard to describe. I just know it when I see it, and it’s encouraged me to play things that aren’t necessarily trumpet friendly."

McNeil and tenor saxist Bill McHenry lead a quartet at Night & Day restaurant in Park Slope every Sunday, focusing on relatively obscure composers from the West Coast cool jazz popularized by Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and Chet Baker in the ’50s. The group plays compositions by Russ Freeman, George Wallington, Wilbur Harden, Carson Smith, Denzil Best and Jack Montrose.

"I checked out music from that West Coast cool era," he said. "As a result, I stumbled across a lot of these tunes by other composers. I thought, ’These are great tunes, but nobody plays them.’ "

McNeil and McHenry decided to approach these ’50s tunes from a modern perspective while preserving the basic harmonies and melodies of the original compositions.

"We play these tunes differently from the way the original guys did, but we preserve a lot of the original feeling," he said.

McNeil, 58, rediscovered these composers while researching material for his new CD, "East Coast Cool," on Omnitone Records. He wrote nine original compositions based on the great Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet. His quartet also reinterpreted a West Coast cool standard called "Bernie’s Tune," written by Bernie Miller for Mulligan. He enlisted contemporary composer and baritone saxophonist Kenny Berger to write a new tune called "GAB" in the spirit of Mulligan and he reinvigorated Arnold Schoenberg’s "Piano Concerto."

A northern California native, McNeil fell in love with the trumpet after hearing Louis Armstrong perform on the Milton Berle Show on television in the ’50s. Largely self-taught on trumpet, he abandoned his dreams of becoming a chemist to perform in local jazz bands before studying music at the University of Portland.

Legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry encouraged McNeil to move to New York City.

"It was bleak," McNeil said of his first years here. "I played every kind of gig you can imagine. I mostly played in salsa bands. I played in a wedding band, a Gypsy funeral band. It’s incredible the images I still have in my head. I played every damn thing imaginable. I even played in a band at Yankee Stadium."

McNeil settled in Park Slope in the early ’70s and has lived in the neighborhood ever since. When he first moved here, McNeil said the neighborhood was affordable, "relatively unsafe" and lacked the many jazz clubs that now populate Fifth Avenue.

"It took me a while to break in and make some money," he said. One of the first jazz rooms he played was the now-defunct bar, City Lights, on Seventh Avenue and First Street in Park Slope. He also remembers playing at Brown’s in Bay Ridge.

The trumpeter has recorded as a bandleader for three decades. Since signing with Omnitone Records in 2002, he has found a new audience and renewed critical acclaim on recordings such as "This Way Out" (2003), "Sleep Won’t Come" (2004) and now, "East Coast Cool" (2006).

A year after Mulligan died on Jan. 20, 1996 in Darien, Conn., McNeil accepted the challenge of rearranging the late baritone saxophonist’s music for a series of tribute concerts in the U.S. The painstaking task of poring over charts gave McNeil a new appreciation for Mulligan’s abilities as an arranger and composer of linear, contrapuntal music in the ’50s.

"I started to think about what would happen if I took what he wrote and applied it to free music," McNeil said. "Back when he was writing this stuff, the role of the bass player and the drummer were pretty well defined. They weren’t really interactive too much. They were basically keeping time.

"I thought we would need to allow for contemporary bass playing and drumming at the same time," continued McNeil. "I thought, ’What if I could make this work?’ and I started writing some music."


John McNeil Quartet, featuring tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, bassist Tom Hubbard and drummer Jochen Ruekert, performs at Night & Day (230 Fifth Ave. at President Street in Park Slope) on Sundays, from 8:30 pm to 11 pm, except July 30 and Aug. 6. Tickets are $6. For tickets, call (718) 399-2161. www.nightanddayrestaurant.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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