Trumpeter John McNeil is 1/4 of the band Hush Point, whose second album, Blues and Reds, comes out next week on Sunnyside. (Pre-order it from Amazon.) The group, which also features saxophonist Jeremy Udden, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky, and drummer Anthony Pinciotti, has a unique sound, one their name implies. On their self-titled debut, which was covered here last year, we said, “What’s most exciting about this album is the way these four players blend avant/free approaches to melody and interplay with techniques that go back to jazz’s earliest days—there’s an almost Dixieland feel to ‘B. Remembered,’ and ‘Cat Magnet’ is a strutting, finger-snapping blues…Half the time, the members of Hush Point don’t even seem like they’re playing for a listener; with its gentle, unobtrusive drums, throbbingly human bass, and whispering, breathy horn lines, the album can make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a private conversation.” The album wound up being our #2 jazz album of 2013.
All Hush Point‘s unique qualities remain present on Blues & Reds, but the group has changed and evolved. Most notably, original drummer Vinnie Sperrazza is gone; Pinciotti drives the group a little harder, into more uptempo and aggressive territory at times. They haven’t become just another hard bop quartet, though, by any means. The hush is still present, and Blues and Reds is a thoughtful album that creates and sustains an autumn-evening mood that’s a welcome respite from the agitation heard on so many other contemporaneous releases.
John McNeil answered some questions about the new album by email.
The music seems more assertive on this disc than on the debut, even a little louder—how do you feel the group’s collective language has evolved from the last album to this one?
Now we can do more complex and interesting things with the music and have it all sound natural. Kind of off-handed, you know? Playing together a lot and working on concepts makes that possible. [I wanted to use some terms like “synergy” or “pan-rhythmic interface” at this point, but I can’t seem to work them in. “Bitonal matrices” is a good one, also.] As for the increased volume, it wasn’t conscious. Thinking about it now, I realize that some of the new compositions just naturally call for a little more sound. We still whisper in your ear, though.
Stream “Live in Stockholm”:
Vinnie Sperrazza played on the first album; he’s been replaced by Anthony Pinciotti. How would you characterize each man’s contributions to the group sound?
We changed drummers because Vinnie was going to be on the road for the next 37 years. We needed another Italian carbon-based life form to do percussive things, and Anthony appeared. Perfetto.
In a band like Hush Point, you change drummers, you change everything, with sound and vibe altered the most. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I really didn’t realize just how different the sound would be. Part of the difference has to do with technique—the same drum set would produce different sounds for each drummer. But more important is the fact that Vinnie was the drum version of a vertical jazz player, and Anthony is like a horizontal, or linear player. Both worked out, but differently. Also, Anthony plays with John Abercrombie and thus brings an occasional ECM vibe to the music.
Are there ideas being explored here that you couldn’t work with in other groups?
Yes. Exploring the idea of a pan-rhythmic interface of bitonal matrices, for one. But exploring new ideas requires rehearsal time and few musicians want to rehearse today if there’s no gig tomorrow. This is one reason conventional ways of organizing the music often rule the day. Fortunately, the four members of Hush Point are eager to work on new things and are into rehearsing, which is rare. Aryeh, Jeremy and Anthony are always coming up with new stuff to try, a lot of which winds up working out. Ultimately, our goal in this band is to truly create music as a single entity. We get closer every time we hit.
You’re significantly older than the other guys in the band—how does that impact the band dynamic? How do you keep the exchange of ideas equal?
Among players, jazz has always been an equalizer. Differences between black and white, young and old, male and female, are all subordinate to one thing: how do you play? The better the players, the more that holds true. Now, you do have the occasional knucklehead that tries to raise a racial barrier or something, but jazz is Darwinian—ideas as stupid as that can’t survive in the long run.
So you have it both ways—my relevance as a player is not diminished by age, but I’m not automatically granted Revered All-Knowing Jazz Elder status either. In fact, Aryeh and Jeremy routinely take my tunes and change them all around. I once brought in an arrangement of “Hatikva” and it got changed to major. And now Anthony’s getting into the act—he wants every ballad to have a bass drum solo. Italian drummers.
My age does let me say things such as “One time Sonny Stitt told me that soloing on fast tunes is like eating key lime pie in a new Chrysler” or preface statements with “Thad Jones used to say…” The guys pretty much ignore stuff like that, though.
Which song on this album best sums up where Hush Point is in 2014?
Usually Jeremy’s writing seems to be more characteristic of Hush Point‘s direction than mine or Aryeh’s, and Jeremy’s vision for the band informs much of what we do. When he and I were first putting a concept together, it was Jeremy’s sound and ideas that seemed to crystallize our direction. In our case, the word “concept” denotes being pissed off at predictable arrangements, substituting volume for intensity, lack of counterpoint, not being able to hear or use subtlety and….some other things I forget right now. Perfling. Too much multicolor perfling.
Back to the question—if I were to pick the song which at this point best sums up the band, it might be one of mine. And this after all that stuff I said about Jeremy. The tune in question, “Grounds for Divorce,” goes to a lot of different musical places and is a microcosm of Hush Point‘s different approaches. The melody is bitonal, some of the counterpoint is also bitonal, harmony and time are abandoned at one point, there’s a rubato horn line based on a 12-tone row and there’s a happy ending wherein we all get the girl and our enemies are defeated.