Up from the Skies – Music of Jim McNeely (Planet Arts Recordings)

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

Released April 29, 2006

Grammy Nominee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album 2007






An album featuring the music of VJO’s pianist conductor Jim McNeely. McNeely has given the VJO some remarkable pieces to play on “Up From the Skies,” and the ensemble (which of course began life as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1966) more than returns the favor with stirring solo work and a loving attention to the often exquisite details of McNeely’s orchestral thinking.

Track Listing:

1. Up from the Skies 8:54

solos: R. Lalama, J. Jackson

2. The Life of Riley 8:28

solos: J. Riley, L. Bonilla

3. In This Moment 9:13

solo: S. Wendholt

4. Don’t Even Ask 9:48

solos: B. Drewes, D. Irwin

Suite: One Question, Three Answers

5. Almost Always 8:01

solos: G. Smulyan, J. Mosca

6. Hardly Ever 8:18

solos: D. Oats, G. Gisbert

7. You Tell Me 7:34

solos: R. Perry, R. Lalama

8. We Will Not Be Silenced 8:37

solos: G. Smulyan, R. Perry


Trumpets / Flugelhorns: Nick Marchione (lead), Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Scott Wendholt 

Trombones: John Mosca (lead), Luis Bonilla, Jason Jackson, Douglas Purviance (bass trombone) 

Reeds: Dick Oatts (lead alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute), Billy Drewes (alto and soprano saxophones, flute, clarinet), Rich Perry (tenor saxophone, flute), Ralph LaLama (tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute), Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet) 

Rhythm Section: Jim McNeely (piano/conductor), John Riley (drums), Dennis Irwin (bass)

Recorded and mixed at Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ.

Produced by Douglas Purviance

Executive Producer: Thomas Bellino

Engineer: Gary Chester

Assistant Engineer: Brian Dozeretz

Design: Valerie Trucchia

Cover inspired by the art work of Stephanie Green-Levy

This recording was made possible through generous grants from: The National Endowment for the Arts; The Aaron Copland Fund for Music; The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust; and The New York State Council of the Arts.


On its fifth album since the passing of co-founder Mel Lewis in 1990, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra turns for a second time to the music of Jim McNeely, the ensemble’s pianist/composer in residence and one of the country’s outstanding contemporary composer/arrangers. Even though his music has lost none of its resourcefulness or depth, this is a kinder, gentler, more lyrical and even-tempered McNeely than we’ve heard before, and the enterprise is all the better for it.

The title selection, which opens the album, is a breezy Jimi Hendrix tune so smoothly arranged by McNeely that one could swear he or she were listening to Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. There are more twists and turns in drummer John Riley’s showpiece, “The Life of Riley, but the music remains quite accessible, and Riley moves seamlessly from brushes to sticks to wrest every shard of energy and emotion from McNeely’s dancing chart. McNeely wrote the enchanting ballad “In This Moment, he says, “to capture on paper what came out of [his] hands in the moment of composition. What came out is simply gorgeous, as are the solos by McNeely and flugel Scott Wendholt.

I don’t know if it was planned that way, but it’s nonetheless interesting that “Don’t Even Ask!, written more than a dozen years ago when McNeely was a member of the Phil Woods Quintet, should precede the three-movement suite, One Question, Three Answers. “Ask! is an up-tempo romp featuring alto saxophonist Billy Drewes, with sharp supporting statements by McNeely and bassist Dennis Irwin. The suite runs for more than 25 minutes, and each of its movements headlines two soloists—trombonist John Mosca and baritone Gary Smulyan (“Almost Always ), trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto Dick Oatts (“Hardly Ever ), tenors Rich Perry and Ralph LaLama (“You Tell Me ). “The listener, McNeely writes, “is invited to formulate an appropriate question.

The closing number, “We Will Not Be Silenced, is a gossamer serenade that began life as a hymn and later became the third section of McNeely’s September Tryptych, commissioned by the University of Connecticut Studio Orchestra. Perry and Smulyan share the solo honors.

One of the more agreeable aspects of reviewing an album by the VJO is that one needn’t appraise the orchestra itself—excellence there is a given—and can concentrate on the music, which in this case is invariably warm and delightful. In the past I’ve not always been moved by McNeely’s sometimes pedantic compositional style, but everything here is lucid and beyond reproach. To state the case more plainly, McNeely and the VJO have struck a musical vein akin to gold, and Up from the Skies is worth its weight in that precious mineral.

Jack Bowers (All About Jazz)