Double Blindfold Test: Jim McNeely & Ryan Truesdell


Ryan Truesdell (left) and Jim McNeely give each other the Blindfold Test onstage at ISJAC 2022 in Austin, Texas.

(Photo: Ed Enright)

During this year’s International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers symposium in Austin, Texas, celebrated jazz orchestrators Jim McNeely and Ryan Truesdell administered the DownBeat Blindfold Test to each other, onstage in front of a live audience. In advance of the event, each artist chose four tracks for his counterpart to identify over the course of the test, for a total of eight musical selections. The spirited exchange, effectively DownBeat’s first Double Blindfold Test, kicked off with a McNeely pick, followed by a Truesdell pick, alternating back-and-forth for the duration. Everyone at ISJAC — a friendly, hard-working and diverse community that is seeking to expand its membership — knows each other on a first-name basis.

Duke Ellington

“Artistry In Rhythm” (Will Big Bands Ever Come Back?, Reprise, 1962) Billy Strayhorn, arranger; Stan Kenton, composer.

Ryan: It’s Duke, but this is my worst nightmare, I don’t know why I agreed to this. I’m horrible with titles. But it’s Duke, right? It’s Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet and Ray Nance on violin, Cootie Williams on trumpet. What’s the title?

Jim: “Artistry In Rhythm,” Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement.

Ryan: Of course. The thing I love about this is the groove, it’s so unique and different and beautiful and mysterious, and how that all evolves out of nothing, something Billy did so well.

Jim: This is one of the things on my must-play list when I teach my arranging class. When you compare it to the original Kenton, which is full of bombast, I show this as an example of taking the same material and doing a complete 180-degree turn in terms of atmosphere, vibe, the whole thing. And also writing for the musicians. You had Ray Nance in the band at the time — violin and trumpet, that’s a double you don’t normally encounter. And it’s a beautiful use of the ensemble’s solo voices: Harry Carney’s playing bass clarinet, and Sam Woodyard is playing this groove that predates hip-hop by about at least 20 years.

Ryan: That orchestra has such a unique sound, there’s no other orchestra like it. That sound of the clarinet and drums is so remarkable.

Jim: Part of what impressed me was, it isn’t a baritone sax part, it’s a Harry Carney part. He’s half the sound of the band.

Ryan: 5 stars.

Buddy DeFranco

“A Bird In Igor’s Yard” (Buddy DeFranco & His Orchestra, Hep Records, rec’d 1949) George Russell, composer/arranger.

Jim: I’m either gonna be 100% right or completely off base. Is that Buddy DeFranco, “A Bird In Igor’s Yard”? I almost put this on my list. That was with Boyd Raeburn’s band, and I think this is one of the first tune that George had recorded, was of his early ones. Buddy DeFranco at that time, I heard the clarinet but immediately the language, it wasn’t Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, it was bebop, that’s why I figured it has to be Buddy. I remember hearing this a long time ago and being knocked out. It was back in the era where people were trying to mix Stravinsky with jazz. Who would do that today [audience laughs]. Stravinsky’s language is so powerful it lends itself to the rhythmic aspects of jazz, and George Russell put it together. It’s a great chart.

Ryan: George’s writing is so advanced, with the complexities of the rhythms and everything that was going on in all the different sections, I always forget that it’s 1949.

Jim: That was great — 89 stars.

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

“A Simple Wish” (Can I Persuade You, Planet Arts, 2001) Julie Cavadini, composer/arranger.

Ryan: I still get goosebumps in all the same places. It’s Julie Cavadini. That was “A Simple Wish” recorded by the Vanguard Orchestra, but she wrote it back in the ’80s. I understand she studied with Bill Finegan, and was able to write for the band through Bob [Brookmeyer].

Jim: Bob brought her in. I think it was 1988 when she brought this, maybe before then. Bob had arranged a rehearsal for her to come in, and she wrote this for Tom Harrell, and this is Scott Wendholt on this recording. And I’ll never forget, when it reaches that big climax at the end, I still get goosebumps when I hear that, and I’ve played that chart many, many times. You know it’s coming, and it’s just, wait for it, here it comes. She was a remarkable musician, and she wrote several things for Mel’s band, and she passed away from cancer and not many people know about her.

Ryan: As many stars as you allow. I love that piece, it’s absolutely remarkable, and I think it’s a shame there isn’t more.

Bob Brookmeyer

“Mellow Drama” (Portrait Of The Artist, Atlantic, rec’d 1959) Brookmeyer, composer/arranger.

Jim: I think of certain parameters like the piano and clarinets and I want to say Claude Thornhill, but I don’t think it is. It’s deep, it’s really dark and the tuba, there’s some harmony that they land on that’s really [makes a “density” gesture].

Ryan: It’s Bob. It’s called “Mellow Drama.”

Jim: That it is. [all laugh] So that’s Bob playing piano. That’s a great record. I’ve concentrated so much on [Brookmeyer’s] Blues Suite, I guess I forgot about some of the other things.

Ryan: I wanted to give you a Bob one, but the minute his trombone comes in he’s immediately recognizable, and I thought, this is such a unique piece. I also love the instrumentation: trumpet, french horn, slide trombone and tuba, and two reeds, and Bob on piano.

Jim: I never heard Claude Thornhill play like that. Usually he was just kind of Teddy Wilson on steroids playing over the band. So I just took a wild guess.

Ryan: That was a good guess. There’s so much Thornhill in that.

Jim: Infinity-minus-one stars.

Rabih Abou-Khalil

“Ma Muse M’amuse” (The Cactus Of Knowledge, Enja, rec’d 2000). Abou-Khalil, oud, composer/arranger.

Ryan Truesdell: I have no clue. Is it a big band?

Jim McNeely: More of a medium-size band.

Ryan: I love the really low clarinets and kind of violent harmonies going up and down. Is it a trombone player?

Jim: No.

Ryan: Then I don’t know.

Jim: It’s a guy I’ve worked with in Frankfurt, the oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. He was born in Lebanon, grew up in Germany and lives in France. This is an album he did in the U.S. with Dave Ballou playing trumpet, Antonio Hart on alto, Dave Bargeron on euphonium, and the tuba player is a guy he works with a lot, his name is Michel Godard. He plays on this and he’s the bassist — he goes on forever, this guy is amazing. And the drummer is Jerrod Cagwin, an American who moved over to Europe.

Rabih wrote this. It’s French for “my muse amuses me,” and everything is in really precise unison. He studied Western composition, and when I arranged his music for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, everything was very precisely notated, and very well, in groups of two and threes; the meter changes all the time. He told me, “Tell the cats it’s not complicated, it’s all about twos and threes.” It was remarkable stuff, once everyone really learned it. The other thing is, with a piece like this, there’s no harmony. You can’t talk about hip voicings; there aren’t any. It’s unison and octaves.

Ryan: He changes the scale every once in a while, and that’s where [the feeling of harmony] is coming from. There’s no [traditional] bass. I’m glad you picked this — I definitely want to check it out. 10 stars, 11.

Vanessa Perica Orchestra

“Dance Of The Zinfandels” (Love Is A Temporary Madness, Independent Release, 2020) Perica, arranger/composer.

Jim: That’s great. I don’t know who it is. And I love the part where the rhythm section drops out and the horns keep the rhythm going. A lot of times if you lose the rhythm section and the horns are so used to sitting back on the rhythm section, you take the rhythm section out and it starts to sag. These people were really pushing it.

Ryan: Vanessa Perica is an Australian composer. I just found out about her, and her record just blew me away. It’s really incredible. It’s a band of Australians. From what I know of her, she went to school for music and did composition for a while and then decided to step away. For a period of time she worked fashion and then decided to come back, and this was sort of her debut record after she came back. The whole record is remarkable.

Jim: I’ll give that 1,226 stars.

Oliver Nelson Orchestra

“Sound Piece For Jazz Orchestra” (Sound Pieces, Impulse!, rec’d 1966) Nelson, soprano saxophone, composer/arranger.

Ryan: I don’t think I know, but I’m going to take a guess. Is it Oliver Nelson? I recognize his language, but I don’t remember this record with such a huge band.

Jim: It’s from a record called Sound Pieces, and this is called “Sound Piece.” It’s an L.A. band: Ray Brown is playing bass, Shelly Manne on drums, and then [trumpeter] Conte Candoli and a lot of other West Coast people. This piece had a huge impact on me when I was in high school. I heard this and thought, this is what I want to do. I went to a stage band camp my senior year in high school, and I was in an arranging class with Oliver Nelson, and I got to meet him.

The remarkable thing about this piece is, he wrote it for the Stuttgart Radio Big Band. And reading the liner notes, that was the first inkling I had that there are these bands in Europe that work for the radio, and little did I know I would base about 25 years of my career working with European radio bands. He wrote this for them, but then he recorded in L.A. Later on in the piece he plays.

Ryan: I would have recognized his playing, his harmonic language. … I love the repetition, but it changes all the time, in an interesting way.

Jim: “I’ve got French horns, I’m gonna use them.” [scats a horn line] That line is a tough one.

Ryan: That’s what was throwing me off, because I knew he did wider stuff, but I thought, “That’s a really big orchestra.” 1,226 stars plus 2.

Billy Childs Ensemble

“A Man Chasing The Horizon” (Autumn: In Moving Pictures, ArtistShare, 2010) Childs, piano, composer/arranger.

Jim: I’m stumped. I love it, the way it shifts textures, but I have no idea who it is. [audience members help identify Billy Childs]

Ryan: It’s from the second jazz chamber record that Billy did.

Jim: That’s the one I don’t have.

Ryan: I love how he does all of the modern things but then he has that orchestral stuff.

Jim: And he still plays his ass off.

Ryan: There’s a whole section here where it’s just him and rhythm section and they keep going and going. I love the orchestration with the strings and the harp.

Jim: I’ll give Billy a bazillion stars. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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