Neal Miner doesn’t look anything like Oscar Pettiford, but the connections between the two men, jazz bassists and composers, are profound. Like Pettiford, Neal is instantly recognizable — his large yet focused woody sound, his heartbeat pulse, his way of playing both in and around the beat, his innate musicality in the simplest melodic statement. As an ensemble player, he is the person who always instinctively knows the right thing to say — as well as knowing when to keep still. And he shares with Pettiford an instinctive ability to make friends with Time: Neal’s music seems comfortable, spacious, each composition or performance its own large room where a listener take a deep easy breath.
It’s no surprise that Neal is the first-choice bassist for artists as diverse as Jane Monheit, Warren Vache, Jr., Annie Ross, Chris Byars, Ehud Asherie, and two dozen others.
He also thinks beyond playing four supportive beats to the bar and creating arching solos. Neal isn’t waiting impatiently for his solo; he doesn’t ache for the limelight. But he has large visions. Many improvising artists imagine themselves composers as well, but their work seems self-conscious or derivative. Neal’s originals have the startling flavor of great melodic writing: they surprise us but seem just right. He also assembles neat small bands of people who like one another — a sweet respect that comes out in the music.
Here’s a sample of Neal’s musical and cinematic worlds on the same path. Oh, yes, he’s an inspiring videographer. That, too! Here’s SWEET TOOTH, from his most recent CD, with Peter Bernstein, guitar; Chris Byars, sax; Joe Strasser, drums:
and I REMEMBER YOU, with Michael Kanan, piano; Rick Montalbano, drums:
I knew and admired Neal from his work with Michael Kanan and his appearances at The Ear Inn and Smalls, but I first got the opportunity to hear him in different ways through his recordings — most notably the trio of Neal, Michael, and Joe Strasser on HAPPY HOUR, which quickly became one of my favorite discs — with standards and originals treated respectfully but with animation and wit. Now, Neal has issued SWEET TOOTH (he has a knack for allying his music to titles that sound appealing!) on his own Gut String Records — a session of six originals that stick in the mind when the disc is through.
Neal’s also released a slice-of-life DVD documentary — beautifully photographed and revealing — about the making of SWEET TOOTH. Here’s a sample:
I know that some of my readers can’t get to The Ear Inn or Smalls to hear Neal live (although they might very well get to enjoy his work as a member of Jane Monheit’s group) . . . but all is not lost. Neal’s website is a delight: with information about his recordings and videos — well worth a visit. He is, as they used to say back in the last century, someone to watch. And listen to. And be inspired by.