Jim McNeely, Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer are three old friends who have played together on occasion over the decades but never recorded as a trio until now. Although Boneyard refers to a creek in Champaign, Ill., it might conjure thoughts of overly familiar standards and jazz compositions as performed on many releases. But this trio avoids common paths by disguising introductions, inserting catchy vamps and chord changes in their offbeat approaches to popular songs.
While the piano is usually the center of attention in a trio setting with bass and drums, McNeely shares the spotlight with bassist Sill, with drummer Spencer preferring more of a background role. They come out blazing with a very unusual interpretation of "Speak Low" that utilizes Latin rhythm and adds vamps at regular intervals, with McNeely maintaining it for Spencer's solo. Likewise, Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" and Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" are stunningly recast. McNeely's two originals include the swirling post-bop vehicle "For Manny" and the hustling "Ernie Banks" (honoring the longtime all-star who played his entire career with the Chicago Cubs). Sillės two pieces, the understated "A Sense of Fairness" and the glistening ballad "Naomi," also earn high marks. A remarkable CD too long in coming.