I was an only child born in Peoria, Ill., just a couple of stones' throw to Chicago, before we moved to Lincoln when I was one year old. My dad worked for my mom's family, selling jewelry and buying clothes for their store. He'd go to the market in New York semi-annually and fly to meet my mother and me in Chicago for our annual summer vacation. She and I would take the train to rendezvous there. When I was 10 and very much into baseball, they took me to see the White Sox and the Cubs back-to-back one weekend. I was thrilled most by seeing two of the best shortstops in the big leagues over those two days. Comiskey Park held Luis Aparacio and Wrigley Field was home to Ernie Banks.
I also got to go to a great club called Mr. Kelly's that year. I heard comic Jackie Mason one night and got my first taste of big-city jazz hearing Erroll Garner the next. Wow, baseball and jazz÷I was hooked for life.
Move ahead nearly half a century. I'm sitting here reviewing another wonderful piano player from Chicago named Jim McNeely just a weekend away from opening day (sorry, Cubbie fans, but I've been a SF Giants devotee since the mid 1980s) and listening to a marvelous new CD called "Boneyard," which features a great McNeely tune called "Ernie Banks." Boneyard is a creek that runs through Champaign, Ill., which spawned a jazz scene that has thrived since the Ž50s.
Jim jumped in during the 1970s, and around that time met up with a now-legendary rhythm section consisting of Kelly Sill on bass and drummer Joel Spencer. These cats don't play together on a regular basis, but after 35 years of gigging, their foundation is rock solid, and is truly one of the best jazz trios in the biz when engaged at a gig or a superb recording session like this one.
My wife, Grace, and I honeymooned in the Windy City five years ago and caught, and met, Kelly and Joel at a jazz steakhouse in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, backing another pianist. They were tight and terrific, as expected. I got to enjoy Jim's classic chops when he was performing at a jazz festival in Kansas. When Origin Records, one of my fave jazz labels out there, sent me this CD, I couldn't wait to put it on and hear these monsters blow. "Boneyard" is a four-star, sum-of-the-parts creation that not only should make Chi-town proud of its players, but jazz itself. This is really one nice piece of work.
Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" kicks off the album with a bang. Nine killer tracks featuring the works of Diz, Brubeck and Wayne Shorter all make it big time, as well as compositions of Jim and Kellyůof course, "Ernie Banks" getting me off the most. Ah yes, baseball and jazz. Credit this talented threesome with extra base hits throughout. Cheer on your teams of choice, and rah, rah, rah for this special, all-star team of Jim McNeely, Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer. "Boneyard" is, without a doubt, a bases-loaded homer. Play Jazz, play ball.