Born in 1948 in Yreka, California, McNeil taught himself trumpet and learned to read music on his own. By his late teens, the young trumpeter was playing in combos throughout Northern California; by the mid-'70s he was freelancing in New York City and gaining a reputation as an innovative, lyrical player. He performed with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard, and led his own groups at various area clubs. By the latter part of the decade, McNeil had joined the Horace Silver Quartet and secured a solo contract with SteepleChase. The label issued a flurry of McNeil releases, including 1978's Embarkation and The Glass Room and 1979's Faun and Look to the Sky (with Tom Harrell).
In the '80s, the trumpeter continued to work as both a sideman and leader. He appeared as a soloist with Gerry Mulligan's band, and formed the John McNeil Trio/Quartet for 1983's I've Got the World on a String. He toured internationally, and was recognized by the contemporary jazz community as a go-to writer, arranger, and producer. McNeil went on to issue a series of critically acclaimed albums, including the Kenny Burger collaborations Hip Deep (1996, Brownstone) and Brooklyn Ritual (1998, Synergy). Also during this period, he dedicated more of his time to teaching, joining the faculty of Boston's New England Conservatory.
Away from teaching, McNeil continued to record. Released in 2001, Fortuity featured a few pop-inspired numbers, like a Latin-flavored interpretation of the Beatles' "I Will." The Latin influence continued with 2003's This Way Out (Omnitone), which McNeil recorded in Barcelona with tenor saxophonist Gorka Benitez and bassist Giulia Valle. Since then, McNeil has kept busy, releasing Sleep Won't Come in 2004, East Coast Cool in 2006, and Rediscovery in 2008. Two years later, he paired with longtime collaborator, saxophonist Bill McHenry for the live album Chill Morn He Climb Jenny.
Around this time, he formed the forward-thinking jazz outfit Hush Point with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky, and drummer Anthony Pinciotti. The group debuted in 2013 with a self-titled release, followed a year later by Blues and Reds. In 2017, McNeil was back with the ensemble for Hush Point, Vol. 3. ~ Johnny Loftus, Rovi
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