Jazz pianist, novelist, sculptor, painter, Al Neil is an artist down to the bone. Exalted, energetic, whimsical, even cynical at times, he regularly changes skins and constantly remained in the underground ever since he dropped out of the bebop scene in the early '60s. Based in or around Vancouver for most of his life, he remains one of the least known and understood Canadian artists. A pioneering pianist in free jazz and experimental music, he has recorded very rarely. Often compared to Cecil Taylor, he actually has more in common with Michael Snow, another multi-faceted Canadian artist.
Al Neil was born in 1924 in Vancouver. Classically trained from the age of nine, he began to give recitals in his teens and was looking at a concert career when World War II forced him to cross the Atlantic. Back home in 1945, he resumed his piano studies with Glenn Nelson and Jean Couthard. Wilf Wylie taught him his first rudiments of jazz and off Neil went to play clubs, leaving the classical repertoire behind. In 1956 he helped open The Cellar where he performed as a house musician, accompanying for the next few years an impressive number of West Coast players while experiencing first-hand the music of such visionaries as Ornette Coleman, who played his first international gig there in 1958. Through this West Coast networking Neil, got an invitation to put together a group to back poet Kenneth Patchen for a tour that yielded the LP Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada with the Alan Neil Quartet, released by Folkways in 1959.
Fed up with modal jazz and the industry (Neil often performed for the national radio and television), the pianist took a few years off in the early '60s, immersing himself in philosophy and modern art. Ready to come back in 1965, he recruited drummer Gregg Simpson and bassist Richard Anstey, two young musicians also with interests in mixed media performance. For the next five years, they performed regularly in art spaces and alternative clubs, riding the '60s wave and pursuing a form of music that combined free jazz, live sound collage, installation art, and performance art. The Al Neil Trio disbanded in 1970, at which time the pianist decided to focus on his writing (publishing the novel Changes in 1975) and junk sculpture. A Retrospective LP of the trio produced by Anstey in 1976 left 200 copies of the group's music to posterity. Neil continued to perform sporadically and even recorded a solo LP in 1980 for the Music Gallery while living in Toronto. Back in Vancouver in the early '80s, he turned to visual arts once again, building a good career as a collagist.