By Raul da Gama
In the perennial debate over which version of piano music is more important: solo or ensemble, studio or live, Bill O’Connell hitherto left no doubt that he fell on the side of ensemble. However, four decades after his opening act, the pianist has put forward the other side of the imaginary argument. And here, as evidence is Monk’s Cha Cha which is not only his first solo recording, but a live performance as well. The nine songs that make up the album go a long way into stacking the deck in favour of the solo venture, at least for now. Recognised as a master interpreter of music in the Latin idiom, Bill O’Connell has actually always been more than that; a composer, highly regarded by the cognoscenti, and a ‘symphonist’ among arrangers, who tends to command the grandest means possible, with his symphonic brilliance nestling cheek-by-jowl with his subtlety of rendering music.
Bill O’Connell, as we now see in solo recital is a not-so-different musical entity at all. His symphonic sense is in full bloom as he winds up into a coiled spring released, fingers splayed, onto the keyboard of the piano. His performance sizzles and insinuates like a shroud dramatically uplifted. Vibrant and affectionate expressivity abounds in colours and clarity, and in the sheer sonic voluptuousness of his passacaglia-like playing. The sheer musicality of his performance in the breathless silence of the Carnegie Farian Room at the Nyack Library is beautifully captured on tape from the sophisticated and sonorous style right down to the near-indiscernible details of his breathtaking arpeggios with which he often peppers the music – especially on “Gibberish”, a tune that is full of wit and nonsense verse in the grand manner of a musical Dr. Seuss.
Blessed with a restless left hand, Bill O’Connell shows his mastery of rhythm, so much so the music-making is controlled and rounded, and bathed in the warmth, glow and articulate refinement of perfect pianism. Among the disc’s biggest ear-openers is “Dindi”, which the pianist infuses with magical patterns and motifs that take over the narrative flow with a combination of lyrical prowess and near-vocal flexibility. Consider also ‘Afro Blue’ in which Bill O’Connell sustains the epic story and emotional mood of the music while bring the poetic imagery of the subtext of slavery to freedom to life.
It would also be no exaggeration to say that Bill O’Connell takes the composerly fingers of each of his hands he manages to himself disappear into the music, emerging every so often but only for a bit of air and then to subsume his musical personality in spinning a delicate musical spell. Such a musical hex is conjured a little more extravagantly, however, in “Monk’s Cha Cha” that turns from a cha cha cha into a mambo and remains continually kinetic right until its magical dénouement. Throughout Bill O’Connell turns in a virtuoso performance that simply dazzles in the sheer accuracy of pitch and rhythm, and musicianly dynamism that has made him a force to reckon with among pianists playing for a generation.
Track List: The Song Is You; Dindi; Monk’s Cha Cha; It Could Happen to You; Zip Line; Afro Blue; Hither Hills; Gibberish; White Caps.
Personnel: Bill O’Connell: piano.
By Dan Bilawsky
Pianist Bill O'Connell has long been valued for his blazing Latin chops, enlivening bands lead by flutist Dave Valentin and legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria as a sideman and delivering his own burning leader dates on a variety of respected imprints in recent times—Zoho, Challenge, and Savant, to name just three. He's been a steady though occasionally under-documented force in the music for decades, putting his dependable pianistic stamp on many absorbing projects, but he's never delved deeply into the art of solo piano on record until now.
Monk's Cha Cha is a first..and a first-rate first at that. Recorded live at the Carnegie-Farian Room in Nyack, New York, it presents O'Connell all by his lonesome on nine songs that highlight his command over the keys. Everything you could possibly look for in a pianist—taste, clarity of touch, technique, wit, erudition, harmonic depth, lyricism, rhythmic authority—is here for the taking. It may have taken Bill O'Connell a long time to go it alone for a full-length album, but it was well worth the wait.
In keeping with his usual preferences, O'Connell touches on originals, Latin classics, and Great American Songbook standards. He delivers a balanced program that relies on heart and fire. "The Song Is You"—one of O'Connell's favorite vehicles for exploration in his practicing for the past four decades—serves as a spirited entryway. Clearheaded melodic play, chordal brilliance, left hand punctuation, scampering right hand runs, and dancing lines all add up to a profoundly thrilling six minutes of music. Then there's a delightfully dreamy "Dindi" that serves as a nod to vocalist Jon Lucien, the primary inspiration behind this performance; the sly and spry title track, feeding off of the Latin lexicon, blues language, and direct references to The High Priest of Bop; a breathtaking, star-kissed take on "It Could Happen To You" that mostly shows O'Connell in a pensive state; and a trip down the pianist's "Zip Line" at the album's midpoint, delivering the rush of adrenaline and thrills connected to the titular activity.
The back end of the program opens on an excitable take on Santamaria's "Afro Blue," serving as a fitting tribute to O'Connell's erstwhile employer and a testament to the pianist's powers of invention and development. The originals that follow—a gorgeously contemplative "Hither Hills," the brief and fidgety "Gibberish," and a dangerous, playful, and grooving "White Caps"—show an artist at the height of his powers. Some of this music appears elsewhere in O'Connell's discography—"Monk's Cha Cha" opens the program on Rhapsody In Blue (Challenge Records, 2010), "White Caps" closes things out on Imagine (Savant Records, 2014)—but you've never heard those songs like this before. Bill O'Connell breaks new ground here and it's a thrill to bear witness to his magic.
Track Listing: The Song Is You; Dindi; Monk's Cha Cha; It Could Happen To You; Zip Line Afro Blues; Hither Hills; Gibberish; White Caps.
From Classicalite, by Mike Greenblatt, Jan 20th 2016
Pianist/Arranger Bill O'Connell learned his lessons well while in the respected bands of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria [1917-2003] and Puerto Rican flautist Dave Valentin after working early in his career for Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker [1929-1988]. He's a hard bebopper (as evidenced by the embedded video below) but his previous three Savant Records CDs explored jazz, salsa and samba in duo, trio and larger band contexts. Still, they have to be seen now as but a prelude to Heart Beat, a masterwork of percolating percussion and memorable melodic strains that add drama and more syncopation than you can shake a stick at on seven originals and two blistering covers.
Just dig that interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters Of March" as the well-worn and beloved melody gets inundated with the kind of creativity and sophisticated nuance that brings it to a whole 'nother level. These boys sound hungry, with something to prove: trombonist Conrad Herwig, Steve Slagle on reeds, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Richie Barshay, Latin percussionist Roman Diaz and vocalist Melvis Santa (on three of nine tracks) go wild. Their take on Wayne Shorter's "ESP," especially, makes this Miles Davis track sound positively rejuvenated.
If it's the musicians who make a band, then this aggregation is, indeed, All-Star. Herwig spent his formative years sliding that 'bone back and forth for Eddie Palmiere. O'Connell and he are Rutgers profs who bonded over their love of that Afro-Cuban clave. It shows. Yet they're not above some exotic mysticism on the trance-like spirituality of "Eyes Of A Child."
"Awani," in just over five minutes, traverses bebop-laced funk. "Tabasco" is hot, as it should be, hotter than when O'Connell recorded it originally 25 years ago with Valentin. The title tune is a percussion manifesto putting the taut skin of the conga through a series of slaps, hits and bangs worthy of Chano Pozo [1915-1948] in his Dizzy prime. More mysticism ensues on closer "Peace On Earth," written forObatala, a Santeria deity.
Heart Beat is the real thing. O'Connell , 62, may be a native new Yorker, but he has an old Latin soul.
Every album this bandleader puts out is a world of splendor in and of itself, from Zócalo’s exotic sonic locales in 2013 to Imagine’s re-orchestrated Latin-bop just a little over a year ago.
Now, the pianist/composer and his Latin Jazz All-Stars have Heart Beat, another winner coming out on January 15, 2016 (Savant Records).Read More
It’s opening night, mid-week, mid-recession, early pandemic. A sparse but good-natured crowd has gathered at the Jazz Bakery to see Triple Play, a Latin jazz trio featuring pianist Bill O’Connell, flutist Dave Valentin and percussionist Munyungo Jackson. O’Connell and Valentin have been playing together for nearly thirty years, but the first set at a new venue is always a feeling out process. Sound, spacing, acoustics, all come into play, as well as integrating the talented Jackson, with his full arsenal of congas, timbales, cow bells and more.Read More
Pianist/Composer Bill O'Connell has long been a vital part of the New York Jazz scene. It is refreshing to see that he is given a rare opportunity to lead an ensemble on Triple Play, an unusual trio setting for O'Connell along with flutist Dave Valentin and Latin percussionist Richie Flores.Read More