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.