Bill O’Connell and Latin Jazz All-Stars return on ‘Heart Beat’


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). This one’s a big swanky affair, complete with the same uplifting horn section and O’Connell laying down the comfort zone on his plush piano.

O’Connell plays piano and arranged the nine tracks for his returning band, featuring Steve Slagle (reeds), Luques Curtis(bass), and Conrad Herwig (trombone), with Roman Diaz handling Latin percussion and Melvis Santa, vocals.

Heart Beat is O’Connell’s fourth Savant release, with mostly originals and a smattering of covers, including “ESP” by Wayne Shorter and Jobim’s “Waters Of March.” Otherwise, it’s O’Connell’s gig, and what a cool gig it is.

In the liner notes by Jazziz/Latino writer Mark Holston, O’Connell spends a good chunk of his time lauding the abilities of his fellow musicians in the band. This speaks to O’Connell’s humility and understanding that a bandleader is only as strong as his weakest links. Fortunately, there are no weak links ever, where O’Connell and the Latin Jazz All-Stars are concerned.

“Every member of my group needs to really know the vocabulary of both Latin and jazz idioms,” O’Connell told Holston. “These guys all have a sensitive touch, but can also express themselves dynamically.”

By including Diaz on congas and batá drumming, for instance, O’Connell deepens that Latin connection he loves so well. All of the musicians have strong ties to both Latin and jazz. Herwig, a frequent collaborator, used to play for Eddie Palmieri’s Latin jazz band.

The mark of any outstanding Latin jazz big band is in its ability to fluidly move from the quick steps to the ballads, and maintain the frequency of a hot topic in both. Naturally, O’Connell’s Latin Jazz All-Stars do just that in the Latin-syncopated “The Eyes Of A Child,” closing in on a Cuban batá style, then turning around and surging on O’Connell’s piano roster in the bebop/musica tipica number, “Awani.”

Credit percussionist Diaz for the authencity of the coro, or multi-vocal chorus, and O’Connell for taking it from there, into a very hard-driving jazz romp.

You don’t need to know the different between a montuno and a clave to enjoy this record, either.

As polymorphic as “Awani” and “Wake Up” are, the lively nightclub beats still invite the listener to get up and move, preferably with a partner. “Tabasco” accomplishes the same, albeit at a more intimate pace.

The final beat of “Peace On Earth” seeks to meld the Latin and the jazz O’Connell has been exploring most of his life. The rhythm traverses from a comfortable dance groove to an awkward vocal stab, verging on harmonic dissonance, even disharmonious chaos, but the horn and the percussive backbeats keep the two separate worlds together. O’Connell bridges both with what he knows, a strong jazz background before he falls away in delicious splinters. Those discordant voices are probably enchantress prayers.

For the song is dedicated to an Afro-Cuban, Orisha deity, Obatala. “This is about my conscious awakening. I like mixing a message into the music if I’m feeling it. The vocal and bata drumming give it a spiritual personality. I’m not trying to change the world, just add something positive to it.”

By: Carol Banks Weber  AXS Contributor Jan 3, 2016