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.