Bill O’Connell is a fine pianist. He is underrated and seems to dwell in the shadows of New York musicians with a higher profile than his. Many of these so-called high profilers may be, in fact, far less talented than Mr. O’Connell. He is blessed with several important pianistic aspects: a fine right and left hand—so important in any idiom, but especially in the Afro-Cuban idiom, where it counts for tumbao, often referred to bass-line rhythm. Mr. O’Connell is also a talented composer. He writes vividly using both visual as well as aural narratives with great intelligence and flair. His musical vocabulary is stylish and vast. His knowledge of both Afro-Latin music as well as Jazz is vast and he is fluent in both idioms. He swings mightily and his shuffle in clave is admirable. There may be a number of New Yorkers who play in the Afro-Latin idiom, but almost none have the skill and beauty of Bill O’Connell. The pianist has been writing fairly prolifically in recent years and has had a string of critical successes as well. Rhapsody in Blue (Challenge, 2010) and Zócalo (Savant, 2013) are two of his recent releases. To add to these fine albums, comes Imagine. All three albums feature music that crosses idioms and is especially rich in the African element. Mr. O’Connell seems to have an affinity for Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean idioms and this language translates into remarkably beautiful motifs in his music.
Imagine is a terrific album. It is robust, one in which the pianist comes out swinging and shuffling in the grand manner. The brevity of the song titles suggest that Mr. O’Connell is more comfortable letting the music unravel the mystery of the song-titles and the music itself. This is an exciting pursuit for the listener, who is constantly beguiled and mesmerised by the music. All of this melody and the consequent harmony come from a deep place in Bill O’Connell’s soul. Notes dally in the air heavy with fragrant and florid phrases contributing to making the experience a very heady one indeed. Mr. O’Connell seems to be much aware of this and plays to the listeners’ need to fall in love with music. This does not mean that he is crass and sentimental. On the contrary his music is emotional and deep. Its beguiling nature comes from the pianist’s pied-piper-like sensibility. His intonation and dynamics deepen the sense of soulfulness and draw the listener in to his world, which is rich in musical metaphor. He shows that he is well-versed in many musical ideologies and he uses them in fleeting allusions to his favourite musicians by quoting subtly from songs. But never does Mr. O’Connell fawn.
There are songs on this album that are so utterly memorable that they must surely find a place in the Afro-Latin canon that seems to be growing in leaps and bounds. “Optimism” is one such song. It does not so much as proceed from its opening phrases to the middle of it and then to a conclusion; it leaps out of the proverbial gate like an excited gazelle. “Missing Mr. Berrios” is heartbreakingly beautiful. “Imagine” is exquisitely recast so that it gets a wonderful shakedown and yet is wistful as well. “Shaman’s Dance” is brisk and hypnotic. And Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep For Me” is dramatically re-imagined in Mr. O’Connell’s favourite idiom. This album is full of beautiful surprises because Bill O’Connell is in the habit of dishing these out rather liberally.
- Artist Profile: Bill O’Connell
- Album review: Jazz Latin
- Album review: Bill O’Connell: Monk’s Cha Cha
- Album review: Bill O’Connell and the Latin Jazz All-Stars: Heart Beat
- Album review: Bill O’Connell Latin Jazz All-Stars: Zócalo
Track List: Optimism; Stepping Stones; Imagine; Shaman’s Dance; Missing Mr. Berrios; Jigsaw; 25 Years; Willow Weep for Me; Whitecaps.
Personnel: Bill O’Connell: piano; Conrad Herwig: trombone; Steve Slagle: soprano and alto saxophones; Luques Curtis: bass; Richie Barshay: drums; Richie Flores: percussion.
Released – October 2014
Label – Savant Records