Bill O’Connell Latin Jazz All-Stars: Zócalo

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There are so many reasons why Bill O’Connell’s record, Zócalo recommends itself. The title is charming. The ensemble on the date is what might easily qualify to be a super-group as it features such a stellar cast. Then there is Luques Curtis, one half of the now-famous rhythm section of the Curtis Brothers, a fine young bassist who seems to be in the vanguard of the most exciting new bass players that seem to have come out of nowhere to dominate music growing out of both America and Cuba—including Charnett Moffett and Corcoran Holt, Lázaro Rivero Alarcón and Ángel Gastón Joya Perellada—to name just four. And then there is the music itself—superior to much of what is being played today in any idiom and in every department: melody, harmony and of course rhythmically. The credit for this last aspect of the recording goes to the pianist and arranger Mr. O’Connell himself, who has paid his proverbial dues in many celebrated bands that have headlined major clubs and created many great records with bands that have included the likes of Mongo Santamaria, Dave Valentin, Steve Berrios and others.

It has often been said that Duke Ellington wrote charts for specific members of his orchestra: “Prelude to a Kiss” for Johnny Hodges and so on. Although he never really says so Bill O’Connell seems to be doing the same here. Always tasteful in the music that he brings to the date, Mr. O’Connell appears to have brought charts that were specifically written and/or arranged for saxophonist Steve Slagle and trombonist Conrad Herwig. And the two gentlemen have returned the favour by giving off their respective best: Mr. Slagle on both soprano saxophone and Mr. Herwig on trombone. Of course the glue that binds these lead voices together is Bill O’Connell himself. However, what good is great technique and virtuoso displays on various instruments if the music itself is lukewarm in its essential character. And here is where Bill O’Connell does this record truly proud.

The reincarnation of “Joshua,” from a brisk portrait to a Latin-Jazz chart that summons the orishas is almost magical. The chart, written by that prodigiously talented English pianist and percussionist, Victor Feldman, who originally brought this song to an all-but-forgotten date with Miles Davis and resulted in Seven Steps to Heaven is wonderfully re-imagined but yet is never steered so far from its original so as to be completely unrecognisable. The ballad “For All We Know” has been slowed to such an extent by Mr. O’ Connell that its lyrical (words not sung, here) line strikes deep into the soul. “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” has the feel of being an exuberant mambo, but the call and response of Mr. Slagle and Mr. Herwig and the layered guajeos of a son-montuno that bring a host of other exquisite colours to the chart too. “Zócalo” and “Erik’s Song” provide an insight into Bill O’Connell’s wide ranging proclivities and show him to be a writer of rare and enduring genius. While the former chart tends toward the majestic harmonically and rhythmically, the latter is a wonderful melodically. Being as it is an oblique tribute to the mid/late 19th Century composer Erik Satie, it does capture the theatrical character and ingenious melodic lines which Mr. Satie’s most famous work: “Trois Gymnopedies”.

If there is one more aspect of this album that makes it truly memorable it is the playing of the horn players—Steve Slagle and Conrad Herwig. Both musicians understand what the true nature of orchestral playing is. Both when playing contrapuntally as well as when one follows the other as great horn sections in much larger orchestras (Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra and others led by Paquito D’Rivera come to mind) Mr. Slagle and Mr. Herwig bring something truly special to this small, but memorable unit. And then there is that small matter Bill O’Connell’s playing… His phrasing is exquisite and this has much to do with his ingenious way of approaching the harmonic advancement of melody. His ability to invent phrases so that they can be played short or long with notes that progress arithmetically as well as like exponential equations is truly astounding. This speaks volumes of Mr. O’Connell’s creativity both in the sense that he is a quintessential artist as well as in having that remarkable ability to bring an almost mathematical sense to harmonics and soli. It is as if Maurits Escher was reborn in his playing; he creates situations with such artistic beauty and mathematical exactitude.

Of course none of this music would have been possible without the majesty of Luques Curtis’ playing. What is so astounding is that a player of his youth should have so much genius in his music. The phrase “poeta nascitur non fit” seems to characterize this young man with stunning accuracy. Moreover, to say that Mr. Curtis is “made completely of music” may also be so utterly true that his fellow artists have come to expect nothing but musical magic may be a truism as well. In the past bassists bassists were created like Mr. Curtis and they were named Jimmy Blanton, Charles Mingus, Ray Brown… To say that Luques Curtis was born of that tradition would not be an over statement. Mr. Curtis’ playing on the ballad, “For All We Know” recalls some of Mr. Mingus best work, especially that legendary bassist’s playing on “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”. It is, quite simply, hard to imagine this record with another musician filling the bass player’s chair. And it is also one of the most important reasons why this record should qualify as an essential desert island classic.

Tracks: Big Sur; Joshua; Zócalo; For All We Know; Nothing But The Truth; 21st Century Blues; The Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Erik’s Song; One Note Mambo.

Personnel: Bill O’Connell: piano; Steve Slagle: alto saxophone (1, 3 – 5, 9), soprano saxophone (2, 6 – 8); Conrad Herwig: trombone; Richie Flores: congas; Luques Curtis: bass; Adam Cruz: drums; Román Diaz: batá, vocal (2); Diego López: batá (2); Jadele MacPherson: vocal (2).

Label – Savant Records
Released – September 2013