Bill O’Connell’s Hope for Change
By Ted PankenIMay. 9, 2022
Best known as an inspired hybrid of modernist jazz and Afrodiasporic idioms as an improviser and composer, Bill O’Connell moves in a funkier direction of black American music on Change Is Gonna Come, his first recorded encounter with the master drummer. Steve Jordan. For his 17th album (and eighth for Savant), the 68-year-old pianist called on Jordan, bassist Lincoln Goines, conguero Pedrito Martinez and saxophonist Craig Handy last May.
The O’Connell-Jordan relationship dates back to 1980, when they played on a month-long tour with Sonny Rollins, the dedicatee of “Sun For Sonny,” a frenzied calypso. They got on well and stayed in touch, sharing the bandstand at a few benefit concerts — including a 2015 Rollins tribute — sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, where Jordan served as musical director. At some point in 2020, after COVID-19 hit, O’Connell told his old friend, “We’re not all getting any younger. We have waited 40 years. Let’s make a record together.
O’Connell spoke via Zoom from his home in Montauk, Long Island, where he conceptualized the original seven and three O’Connellized covers that make up the proceedings. “Steve is a very broad guy,” said O’Connell, who harnesses Jordan’s idiomatic expanse and interactive instincts for what Hank Jones once called the “perfect tempo.”
Opening the “Moment’s Notice” set, Jordan establishes a thematically cohesive mix of backbeats and swing, allowing O’Connell – his flowing chops and personal refraction of Hancock-Tyner-Evans-Corea vocabulary on full display – to allow the flow to breathe. Jordan personalizes the feel of Elvin Jones 3 on “Enough Is Enough,” soulful blues underscored by Craig Handy’s moaning tenor solo; funks on a stop-time treatment of “My Foolish Heart”; and switches seamlessly with Martinez between Afro-Latin and swing on “Chaos,” a rambunctious 5/4 theme with Eddie Palmieri-esque overtones.
“Chaos” evokes O’Connell’s long association with the Fort Apache Band, which he joined in 1990 as a replacement for Larry Willis to lyrics by Steve Berrios, a close friend from when he played with Mongo Santamaria between 1977 and 1979. As Santamaria had done in the early 1960s with Herbie Hancock, he also encouraged O’Connell to write, and he placed O’Connell’s “Little T” Hancockish on the Grammy-winning Amanecer. “I came to music from a humble place, with respect, not being a Latino,” O’Connell said. “Steve respected that, but he also heard how great my eyes were to stretch out with Latin jazz.”
O’Connell joined Santamaria a few years after arriving in Manhattan’s East Village from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he had studied modern European canon. “I was being a classical composer,” O’Connell said. “But jazz combined the sophistication I was looking for in music with the earthiness and swing – I was determined to pursue and grow as a jazz pianist.” He studied with Richie Beirach; networked with up-and-coming talent like Jim McNeely, Michael Wolff and Dennis Irwin at his college roommate’s Union Square loft; and integrated himself into New York’s then-vibrant Latin scene, learning the art of montuno construction.
Throughout the 1980s, O’Connell shied away from leading sideman gig security ambitions with, among others, Jon Lucien, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Astrud Gilberto, Gato Barbieri and Dave Valentin (an employer and colleague until his died in 2017). “I wanted a balanced life, between family and children, and the New York side worked for me,” said O’Connell, who has raised four children with his wife of 33 years. “I’ve conducted gigs occasionally, but not out of necessity. I’m a writer. Ideas for new projects and new music are always in my head, and to do what I wanted I had to throw myself more by myself From 2000, I constantly expressed what I was thinking. comics
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