Hot Wax: Album Reviews – May 2017

May 1, 2017

Bill O’Connell
Monk’s Cha Cha – Live at the Carnegie-Farian Room (Savant)
Bill O’Connell – solo piano

Pianist Bill O’Connell is something of a self-effacing jazz player – though he’s been active since the 1970s, he’s helmed only about a dozen albums since 1978. But O’Connell has kept very busy, accompanying Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker, and been a member of the bands of Mongo Santamaria, Jerry Gonzalez, and the recently passed Dave Valentin. He’s a team player, known more for being a bandleader, arranger and composer than soloist [dramatic pause] – until now. Monk’s Cha Cha finds the strands of O’Connell’s music – bebop, Afro-Cuban styles, playing for vocalists, the mainstream jazz piano tradition – intertwining for the benefit of one and all.

Many jazz aficionadas are accustomed to hearing Santamaria’s standard “Afro Blue” roaring toward the heavens by a band (especially versions by John Coltrane), but here O’Connell goes on the 88-keys-wide tightrope. He breaks it down in a series of investigative runs and de- and re-constructs it but it never quite becomes a “ballad,” nor does he ramp it up to manic overdrive. O’Connell makes it dreamy and reflective, yes, but he also maintains the forceful rhythmic sweep of the tune. It’s still a thrill ride, but a very different one. The original “Hither Hills” is a luminously lovely rhapsody that, like the best ‘70s solo flights of Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, sounds both like a rambling (in a good way!) stream-of-consciousness jaunt and a slice of fully formed lyrical balladry. Lest you, Dear Reader, think that solo piano albums are often for white wine relaxation and midnight contemplation (let’s face it, lots of solo 88s discs can fill that need/niche)…you could not be more wrong. The rollicking “White Caps” is a fairly brilliant original, something of an unofficial tribute to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell as bits of Bird ‘n’ Bud tunes are slyly interspersed into a boisterous, slightly percussive, bracing blitz of bebop. Mr. O’C needs no bass and drums to swing like unto a full band. On the other hand, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi” is given a poignant yet slightly whimsical treatment – here O’Connell communes with his inner Bill Evans (gorgeously introspective) with a slight detour to Thelonious Monk-land (minimum notes for maximum effect. (And is that a quick quote from “Theme from ‘Midnight Cowboy’” near the end?)

Throughout, Bill O’Connell avoids the snares into which some solo recitals can fall (there’s no pretty and/or abstract meandering/water-treading to be heard nor technique for its own sake). The sonic quality of this in-concert recording is you-are-THERE crystal-clear. Just when perhaps you thought you had “enough” solo piano albums in your collection, you find that you need one more. (Mark Keresman)

Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan
Small Town (ECM Records)
Bill Frisell – guitar
Thomas Morgan – double bass

Bill Frisell loves melody, and for that we can all be grateful. On Small Town – a duet recording with the bassist Thomas Morgan, recorded at the fabled Village Vanguard in New York – the immensely influential guitarist trains his sights on the sturdy melodic frameworks of eight pieces, each characteristically distinct from the other. If, due to the general consistency of Frisell’s artistry over the course of a forty-year career, we naturally come away with yet more respect for the elegance and invention of his playing, it’s his adoration of song in its most elemental state that we initially sense and respond to. Penetrating improvisation will grow out of a piece, but first Frisell makes sure we pay proper homage to the sturdy bones of a work. This so-called anti-guitar hero has never been in a rush to show you all he can do with his instrument–in fact, his attention to space, the notes he chooses not to play, are a major factor in his eminence. For Frisell, pulling your ear to a song’s melody, in and of itself, comes off as a professional mission as well as a personal delight.

Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago,” the signature piece of the now iconic trio that united the late drummer with Frisell and Joe Lovano, may the most evocative and mysterious original jazz composition of the past thirty years, and Frisell honors it with subtle yet probing incisiveness. Lee Konitz’s “Subconcious-Lee” (based on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love”) offers a chance for some careful bebop from the duo, but more effective are Frisell’s own “Song For Andrew No. 1” and “Small Town”– strikingly melodious compositions that once again remind us of another of Frisell’s most conspicuous talents: his knack for turning out memorable, often downright gorgeous, tunes. “Poet/Pearl,” credited to Frisell and Morgan, shares this same accessible and sturdily constructed compositional quality.

The quirky ringers are equally enchanting. “Wildwood Flower,” the Carter Family favorite, brings out the country gentleman in the eclectic guitarist, while “What a Party,” (a 1961 Fats Domino hit) is a gently grooving delight. John Barry’s “Goldfinger,” delivered with not a whiff of irony upon it, is offered up as a moody gem, allowing Frisell to probe its contours with customary élan.

Morgan shadows Frisell brilliantly throughout, deferring to the star attraction, yet never retreating to a subservient role. Morgan’s attention to detail – with detail being everything to his duo mate, a most exacting of instrumentalists – makes him an invaluable partner. His every solo is commendable, but Morgan’s greatest strength lies in his mind-meld ability to complement the guitarist. Frisell leaves plenty of room – it’s one of the glories of his overall aesthetic–but Morgan is too much the sensitive artist to load things up with cluttering notes. Utilizing an earthy, resonant tone and guided by unerring instincts, Morgan impresses as an understated marvel of support. Small Town may keep the pots simmering rather than ever boiling, but the chef d’oeuvre these two noncompetitive masters deliver up is as delectable as it is satisfying. (Steve Futterman)

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