Bill O’Connell and the Latin Jazz Allstars – Imagine [TrackList follows] – Savant SCD 2145, 59:23 [10/21/14] ***1/2:
(Bill O’Connell – piano, arranger, producer; Conrad Herwig – trombone; Steve Slagle – soprano and alto saxophone; Luques Curtis – bass; Richie Barshay – drums; Richie Flores – percussion)
Pianist Bill O’Connell knows how to play both sides of the coin. On the hour-long Imagine, his 11th release as a leader, O’Connell performs Latin rhythms with polished bebop changes and hard bop-tinted material with stylish Latin flavoring. The nine tracks (seven by O’Connell plus two covers) offer a first-rate infusion of tempting, mainstream jazz which swings and spirals with a cordial charm. O’Connell’s sextet is a strong one and includes his longtime associate, percussionist Richie Flores; saxophonist Steve Slagle, trombonist Conrad Herwig, bassist Luques Curtis (see the Curtis Brothers, Orrin Evans and Gary Burton)—all three were featured on O’Connell’s previous outing, 2013’s Zócalo; and drummer Richie Barshay, whose credits include Fred Hersch and Sunny Kim.
O’Connell’s record is balanced by mid-tempo numbers, upbeat tracks and late-night cuts. Bubbly CD opener “Optimism” has short introductory statements from Herwig and Slagle, and then O’Connell turns up the heat a bit as he strides across the keyboard, and Curtis follows the course with a sympathetic acoustic bass segment. From there, the Latin tinge and the boppish blaze escalate on the driving “Stepping Stones,” which is highlighted by scorching alto sax and trombone (here, Herwig brings to mind J.J. Johnson). Then the rhythm section takes the spotlight, as O’Connell adds swooping scales and chords and Flores, Barshay and Curtis provide a scintillating, fast-paced backdrop. When it’s over nearly seven minutes later, you might find yourself out of breath. The bright “Jigsaw” is equally enthusiastic, and pulsates with vim and verve. When the sax and trombone get going, it’s a wonder the temperature can get any hotter.
O’Connell is not a one-dimensional guy, though. There’s beauty and emotive feelings in the touching ballad, “Missing Mr. Berrios,” a whetted tribute which honors his close friend, the late percussionist and drummer Steve Berrios. The group interplay is brilliant, with memorable solos from Herwig, O’Connell and Slagle. Another dedicatory cut is “25 Years,” a captivating composition which marks the quarter-century anniversary of O’Connell and his wife. The Latinized tune was inspired by their commemorative trip to the Andes, and aptly mixes a South American undercurrent with a cheerful spirit which evokes a couple romantically skipping lightly across a dance floor. Something silver may have been appropriate to celebrate 25 years of marriage, but “25 Years” is so much better. Ironically, listeners might have some trouble trying to dance to “Shaman’s Dance,” since it has a tricky time signature and a dynamic arrangement which bounces from one element to another. This one has distinctive horn and piano improvisations which showcase the players’ adeptness and adroitness. O’Connell is someone who evidently likes to surprise people and throw away certain expectations. That idea is particularly prominent on the two covers. O’Connell recasts John Lennon’s “Imagine” into a medium-tempo rendition where the band shifts the melody around so much its barely recognizable, but in doing so the six musicians create a tune which carries a new personality while it retains some traces of Lennon’s hit song. Anyone interested in what O’Connell has achieved can hear a sample of the title track here. O’Connell’s other translation is the standard “Willow Weep for Me.” While most who redo this familiar gem keep it at a low boil, O’Connell goes the opposite direction. He arranged this as a rushing, Latin jazz blast, with a compulsive, two-chord piano vamp, an impish rhythmic foundation and sweltering sax and trombone surges. There was a lot of jazz which probably dropped beneath listeners’ radar at the end of 2014. This Savant release is one worth locating, especially if you’re in the mood for some outgoing, affable Latin/bebop music.
TrackList: Optimism; Stepping Stones; Imagine; Shaman’s Dance; Missing Mr. Berrios; Jigsaw; 25 Years; Willow Weep for Me; Whitecaps.