How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Following a three-decade run as a pianistic purveyor of jazz that leans occasionally toward the Latin side and six progressively interesting solo efforts, pianist Bill O'Connell's Triple Play, his first effort for the Savant label, might very well be the best thing he's ever done. Here, he's assembled a trio that includes longtime musical associate Dave Valentin on flute and percussionist Richie Flores on congas, producing a profound, heart-pounding, foot-stomping, hand-clapping document of jazz that's inventive, involving and just plain fun to listen to.
As a complete rarity in jazz, the piano/flute/percussion triumvirate is nothing less than inspired. But it couldn't work without the high quality of the participants. Players of this caliber ensure that things never get too pat or too pretty. O'Connell's easy-going command of the proceedings make certain that the music and the musicians are always communicative for whichever groove they choose to explore (and, no, it's not always Latin). Valentin plays throughout with a fiery abandon that he has never so consistently shown before. He's a marvel here and absolutely justifies the liner note author's claim that he "is pound for pound, the best flautist in this country."
Triple Play makes as much of a case for Valentin as a first-tier jazz player as it does for, O'Connell, the requisite leader, as a composer of merit and distinction. O'Connell has a long stretch of interesting compositions ("Lost Voices," "Subway Six" and "Easy Street" among many others) and about half of the compositions heard here are his. Of particular note is the way O'Connell blends familiar styles into new patterns and changes direction (or key) just when it sounds like a song is going down a predictable path.
Consider "Flying By," where he uses a happy funk base to enliven a melancholy bossa melody, or "Second Son," which sounds like Vince Guaraldi in a battle royal with Dave Grusin (who helmed many of Valentin's earlier recordings). Valentin, O'Connell and Flores provide enough verve and vivacity to keep the tunes biting and buoyant. The composer's engagingly dark Latinate "Machu Picchu" and the poetically elegiac "A Call For Sanity" are particularly strong compositions, and deserve wider recognition beyond this disc.
O'Connell and company hit an apex with Milton Nascimento's "Cravo e Canela," an overwhelming choice for any pianist who has heard Herbie Hancock play on the original. Pianist O'Connell acquits himself grandly and fashions a statement that's remarkably all his own. The program winds down with a surprisingly somber duet for piano and flute on Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (O'Connell was in Santamaria's band in the late 1970s), cleverly revealing its charms as a reflective jazz ballad, and Valentin's march-like "Dansette," showing how subtly O'Connell weaves Latin, bop and modal extremes together in a playful musical quilt.
Triple Play is, indeed, a triple treat.
Track Listing: Triple Play; Flying By; Machu Picchu; A Call for Sanity; Just In Time; Second Son; Cravo e Canela; You
Personnel: Bill O'Connell: piano; Dave Valentin: flute; Richie Flores: percussion.