Bill O'Connell's version of the standard "Willow Weep For Me" is one of those rare items: playing totally against type as a Latin burner with that classic, mesmerizing two-chord piano vamp, the only thing missing would be someone actually trying to sing this lament amidst the happy sprawl of players and arrangement O'Connell's dished up. Unlike other gestures into Latin-land that sprout from tune to tune with other jazz musicians, what makes Imagine notable is the combination of writing with strong solos, song and solo, one after the other. And then there's the group vibe.
One might recall a younger McCoy Tyner with a more syncopated buzz putting something like this out, back when he was regularly using horns (late '60s, early '70s), the ferocity and ingenuity of O'Connell's charts and his (perhaps) pent-up-and- released work on piano a thing to behold.
Then there's the rest of them. Dig the rhythmic roller-coaster fanfare that concludes this set with "Whitecaps." Drummer Richie Barshay and longtime collaborator Richie Flores burn things up inside and outside the sizzling horns of trombonist Conrad Herwig and Steve Slagle (playing both alto and soprano saxophones). There isn't a wasted note even as you get the feel that this is one loose session. With bassist Luques Curtis tethering it all together, one is left wondering where these guys are gigging next. (Hint: January 6 at New York City's Birdland.)
This hourlong set includes material for late-night soirees, such as O'Connell's floating opener "Optimism" in 7, something fit for some busy slow dancing and featuring brief intros via a powdery buff from Herwig, a little alto juice from Slagle, along with the leader's very musical turns up and down the keyboard along, a spell with Curtis rounding things out; some more slow-dancing music with another uncharacteristic (and almost unrecognizable) cover, this time across some jangley swing through John Lennon's "Imagine"; the undanceable but still engaging "Shaman's Dance"; a bit of tasty up-tempo swing with O'Connell's lively "Stepping Stones," once again showcasing some hot alto and trombone playing, more delicious ruminations from the pianist, the solos short, to the point, the music seemingly on its merry way anywhere with nary a chance for the listener to breath let alone ponder what's up; "Missing Mr. Berrios," "Jigsaw" and "25 Years" alternately offering more Latin sizzle, sweet balladic playing and swinging groove.
Apart from "Willow" and the title track, all the music derives from O'Connell's swirling imagination and lively pen. A refreshing outing with no filler or dead zones, Imagine (his 11th as a leader) may not be a groundbreaking outing, but it's certainly pure fun, very, very musical and brimming with life.
Optimism; Stepping Stones; Imagine; Shaman's Dance; Missing Mr. Berrios; Jigsaw; 25 Years;
Willow Weep For Me; Whitecaps.
Bill O'Connell, piano; Conrad Herwig, trombone; Steve Slagle, soprano and alto saxophones;
Luques Curtis, bass; Richie Barshay, drums; Richie Flores, percussion.