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Bill O'Connell: Rhapsody In Blue

Dan Bilawsky By

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Pianist Bill O'Connell is no stranger to the world of Latin jazz. O'Connell has played for greats like Mongo Santamaria and Dave Valentin, but his range as an artist has taken him well beyond a Latin-only orbit. He's worked with jazz heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker, too, but his greatest asset isn't his résumé. O'Connell possesses a classicist's touch that, thanks to a melding of his conservatory training with his life experiences, can be altered at will. O'Connell might be waxing rhapsodic—pun intended—at one point, but in the next moment he might be sizzling through a salsa-like section of music with a more aggressive attack. On various occasions, he manages to conjure these seemingly opposed ideals simultaneously, but none of this comes off as preplanned maneuvering. Good taste, fast reflexes, killer technique and a fluid ability to shift between Latin and swing mediums at will help to make Rhapsody In Blue one of the most engaging and enjoyable Latin jazz records of 2010.

O'Connell and saxophonist Steve Slagle are at the center of virtually all of the action, but the pianist also invites some A-list friends to join him on various tracks. The percussion section adds vibraphonist Dave Samuels and percussionist Richie Flores, on "Monk's Cha-cha" and the title track: the former, opening the album and hinting at Thelonious Monk's music ("Well You Needn't"), while maintaining its own identity; the latter, a Latin-ized take on George Gershwin's classic, featuring some sizzling alto work from Slagle. Trombonist Conrad Herwig makes the most of his appearance on "J-Man," delivering some awe-inspiring solo work.

While the guests add variety to the program, O'Connell doesn't need any big names to carry the load. He delivers expressive tides of sound on ballads ("It Never Entered My Mind"), provides explosive solo work on intense and irrepressible Latin numbers ("Off Center"), and lends solid support for his crew throughout the program. While O'Connell is a tough act with which to keep up, his band more than meets the challenge. Two bassists—David Finck and Luques Curtis—split the material, and both men bring their unique gifts to the table. Finck, with a focused, but not fat tone, is tremendous on his solo spot during "Pocket Change." At the other end of the spectrum, he provides rock solid support during the emotionally riveting "It Never Entered My Mind." Curtis, with a wider sound and affinity for sliding in and out of different grooves, anchors some of the most intense rhythmic numbers on the album.

Drummer Steve Berrios is brimming with energy, taking the band in myriad directions, often within the same song. Slagle is so focused, frenetic and ever-present that he virtually deserves co-billing. During the lone piano-saxophone presentation ("Rose Hill"), the pair is alternately romantic, restless, ruminative and relaxed, but always engrossing.

Like the Gershwin masterpiece giving this album its name, Rhapsody In Blue is a masterful musical creation that transcends any one given style that resides within the work.

Track Listing

Monk's Cha-cha; Pocket Change; Rhapsody In Blue; It Never Entered My Mind; J-Man; Off-Center; Two Worlds; Log-a-rhythm; Rose Hill; Bye Bye Blackbird.

Personnel

Bill O'Connell: piano; Luques Curtis: bass (1, 6-8, 10); David Finck: bass (2-5); Steve Berrios: drums; Steve Slagle: alto saxophone (1-3, 5, 6, 8, 9), soprano saxophone (4, 7); Richie Flores: percussion (1, 3); Dave Samuels: vibraphone (1, 3); Conrad Herwig: trombone (5).

Album information

Title: Rhapsody In Blue | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Challenge Records

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