Tight: Johnny O'Neal Trio in Concert

Samuel Chell BY

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Johnny O'Neal knows the difference between 'keeping time' and 'swing,' which is as much a visceral, sensuous experience as a state of mind.
Johnny O'Neal Trio
BoJazz Productions

"It don't mean a thing..." If Duke Ellington's criterion for meaning were to be strictly enforced, most of the sounds that pass for music wouldn't rise above nihilism. Pianist Johnny O'Neal knows the difference between "keeping time" and "swing," which is as much a visceral, sensuous experience as a state of mind. Moreover, the experience of freedom that's shared by musicians and listeners alike when the music is truly in a "groove" paradoxically has to be earned—through rigorous discipline and unfailing attentiveness. Only when the bassist's walking stride is in lockstep with the drummer's hi-hat—as perfectly synchronized as a drill team—can the magic occur, an alteration of body chemistry capable of producing a physical high. That's the primary musical meaning of the word "tight," and on this so-named session, the musicians get it right.

Selected to play the role of Art Tatum in the recent, acclaimed movie Ray (2004), O'Neal is a seasoned pianist (another member of the impressive lineage of keyboard players from Detroit) who, in addition to performing with musicians such as Ray Brown and Sonny Stitt, has paid his dues with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Milt Jackson's quartet. Although he's "self-taught," with roots in gospel music, he acknowledges indebtedness to not only Tatum but Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner while showing the influence of numerous other mainstream players, perhaps above all Gene Harris (the medium-tempo cookers) and Ahmad Jamal (the instant contrasts in rhythm and tonal textures).

Before each of the selections on this concert, the filmmakers cut to a personal reflection by the artist or, in one instance, pianist-contemporary Mulgrew Miller. Prior to the opener, "Just You, Just Me (better known to Monk fans as "Justice or "Evidence ), O'Neal stresses the importance of establishing the right tempo and time-feel even before a note is played. He then allows us to see the result, understating the melody with middle-register block chords before unleashing bass and drums to cut a deep, irresistible groove. Moving from 2/4 to a solid, in-the-pocket, walking 4/4 foundation, the trio immediately provokes excitement while inspiring the listener's trust. (These are guys who have absorbed the musical message of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and company!) It's a groove the pianist returns to on his own infectious blues, "Intellectual Grease."

Soon it becomes apparent that, like Peterson, O'Neal has chops to burn. He's a two-handed pianist whose left hand frequently doubles the right's melodies over the entire range of the keyboard, moving in opposite as well as parallel motion. In addition, he shows he's capable of being a completely autonomous player, a virtual one-man orchestra. On Erroll Garner's "Dreamy" his right hand evokes the rhapsodic romanticism of the composer; on the up-tempo stomp tunes he resurrects the spirit of Fats Waller with radar-accurate stride stylings and walking tenths in the left hand. On the traditional gospel hymn "Just a Closer Walk," his left hand is a blur as he recreates a romping, stomping jubilee at its climactically frenetic, rapturous high. If all that weren't enough, on the Betty Carter signature piece, "Tight, O'Neal reveals a pleasant singing voice, reminding me of Dizzy Gillespie's but with more resonance and polish.

In one of the interpolated segments, pianist Mulgrew Miller is shown choosing his words carefully as he proclaims O'Neal one of the two most "naturally-gifted musicians of his generation (the other is altoist Kenny Garrett) for three reasons: touch, swing and ballad interpretation. It's perhaps noteworthy that Miller says nothing about pyrotechnics or melodic-harmonic inventiveness. Virtuosic technique is not all that rare among pianists on today's highly competitive scene, where schooled players are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their substitute harmonies and related scale patterns, and where even the most prodigious chops can rapidly wear out their welcome with listeners.

O'Neal seems to sense as much, and to the three strengths that Miller lists, he adds one more: perpetual contrast. In both his programming choices—ranging from Wayne Shorter to Whitney Houston—as well as his individual arrangements, the unexpected is the rule rather than the exception. The trio requires no more than a knife-edge instant to switch from pianissimo to fortissimo and vice versa. A single song will employ several different tempos and rhythms, each catching the listener by surprise. The solo work is distributed freely among the three musicians, though the featured player wisely limits the duration of each of the turns by bass and drums.

Bassist Zack Pride not only walks with ground-shaking authority but solos with refreshing economy and melodic logic. Kermit Walker, while he takes few solos, is one of those attentive, fully engaged drummers ready at all times to contribute to the collective cause. Not only is he responsive to each of O'Neal's rhythmic-dynamic changes, breaks and co-ordinated melodic riffs, but he's capable of taking matters into his own hands, exploding with a vengeance at the least hint of stagnation as a wake-up call to the other two members to snap to the beat.

The audio on the disc is pristine—well-balanced, full-frequencied, spacious yet "present"—and should satisfy even the most fastidious Dolby-ized home-theater audiophile. The filming of the event, on the other hand, raises some significant questions about the best way to shoot music. If the downloading of audio files continues to increase in inverse proportion to diminishing CD sales, the concert DVD could very well become the recording industry's salvation. If so, the strategies employed by the cinematographers of concerts will deserve careful consideration and experimentation.

While favoring two repeated shot setups—a high-angle medium shot from over the right shoulder of the pianist and a medium shot of the pianist's face from the deep end of the piano's soundboard—the filmmakers employ every conceivable angle along with mixed camera styles, rarely observing the so-called 180 degree sightline rule. During a drum break, we get half a dozen shots of the drummer, ranging from medium profile to a close-up POV the percussionist's right foot! In fact, we see the musicians from every point of view with the exception of one: the audience's. The camera in turn rarely holds a shot for more than a few seconds, alternating among shaky, documentary-like hand-held shots and stable tripod set-ups along with zooms, pans and tilts.

It's not a case of the filmmakers not "knowing the score (the cuts are, for the most part, in synch with the music) but electing to employ the camera as a "4th player in the ensemble, as having a role in helping to create as much as record the musical experience for the spectator. It's an approach that probably serves some musical styles and contexts better than others. But were this a concert by an Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans, I couldn't blame a viewer who, after the first ten or fifteen minutes, decided to tune out the video and turn up the audio. In one of the intercut sequences, O'Neal himself reveals that he practices in the dark in order to avoid visual distractions and hear himself better.

If there's a lesson to learn from this latest contribution to a still-nascent multimedia art form, perhaps it's the following: the most memorable shot in the film is a single fixed-angle extended take with the camera maintaining a respectful distance form its subject—Mulgrew Miller. It's an instance where the camera's legerdemain is completely subordinated to the wisdom of the subject's insights.

Tracks: Just You, Just Me; Next Spring; Dreamy; Tight; Saving All My Love for You; Intellectual Grease; Overjoyed; I Concentrate on You; Honeysuckle Rose; Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum; Just a Closer Walk with Thee; That's All.

Personnel: Johnny O'Neal: piano/vocals; Zack Pride: bass; Kermit Walker: drums.

Production Notes: 100 minutes. Recorded at the Western North Carolina Jazz Society, Asheville, North Carolina, in July 2006. Extras: interviews with the musicians and jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller, bio information on the artists.

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