Tight: Johnny O'Neal Trio in Concert


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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.


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