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Bill O'Connell and The Afro Caribbean Ensemble: Wind Off The Hudson

Dan Bilawsky By

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Bill O'Connell has had plenty to say with his piano in recent times, basically knocking out a session a year for the Savant imprint. And with an exploration within the solo format, a trip with an augmented trio, and ventures promoting a medium-sized conglomerate of heavy-hitters, he's certainly traversed quite an expanse there. But, as Wind Off The Hudson clearly shows, he's still got room grow.

The Afro Caribbean Ensemble—his largest on-record gathering of late, and a group indicative of a broadened view point and reflective of his work as the director of a similar outfit at Rutgers University—is something like his Latin Jazz All-Stars. It's just bigger and badder. A dectet with a massive sound, it can swell to the sonic proportions of a big band, as demonstrated on the lead-off title track; or it can slim down to the size of a combo, as heard periodically on the soulful follow-up, "Gospel 6."

These ranks contain enough firepower to overtake small countries—the presence of saxophonists Craig Handy, Ralph Bowen and Gary Smulyan, plus trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and trombonist Conrad Herwig, should paint a clear enough picture of strength—and each member of the band is put to good use. Need proof? Check out the hot-and-heavy rhythm section of O'Connell, bassist Lincoln Goines, drummer Robby Ameen and percussionist Roman Diaz backing a smoking Sipiagin (and other soloists) on "Jerry's Blues," a paean to the late Jerry Gonzalez. Or take note of the way Andrea Brachfeld's alto flute adds different weight and textural dimensions to the poignant "I Don't Have The Answers." It's one thing to have all of this serious talent in one place, but it's entirely something else to know how to deploy it all, as O'Connell most certainly does.

Those first four numbers—all originals—point toward a fertile mind constructing ideas from a relatively clean slate. But O'Connell is just as likely to recontextualize or personalize classics as he is to build from scratch. Adding an artful rendering of "Oye Como Va," a "Perdido" with a vibrant new coat of paint, a "Transition" that underscores Eastern melodic allure with Latin jazz grounding, and a choppy, contrapuntal "C Jam Blues" operating far away from Ellington's vision, O'Connell stakes his claim as an arranger of note.

On Wind Off The Hudson, it's hard to know whether to be most impressed with O'Connell's imaginative pen, fast-thinking fingers or smart contracting skills. But the album doesn't require a choice. Part of the beauty is being able to, at once, bask in the beauty of the writing, the heat provided by the man and the burn delivered by his esteemed band mates.

Track Listing: Wind Off The Hudson; Gospel 6; Jerry's Blues; I Don't Have The Answer; Oye Como Va; Perdido; Cot Cha; Transition; C Jam Blues; Discombobulation.

Personnel: Bill O'Connell: piano; Andrea Brachfeld: flute (1, 3, 5, 7-10), alto flute (4); Craig Handy: alto saxophone (1-3, 6, 7, 9, 10), soprano saxophone (8); Ralph Bowen: tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Alex Sipiagin: trumpet, flugelhorn (4); Conrad Herwig: trombone; Lincoln Goines: electric bass; Robby Ameen: drums; Romaz Diaz: congas (1-3, 5-10).

Title: Wind Off The Hudson | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Savant Records

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