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Bill O'Connell - Rhapsody in Blue

Bill O’Connell -][- Rhapsody in Blue – [Challenge Records, 2010] – Review

Being somewhat of a novice of Latin jazz, I’m extremely honored to be acquainted with the music of internationally known composer/pianist and native New Yorker Bill O’Connell. After seeing him perform with the phenomenal Dave Valentin back in the nineties I was blown away by his (their) performance. As expected, this remarkable pianist the originator of a freshly painted canvas of ten extraordinary pieces titled “Rhapsody in Blue” on Challenge Records is welcome.

Bill O’Connell return to the studio to conjure up another tenacious blend of Latin Jazz for music aficionados to savor with each listen. Moreover, on his latest endeavor it’s an adventurous harmonic excursion that distinctly reveals why this virtuoso was thoroughly sought after pianist by such luminaries as Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, and long time flutist Dave Valentin. While in pursuit to grow artistically O’Connell didn’t hesitate to answer his calling. Therefore, he sharpened his writing and playing skills as a pianist and later on decided to RSVP his invitation to perform with salsa great Mongo Santamaria. No doubt, this incredible beginning had to be a humbling experience for a young artist.

The opener “Monk’s Cha-Cha,” quickly develops sonically through the depth of his cultural consciousness to express nothing but genuine love for this music. From his vantage point, O’Connell masterfully uncovers a colossus of unrestrained rhythmic passages and alluring melodies accent his affluent expressions through his voice from beginning to the ending note. The quality of these gems needed personal attention therefore he called upon cream of the crop musicians comprised of the talented Luques Curtis (Bass), Steve Berrios (Drums), Richie Flores (Percussion), Steve Slagle (Saxophones), Dave Samuels (Vibraphone) and Conrad Herwig (Trombone).

As I listen, one by one these songs begin to release a combination of irresistible toxins, shapes, chords, melodies and tones that climb beyond measurable heights. The elements of these textures spawn my curiosity about where O’Connell initially came from musically. The seeds of O’Connell’s musicality as a pianist where channeled through the lineage of his classical studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Not surprisingly, with “Rhapsody in Blue” O’Connell made a withdrawal from the deposits of his artistic prowess to become one of the major non-Latin jazz musicians. As time evolve, O’Connell not only attracted to jazz but he was also drawn to the culturally festive sounds of Latin music as well.

What I find most compelling about “Rhapsody in Blue,” is how Bill O’Connell artistically navigates his way through the sea of nuances of his previous songbook to unveil his impressive signature. The melodies sprayed throughout are heighten with authentic intensity, the sounds ascend seamlessly as featured on the fiery “Pocket Change,” next the sweet and sassy samba “Rhapsody” appears to magically seduce the mix and the fervent bop-like grooves of “J-Man” simply want disappoint – followed by transcending exploits of “Two Worlds & Log-a-rhythm” are purely magical.

O’Connell clearly adopts the synergy of his earlier recordings by harboring the familiar yet immense flavor and complex undercurrents with lots of zeal. When I hear music of this magnitude, I can’t help but celebrate the beauty it embellishes! “Rhapsody in Blue” encompasses the pearls, wisdom and tireless passion that drives artist of composer/pianist Bill O’Connell’s caliber. He simply, always and foremost came to score, play and record another eloquent, flawless and a stunning recording from the Latin Jazz perspective for music enthusiasts. —Rob Young | The Urban Flux