Devotees of the incredible vivacity of Afro-Caribbean music will be spoiled for choice of a favourite moment (or moments) on this inspired 2019 release by Bill O’Connell and The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble, Wind Off The Hudson. There is so much technical mastery of the form – its rhythms and harmonies – all of which are displayed as the highest level by the pianist and the stellar cast of musicians that he has gathered to interpret some of his own repertoire as well as interpretations of works from grand masters such as Duke Ellington (“C Jam Blues”), Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) and Tito Puente (“Oye Como Va”). Also, significantly, this is a debut recording for the group of musicians, some of whom might never before recorded as a group with others, or with Mr O’Connell as well.
Editor’s Pick · Featured Album · Bill O’Connell and The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble: Wind Off the Hudson
Clearly virtuosity is not so much the music’s aim as expressivity, yet Mr O’Connell plays with brilliance throughout. No Less impressive is the compelling interaction between Mr O’Connell and the excellent Afro-Caribbean Ensemble, clearly a crucial component in the pianist’s music that is symphonic in design. The ensemble’s contributions to the dialogue are always carefully shaped and fully responsive to the subtle nuances in the pianist’s phrasing. Another striking aspect of the recording is the fact that one is hardly conscious of the pianist’s innate virtuosity almost throughout this performance; indeed he virtually eschews the kind of dazzle that piano-playing leaders and conductors usually bring to Afro-Caribbean music, especially when the careful density of the arrangements makes way for the familiar descarga component of the music.
Mr O’Connell’s own solos are short, usually made up of two-handed melodic stabs and chordal thrusts onto the keyboard, designed to keep the ensemble invigorated and leading into reeds, winds and horn solos by Craig Handy – who appears here on alto and soprano saxophones – as well as the broad tenor of Ralph Bowen, the rumbling baritone of Gary Smulyan, the veritable flights of Andrea Brachfeld’s flutes, Alex Sipiagin’s smouldering trumpet and flugelhorn and Conrad Herwig’s elegant growling trombone. Meanwhile keeping it all rocking, swaggering and shimmering in the pocket are the combined forces of rhythmists Lincoln Goines (bass), Robby Ameen (drums) and the incomparable Román Díaz (congas). Leading from the front is O’Connell, who keeps this music profoundly beautiful whether he is creating a tornado on “Wind Off The Hudson”, or letting things simmer on the Holy Rollin’ mystique of “Gospel 6”.
Meanwhile Bill O’Connell also makes the strongest possible case for his mastery of composition and the re-invigoration of harmonic statement. His reconstructions of “C Jam Blues”, “Perdido” and “Oye Como Va” are far from mere re-arrangements; rather they appear to be absolutely new and imaginative architectural wonders located from their original idiomatic landscape into a wholly new musical topography. Deploying the widest possible range of colour, dynamics and articulation he brings a surprisingly varied degree of emotions to the music – these compositions as well as his own – adopting (in the case of “C Jam Blues” especially) daringly faster speeds and wildly inventive rhythms at every turn. This has the desired effect of ratcheting up the tension between the piano and the rest of the harmonists – notably in “Perdido”, with the shifting-sands in the harmony that recalls both “Giant Steps” rolled into an etching by Maurits Escher – which, in this instance, is worked to maximum dramatic effect. You may not find a better recording in this musical space this year or the next.
Tracks – 1: Wind Off the Hudson; 2: Gospel 6; 3: Jerry’s Blues; 4: I Don’t Have the Answer: 5: Oye Como Va; 6: Perdido; 7: Got Cha; 8: Transition; 9: C Jam Blues; 10: Discombobulation
Personnel – Bill O’Connell: piano, compositions and arrangements; Andrea Brachfeld: flute (1, 3, 5, 7–10) and alto flute (4); Craig Handy: alto saxophone (1-3, 6, 7, 9, 10) and soprano saxophone (8); Ralph Bowen: tenor saxophone; Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone; Alex Sipiagin: trumpet and flugelhorn (4); Conrad Herwig: trombone; Lincoln Goines: electric bass; Robby Ameen: drums; Román Díaz: congas (1 – 3, 5 – 10)
Released – 2019
Label – Savant Records
Runtime – 1:01:29