IN A BLUE MOOD
by Ron Weinstock
Bill O’Connell and the Afro Caribbean Ensemble The Wind Off The Hudson
Bill O’Connell and the Afro Caribbean Ensemble
The Wind Off The Hudson
Bill O’Connell first big break in the New York scene came playing with Mongo Santamaria in 1977. Latin Jazz has always been a significant part of his musical world along with straight-ahead jazz over the past four decades. This newest release is in the Latin jazz vein with the Afro Caribbean Ensemble. Its members include Andrea Brachfeld – flute and alto flute; Craig Handy – alto sax and soprano sax; Ralph Bowen – tenor sax; Gary Smulyan – baritone sax, Alex Sipiagin – trumpet and flugelhorn; Conrad Herwig – trombone; Lincoln Goines – electric bass; Robby Ameen – drums; and Roman Diaz – congas.
With names like Handy, Smulyan, Sipiagin, and Herwig in this little big band, one’s ears perk up. Add the leader’s arrangements and own playing, and one has expectations for a fabulous recording. These expectations are met starting with the title track with its Afro-Cuban grooves and a charging, robust baritone solo from Smulyan against the percolating heated rhythms and the many-faceted orchestration of the horns followed by O’Connell’s driving solo and Handy adding a short chorus. O’Connell’s “Jerry’s Blues” is a display in the integration of rhythm and melodic invention as the baritone sax and rhythm section plays a rhythmic motif as Sipiagin blasts off with some fiery trumpet followed by some surging tenor sax and more brilliant piano and a tight drum solo.
As good as the originals are, the covers stand out from the originality and inventiveness of the arrangements and the superb playing starting with Tito Puente’s classic “Oye Como Va,” taken at a slightly slower pace than the better-known versions by Puente and Santana. Besides Brachfeld’s sonorous flute, Smulyan digs deep on the baritone sax. O’Connell provides a sterling orchestration for Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” with Handy and Bowen but playing quite dynamically on alto and tenor respectively. O’Connell is brilliant sounding part McCoy Tyner and part Eddie Palmieri, and Herwig takes an energetic gruff-toned solo.
The most radical arrangement is on Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” which many people would not guess the tune if listening in a blindfold test. The arrangement remakes a song that historically has been a jam vehicle into an orchestrated showcase for band members which includes trading of fours by Smulyan and Bowen as the others provide atmosphere. O’Connell’s again solos brilliantly, even inserting a phrase from Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” before the horns play a riff during the drum and percussion solo that takes this to its close. Also fascinating is the rendition of John Coltrane’s “Transition,” a composition from Coltrane’s freer recordings. O’Connell’s orchestration provides the foundation for terrific solos from Handy (on soprano sax), Smulyan and Herwig before the leader’s solo backed by the high-level ensemble playing by the band. It is another first-rate performance on a superlative recording that is likely among the best albums of this year.
I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is “Oye Como Va” from this CD.