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Bill O'Connell

A veteran jazz pianist from New York City, Bill O'Connell is a gifted soloist and bandleader known for his long-running Latin jazz big band. As a player, O'Connell's lyrical approach owes something to Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock. However, many of his albums have underscored his talents as an arranger, bandleader, and composer, drawing inspiration from Latin greats like Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri. A regular on the New York scene since the 1970s, he has led small trio dates like 2008's Triple Play with flutist Dave Valentin, as well as sessions with his Latin Jazz All-Stars group, including 2013's Zócalo and 2016's Heart Beat. Three years later, the pianist debuted his Afro Caribbean Ensemble on Wind off the Hudson. In 2022, responding to the political, social and environmental turmoil the country was experiencing, O'Connell released the topical album A Change Is Gonna Come. Born in New York City on August 22, 1953, O'Connell grew up in suburban Port Washington, Long Island. After high school, he studied classical piano at Oberlin College in Ohio. He returned to New York in the early 1970s and initially made his name as a sideman, working with such luminaries as tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Chet Baker. O'Connell also gained acceptance in the vibrant Latin jazz and salsa scene playing with famed Cuban percussion master Mongo Santamaria (with whom he recorded 1977's Amanecer), as well as trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band. Over the years, he also crossed paths with flutist Dave Valentin, Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and others. As a leader, O'Connell debuted in 1978 with an LP titled Searching on the small Inner City label. He then joined longtime associate flutist Valentin's band, touring and recording for several years before returning to his solo work with 1993's Lost Voices on Creed Taylor's CTI Records (with Taylor himself serving as producer). Several of O'Connell's big band albums also appeared in the mid-'90s with Jazz Alive and Unfinished Business. He also continued working with Valentin, and played on albums by Charles Fambrough, Jon Lucien, and others. In the 2000s, O'Connell signed with the independent Random Chance Records (a small, New York-based label with a fondness for jazz and blues). Black Sand, his first album for Random Chance, came out in 2001; that record was followed by Latin Jazz Fantasy in 2004. Four years later, he returned with the trio album Triple Play, featuring Valentin and percussionist Richie Flores. Rhapsody in Blue followed in 2010. A year later, he delivered the follow-up to Triple Play, Triple Play Plus Three, which showcased a rotating lineup of guests including Valentin, clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, vibraphonist Dave Samuels, and others. O'Connell then joined his Latin Jazz All-Stars for a series of albums including 2013's Zocalo, 2014's Imagine, and 2016's Heart Beat. He delivered the intimate solo concert album Monk's Cha Cha: Solo Piano Live in 2017. The following year, he issued Jazz Latin, which featured guest spots by trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Craig Handy, trombonist Conrad Herwig, and others. In 2019, he debuted his Afro Caribbean Ensemble with Wind off the Hudson. In January 2022, O'Connell responded to international turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, political and social strife with A Change Is Gonna Come. Titled after Sam Cooke's best-known single, O'Connell's quintet on the date included bassist Lincoln Goines, drummer Steve Jordan, percussionist Pedrito Martinez, and guest Craig Handy on tenor and soprano saxophone.
© Alex Henderson /TiVo
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