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 is known for a lyrical approach that 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. 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. ~ Alex Henderson
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Jazz - Released June 1, 2004 | Random Chance, Inc.
Historically, the term Latin jazz has been used to describe a mixture of hard bop or post-bop and Afro-Cuban rhythms (son, cha-cha, mambo, guaguancó, danzón, etc.). But Latin music is more than Afro-Cuban music; it's also everything from Argentinean tango to Spanish flamenco to Mexican mariachi. So technically, someone who fuses jazz with tango or flamenco (or Brazilian samba, for that matter) is playing some form of Latin jazz. The Latin Jazz Fantasy that pianist Bill O'Connell shares with listeners on this 2003 date is primarily an Afro-Cuban jazz fantasy -- and yet, Latin Jazz Fantasy isn't stereotypical Afro-Cuban jazz in the way that Tito Puente, Poncho Sanchez, Cal Tjader, Eddie Palmieri, and Mongo Santamaria have epitomized Afro-Cuban jazz. Latin Jazz Fantasy doesn't contain any bolero versions of "My Funny Valentine"; O'Connell doesn't provide son, cha-cha, or mambo arrangements of Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis pieces. Leading a variety of post-bop groups -- sometimes a lavish orchestra, sometimes trios, duos, quartets, or quintets -- O'Connell doesn't beat listeners over the head with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Instead, he applies them in a very subtle fashion on original material that ranges from the cerebral "Wind It Up" to the melancholy "After the Dust Settled" to the playfully funky "Fast Eddie" (which has a definite Weather Report/Joe Zawinul influence and underscores the fact that fusion can affect acoustic-oriented post-bop projects -- at least compositionally). O'Connell incorporates Afro-Cuban music the way he incorporates European classical: with restraint, understatement, and subtlety. Anyone who expects Latin Jazz Fantasy to use Afro-Cuban rhythms in as overt and obvious a way as a typical Sanchez album is bound to be disappointed, but for those who appreciate and understand the album's overall concept -- post-bop with subtle Euro-classical and Latin references -- Latin Jazz Fantasy is easy to enjoy. ~ Alex Henderson
Bebop - Released April 15, 2008 | Savant
Bill O'Connell's seventh CD as a leader is full of catchy themes in a Jazz Latino (as opposed to Latin jazz) setting, according to liner note writer Felipe Luciano. The pianist, who is well accompanied by flutist Dave Valentin and Latin percussionist Richie Flores, starts off with his intense, driving "Triple Play." Things cool with the hip, infectious "Flying By," with Valentin's playful flute dancing over O'Connell's soulful Latin groove. The pianist's "A Call for Sanity" has a wistful air with Valentin switching to alto flute, while "Second Son" is a sauntering gem with its share of surprising twists. O'Connell also engages each player in a duet. Flores is his partner for a ridiculously fast romp through the standard "Just in Time," as the pianist tears into the piece with a well-disguised improvised introduction. Valentin is on hand for the slow, rhapsodic treatment of Mongo Santamaria's signature tune, "Afro Blue," though the familiar rhythm is omitted, opting instead to emphasize the melody in a more free-form manner. However one labels the style of jazz featured in Triple Play, there's no doubt that this CD will stand the test of time. ~ Ken Dryden
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