Bill O’Connell and Latin Jazz All-Stars vamp out in ‘Zocalo’

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JAZZIZ writer Chris Heim once marveled of Bill O’Connell: “But in the end, when you add up all the little parts — the range of music, the skill and chemistry of the players, the many small pleasures in arrangement and execution — ‘Triple Play’ adds up to a surprising high-scoring set.” Heim was referring to the arranger/composer’s April 2008 album [Savant], featuring the excellent trio set of pianist O’Connell, flutist Dave Valentin, and percussionist/conga player Richie Flores — but the compliment applies equally well to O’Connell’s recent, October 5, 2013 release, Zócalo.

The New York-based artist broadens the playing field with his Latin Jazz All-Stars, but the wild, wonderful, informed tangents remain the same. The vibe of this nine-track mambo is all Latin sexy jazz, with great flecks of astute ingenuity in the spectacular solo sections of the percussive, horn, and piano. The almost structured outline of every O’Connell foray calls to mind a classical upbringing (he studied early on at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music). The colors felt in the extended jams, however, reflect the musician’s love of salsa and jazz, the styles he gravitated toward since 1977 when Mongo Santamaria held his attention for two fruitful years, then Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins.

As an internationally favored songwriter/arranger, O’Connell is just as amazing — on his own and with many jazz performers comfortable in the spotlight: Gato Barbieri, Fort Apache Band, Kenny Rankin, Astrud Gilberto. He’s prominently listed as an arranger/pianist on trombonist Conrad Herwig’s 2010 CD, The Latin Side Of Herbie Hancock, and a TV documentary profiling Tito Puente.

The guys on O’Connell’s record — the Latin All-Stars — live up to their moniker. Experts in their field and on their instruments, they combine to enliven the entire recording experience, as if playing live, 15 feet from the stereo, playing off each other, yet never off-script. They build their own studios of existence within O’Connell’s concise, clarified framework, sometimes to mind-blowing degrees.

They are bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Adam Cruz, conga player Richie Flores, saxophonist Steve Slagle, trombonist Conrad Herwig, Roman Diaz on batá and vocals, Diego López on batá, and vocalist Jadele McPherson.

Zócalo — named after the popular Mexico City main plaza, an historic gathering place since the Aztecs — incorporates O’Connell’s unique touch to classic covers, as well as introduces some amazing original compositions, showcasing his feel for melody and harmony interplays.

In “For All We Know,” O’Connell simply transforms Donny Hathaway’s cover into another, exquisite creature of elusive beauty and resistance. O’Connell’s light, deft touch on the piano drives this instrumental, with matching saxophonic curvatures. They manage to gather the melody in their musical embrace and take impressions of it, rather than go for mimicry, so the listener gets a faint, teasing suggestion. This serves to amplify the entire theme of the song — that love is at once fleeting and forever — better than almost any other cover attempt out there.

“The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is insanely original, brought down to a serious level by O’Connell’s mixing and matching of heights, rolls, and back-and-forth pacing. Instead of the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical romp, the melody takes turns with a shimmying salsa rhythm, an entirely different show altogether. The saxophone swirls really bring the Cuban club to the forefront, and are the highlight of this danceable tale.

The show-stopper is “Nothing But The Truth.” The totally Latin number blazes with hyper-kinetic beats with all of the percussive permutations in play, as O’Connell flies, in keeping with the immeasurable steps. The magnificent brass (sounds so much like a trumpet here) cuts through the jargon to dizzying heights. At about the 2:19 mark, O’Connell intensifies a series of flights, returning to a point of origin again and again for a hypnotic spell — lightning speed, every note in place and on point. Richie Flores uses his congas to beat all the points of light into submission in a surging performance solo.

O’Connell uses the same intensifying hypnotic returns in the title track with less effectiveness. While much of the song explodes, a little after the halfway mark, his piano skips on a refrain that begins to sound repetitious.

For a full buffet of Latin jazz, this is the one to put on the turntable at full volume.

Bill O’Connell + the Latin Jazz All-Stars’ Zócalo album was released September 2013 on Savant Records.

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