Being a Latin jazz pianist with an Irish last name is hardly the fast track to stardom, and Bill O’Connell is such a consummate pro that his work rarely screams for attention anyway. But after hearing O’Connell consistently, albeit subtly, steal the show away from the likes of Joe Lovano and others on Conrad Herwig’s The Latin Side of Joe Henderson last month, it’s past time to give O’Connell his considerable due. He’s worked for artists ranging from Mongo Santamaria to Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and the Fort Apache Band. But shaping a band is his forte.
Imagine is his 11th disc as a leader. He produced it, arranged all nine tunes and composed seven of them. As is usually the case with O’Connell’s projects, it seamlessly melds both sides of the Latin/jazz continuum in a durably enjoyable manner.
O’Connell’s prime grooves are either hard bop with some sophisticated Latin spice or various Latin polyrhythms with stylish bebop chord changes. The best of these on Imagine are “Jigsaw” (which, as its title implies, has knotty time signatures) and “Stepping Stones.” The lone ballad is a sincere, moving tribute to the late percussionist Steve Berrios, “Missing Mr. Berrios,” with distinctive horn voicings (an O’Connell trademark) and the piano carrying the bulk of the tune (a rarity). O’Connell’s writing always provides simpatico showcases for his frontline personnel, and saxophonist Steve Slagle and trombonist Conrad Herwig, returning from last year’s Zocalo album, once again take advantage. Percussionist Richie Flores, a cohort of O’Connell’s for decades, and bassist Luques Curtis likewise foster continuity, leaving drummer Richie Barshay as the only new member of the sextet.
O’Connell takes chances on the two cover songs, with mixed results. He fits the title track into his Latin jazz template, but the hallowed roots of “Imagine,” with its lofty idealism and martyred composer, John Lennon, make radical tampering a dicey proposition. By contrast, the other cover is a bold overhaul of a hoary standard — “Willow Weep for Me” as a sassy cha-cha. Hit or miss, you can expect that as a composer, interpreter, arranger or pianist, O’Connell will never simply “mail it in.”