Harold O'Neal
Man on the Street

Harold O’Neal is a tough artist to pin down. Is he the stylish hard-bop reviver responsible for the well-received 2010 effort Whirling Mantis? Or the pianist who, on a period instrument, channeled the impressionists on his quirky 2012 solo album, Marvelous Fantasy?

On Man on the Street, he’s mostly a bopper, leading a strong quartet including saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Marcus Gilmore through a selection of originals. The songs aren’t terribly original. With Strickland showing off his vertical range on tenor, the John Coltrane influence is prominent on “The Dean of Swing”—on which O’Neal makes like McCoy Tyner with his dark, dancing chords—and the title track, a sweet-tempered modal workout. But however derivative these tunes are, there’s plenty of life in them. The melodies kick in instantly and maintain their grip with a lean efficiency. O’Neal learned how to keep a tight rein on the rhythms from saxophonist Bobby Watson, in whose band he started out, and lets his own freewheeling instincts as a pianist take it from there.

The solo piano piece “Gossamer’s Lilt,” on the other hand, showcases O’Neal’s classical bent—if you can classify this coming together of Ravel and the tremulous keyboard theme from Battlestar Galactica as classical. “Childlike,” a duet with Strickland (on soprano), also combines a soundtrack-like melody and rhapsodic keyboard touches. That the two sides of O’Neal’s talent come together as agreeably as they do on Man on the Street is a credit to his likability. If he ever figures out how to synthesize styles, he’ll be that much more impressive.

Originally published in November 2013

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