Despite a multifaceted career than spans several decades, pianist Johnny O’Neal is still known to many only for his brief but authoritative appearance as Art Tatum in the Ray Charles biopic Ray. So musically accurate was O’Neal’s portrayal that first-time listeners often expect him to sound like Tatum. Actually, mentor Oscar Peterson is a more direct influence, though it’s impossible not to also hear strains of Bill Evans, particularly in the spare, intelligent accompaniment he provides Danish-born vocalist Tine Bruhn on Nearness, her sophomore release.
The pair met by happenstance during the summer of 2011 when Bruhn’s regular pianist failed to show for a club date, and they’ve been working together since. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that their natural rapport is as affecting as Evans’ with Tony Bennett in the late 1970s.
There’s a two-in-the-morning feel to these 10 sturdy standards, an impression heightened by Stacy Dillard’s atmospheric tenor saxophone on four tracks. Bruhn’s voice, faint traces of her Nordic ancestry still evident, is fjord-cool yet shot through with a buttery warmth. As is often the case with singers adopting English as their second language, her diction and phrasing are impeccable. But it is O’Neal who, whether sketching a jaunty “Just in Time” or steadily intensifying the ache of “Never Let Me Go,” truly shapes the album’s profound intimacy.