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Johnny O’Neal: Pianist, Singer, Storyteller

Before & After listening session with the veteran pianist/singer sampling cuts from Art Tatum, Tommy Flanagan and others

Ashley Kahn and Johnny O'Neal in Before & After listening session
Johnny O’Neal (right) and Ashley Kahn listen and chat at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nice, France

If you haven’t caught Johnny O’Neal lately, you really should. The Detroit-born pianist and vocalist, whose fabled history includes a stint as a Jazz Messenger in the ’80s and an appearance as Art Tatum in the 2004 movie Ray, and whose personal health battles appear to be mostly behind him, is hale and confident. Onstage, his attitude is sunny, funny and positive. The 61-year-old fits better these days into the brocaded jackets and hats he often wears, and his well-known command of postbop piano and sense of dynamics are stronger than ever—all energetic leaps and fluid rhythmic shifts, as he laughs and grunts and gasps in mock surprise. Then he’ll close his eyes, downshift the tempo and out comes that blues-soaked voice. With his buoyant personality and an unpredictable set list filled with obscure blues, ballads and more recent popular songs he chooses to ballad-ize—Nat Cole to Donny Hathaway, Chaka Khan to Eubie Blake—it’s a joy to hear. Even when he repeats himself, it never gets old.

O’Neal’s continuing revival benefits from the support he receives overseas—like his European agent, Giulio Vannini, who helps put him on festival stages where he charms audiences of hundreds with nuanced music normally suited for more intimate venues. Those rooms include Manhattan clubs like Smoke, Smalls and Mezzrow, which serve as his home base and where his gigs consistently sell out. His new album for the Smoke label, aptly titled In the Moment (and reviewed here), features his regular trio with bassist Ben Rubens and drummer Itay Morchi, two young players who bring the needed fast-thinking skills to creatively respond to the impromptu, mid-song twists on which O’Neal’s performances thrive. The recording also boasts contributions from trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Grant Stewart.

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