The title of pianist Bill O’Connell’s latest release suggests that it was created as a direct response to the political, racial, and pandemic-related upheaval that the nation has faced over the past two years. A Change Is Gonna Come is a take on the current climate of America set to the kind of eclectic, impassioned groove that O’Connell has had a knack for building as a leader and sideman for the last 40-plus years. Known largely for his Latin-jazz background, having sharpened his chops in the late ’70s with legendary Cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaría, O’Connell has authored an outstanding catalog of compositions and maintained a connection to straight-ahead jazz via runs with Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Emily Remler.
On this record, he leads a stellar group that includes saxophonist Craig Handy, bassist Lincoln Goines, and drummer Steve Jordan. The recording unfolds with the John Coltrane tune “Moment’s Notice,” which Jordan dominates with his pulsating groove. There are a few standards on the record, such as “My Foolish Heart,” and on them (as on “Moment’s Notice”) the band adds fresh coats of paint to the original surface. O’Connell’s originals, meanwhile, are a floorshow for compositional genius. “Sun for Sunny” is an awe-inspired tribute to Sonny Rollins; Handy, a Rollins acolyte, lights the calypso-tinged tune on fire. “Covid Blues” reflects the uncertainty and chaos of the pandemic, but on “Chaos,” O’Connell’s approach is more playful. He leads Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with an elegant delicacy, and his own compositions showcase a more optimistic view of what may be ahead.