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Bill O’Connell and the Latin Jazz Allstars: Imagine

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It’s curious that Bill O’Connell’s 11th album as a leader is titled after the revered John Lennon anthem covered within, because it’s atypical of most of his work. O’Connell’s stock-in-trade is bop-tempered Afro-Cuban rhythm, and few traces of such surface during the elegant float through the song. But what the pianist and his sextet do with “Imagine” instead is more valuable than giving it a stock clave coating. About midway through the nearly nine-minute rumination, following saxophonist Steve Slagle and trombonist Conrad Herwig’s subtle, repeated restating of the theme, O’Connell carries it away, his impeccably phrased solo leaving Lennon far behind. By the time Slagle returns to wrap it, the reimagining of “Imagine” is unrecognizable, becoming this sextet’s own, and a highlight of the set.

O’Connell’s original compositions are handled with similar spirit and inventiveness. The ballad “Missing Mr. Berrios,” a wistful tribute to the late drummer and percussionist Steve Berrios, again leaves it up to the hornmen to provide shape, O’Connell only detouring from the simple chord pattern that’s been providing the foundation briefly enough to let us know he’s there. Of the uptempo numbers, both “Stepping Stones” and especially the closing “Whitecaps” afford the brawny rhythm team of bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Richie Barshay and percussionist Richie Flores (the last two returnees from O’Connell’s previous effort) ample opportunity to flex. That latter tune is closer to what we’ve come to expect from Bill O’Connell, but by the time we’ve gotten to it, he’s made it clear that perhaps what we should really expect from him is only the unexpected.

Originally Published