The Latin-jazz world is a parallel universe to “pure” jazz. Many important musicians cross back and forth between the two (some of them several times a day). Yet many hardcore jazz people quietly assume that jazz is art and Latin is party music.
Bill O’Connell has been one of the leading non-Latino practitioners of Latin jazz since the 1970s. He has collaborated with Mongo Santamaria, Dave Valentin, Paquito D’Rivera, Jerry González and Astrud Gilberto. He also leads his own Latin Jazz All-Stars. His new album reveals a blithe disregard for the presumptive border between Latin and straight-ahead jazz. It is a solo piano recital, beautifully recorded in the excellent acoustics of the Carnegie-Farian Room, a 100-seat space in the Nyack Library in Nyack, N.Y.
Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” gets the snap of the Afro-Cuban cross-rhythms and pulls the anthem blasts of John Coltrane’s version. “The Song Is You” is a dense, full Kern/Hammerstein rendering, but also an ass-kicker that could only come from a pianist who has played with the baddest congueros. Surprisingly, the most memorable pieces are ballads. “Dindi” is one of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s best loved and saddest songs. O’Connell turns it into slow, flowing digressions that pool and release like tragic, sweet memories. Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen are very north-of-the-border composers, but O’Connell plays their “It Could Happen to You” like he owns it, scattering fragments into a large, lush design.
Like so many jazz albums today, this one would have been even stronger if O’Connell had played more songs by great composers and fewer of his own. But “Hither Hills” is pretty, and a ballad. It is a series of rapt diverse gestures unified by a single emotion.