Harold O’Neal: Man on the Street

Harold O’Neal is a tough artist to pin down. Is he the stylish hard-bop reviver responsible for the well-received 2010 effort Whirling Mantis? Or the pianist who, on a period instrument, channeled the impressionists on his quirky 2012 solo album, Marvelous Fantasy?

On Man on the Street, he’s mostly a bopper, leading a strong quartet including saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Marcus Gilmore through a selection of originals. The songs aren’t terribly original. With Strickland showing off his vertical range on tenor, the John Coltrane influence is prominent on “The Dean of Swing”-on which O’Neal makes like McCoy Tyner with his dark, dancing chords-and the title track, a sweet-tempered modal workout. But however derivative these tunes are, there’s plenty of life in them. The melodies kick in instantly and maintain their grip with a lean efficiency. O’Neal learned how to keep a tight rein on the rhythms from saxophonist Bobby Watson, in whose band he started out, and lets his own freewheeling instincts as a pianist take it from there.

The solo piano piece “Gossamer’s Lilt,” on the other hand, showcases O’Neal’s classical bent-if you can classify this coming together of Ravel and the tremulous keyboard theme from Battlestar Galactica as classical. “Childlike,” a duet with Strickland (on soprano), also combines a soundtrack-like melody and rhapsodic keyboard touches. That the two sides of O’Neal’s talent come together as agreeably as they do on Man on the Street is a credit to his likability. If he ever figures out how to synthesize styles, he’ll be that much more impressive.