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John C. O’Leary III: The Sundering (Arbors)

A review of the pianist and neuroscientist's album that delves into personal dualities

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John C. O’Leary III: The Sundering (Arbors)
The cover of The Sundering by John C. O’Leary III

The Sundering, in essence, is one man’s attempt to understand his identity. John C. O’Leary III, an accomplished pianist and neuroscientist, delves into personal dualities—a split heritage, early life in Mexico and a pre-teen move to America, growing up with divorced parents, straddling languages and cultures—and he strengthens his own voice and vision in the process.             

Focusing on evocative solo works, starting with the resolute and richly imaginative “Aurora,” O’Leary illuminates his path and perspectives with remarkable clarity. “Contextual Binding Theory,” linking locations to memories, sets off on a minimalist’s trail that takes on added urgency as it develops and expands. “The Sundering,” with its foreboding and resounding intro, and two distinct tracks titled “Ghosts in the Desert” deal with personal dichotomies and the broader issue of families separated at the border. “Xenographic Barrier,” transplanting thoughts into dancing digits, plays on perpetual movement. “Truly’s Theme,” feeding off of emotion, benefits from O’Leary’s affecting wordless vocals hovering over the mix. And “The Coupling” offers some sense of resolution.

Sprinkling a few four-handed piano performances into the program—one featuring nonagenarian legend Dick Hyman, several with Snarky Puppy’s Shaun Martin—O’Leary furthers his story. “Samba Jelly,” a Hyman original written specifically for this album, spotlights the joy in the art of discovery. A rubato-turned-swinging “All the Things You Are” and spirited “C Jam Blues” give us a few moments to admire O’Leary and Martin’s respective and mutual relationships with the tradition. The latter’s “Focus” demonstrates the power and virtues in vamping structures. And the leader’s “Christmas 1992,” with wordless vocals syncing with piano (and Martin playing a Prophet Rev2), addresses a childhood yearning for a parent apart. Focusing on self-examination while willingly letting the listener in, The Sundering both recognizes and closes the gap separating the personal from the universal.

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Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.