In another era, Johnny O’Neal might simply have been called a cocktail singer, a pianist of grace and taste with a warm, unassuming voice—a welcoming presence who could take any song that came his way, make it his own, get a respectable round of applause and give the patrons a good reason to stay at their tables, boozing and schmoozing.
But there’s more depth to his artistry, and it’s all on display here: the intricacy and commitment in his pianism, the intimacy and conviction in his voice. Yes, O’Neal can seemingly mold anything—he does the Stylistics, Henry Mancini, Kern-Hammerstein and Earth, Wind & Fire in this live-in-studio set—and his own tunes too. A Big Bill Broonzy blues, “Just a Dream (On My Mind),” is laid out nice and easy: The pianist carefully considers his options, accompanied solely by trio-mates Ben Rubens (bass) and Itay Morchi (drums), and is unafraid to leave space where others might opt for flashy fills. The handful of tracks that feature trumpeter Roy Hargrove and/or tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart are more densely packed, with both rhythm section and soloists putting it all out there while staving off bombast.
That EWF number, “After the Love Is Gone,” performed sans vocal, is a real revelation. The familiar hit’s slickness is stripped away and replaced by a simplicity and down-hominess designed to convince the listener there’s no one else in the room—except, perhaps, a lover. “Sunday in New York,” on the other hand, switches gears and livens things up considerably. You can bet Johnny O’Neal’s used that one to fill a dance floor a few times.