Bill O’Connell and the Afro Caribbean Ensemble
Wind Off the Hudson
Surely Bill O’Connell’s name would not immediately scream “Latin Jazz” to those unfamiliar with his career. Yet, for over four decades now, O’Connell has been considered one of the top pianist/composer/arranger/band leaders in NYC in both jazz and Latin jazz. Importantly, this could be the liveliest, most energetic album not only in Latin Jazz but in any form of jazz heard this year. O’ Connell has been working on this record, Wind Off the Hudson, now the better part of a decade and gathered a ten piece unit comprised of some of the top Latin jazz players – Andrea Brachfeld – flute (tracks 1, 3, 5, 7–10), alto flute (track 4); Craig Handy – alto sax (tracks 1-3, 6, 7, 9 & 10) soprano sax (track 8); Ralph Bowen – tenor sax; Gary Smulyan – baritone sax; Alex Sipiagin – trumpet, flugelhorn (track 4 only); Conrad Herwig – trombone; Lincoln Goines – electric bass; Robby Ameen – drums; Roman Diaz – congas (except track 4). These musicians (ACE – hort for Afro Caribbean Ensemble)) cook which is even more remarkable considering it’s the first time they’ve played collectively as a group and with O’Connell.
O’Connell takes economical solos, mostly stabs and chordal thrusts with his piano as if to urge the other players on, whether it be ensemble work or solos across his seven originals and classics from Duke Ellington (“C Jam Blues”), Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) and Tito Puente (“Oye Como Va”). The inclusion of these recognizable tunes was a brilliant stroke. This album is not about him but about the glorious effect of this music, when played by the best. Each of the reed and horn players have distinctive styles and plenty of soloing space. The rhythm section is ever present, especially Diaz on congas. It can be turbulent as in the opening title track or simmering soulful as in “Gospel 6” or beautifully elegant as in the ballad “I Don’t Have the Answer.”. The covers are arranged so uniquely that one may not immediately recognize Ellington “C Jam Blues” with its accelerated tempo and imaginative rhythm patterns. Even the Puente tune, with the flute carrying the usual vocal parts, has such a wide range of dynamics and rhythms that one could get lost before the well-known chorus kicks back in.
Without devoting several paragraphs to O’Connell’s well decorated career in Latin Jazz, suffice it say that once he joined Mongo Santamaria’s group as the pianist in 1977, he’s never really looked back. He’s been most often associated as the leader of The Latin Jazz All-Stars, a big band. In addition to his roles as a stellar composer, arranger, leader and pianist, O”Connell is a four-time recipient of the “Jazz Writer of the Year” award from SESAC, the performing rights organization. O’Connell is on the jazz faculty of Rutgers University. As a member of a small fraternity of non-Latinos who have made significant contributions to the Latin jazz movement of recent decades, his importance cannot be overstated. As longtime associate Dave Valentín points out, “I’ve never heard him take a bad solo. He’s also a wonderful composer. Some pianists are good in one area but weak in the other. Bill is a master of both.”
His arrangements are complex and difficult, requiring the top caliber players he enlists here. We’ve covered several Latin jazz artists and albums in this space, none better than this one.
- Jim Hynes