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Piano Virtuoso Johnny O’Neal Performs With Trio in Old Lyme

Jun 24, 2015

Johnny O'Neal's career has earned him, if not fame and fortune, much respect for his stellar work.

Although Johnny O’Neal is a veteran pianist with prodigious chops and a singer with a rough-hewn kind of soulful elegance, he’s never been elevated to a household name, a superstar niche that supporters like Oscar Peterson and Mulgrew Miller felt he should have achieved many years ago.

What Peterson, Miller and many other O’Neal admirers have appreciated in his robust piano playing, warm way with ballads and hip scat singing, you can hear for yourself as the 58-year-old pianist/vocalist  leads his trio on Friday, July 3, at 8:30 pm at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street, Old Lyme.

A performer who loves to both entertain and connect personally with his audience, O’Neal will be accompanied by bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Charles Goold. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Suffering unjustly from a long and woeful lack of recognition -- a common hazard of the trade for even the most deserving jazz musicians -- O’Neal has also run head-on into severe, even life-threatening setbacks in his personal life and career.  

Whatever pain or frustrations he’s endured, however, his journey has been an uneven but often exciting one that has earned him, if not fame and fortune, much respect for his stellar work with an array of genuine household names like Clark Terry, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson and Sonny Stitt. In the early '80s, he thrived on a prestigious two-year stint as the pianist for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Blakey’s piano bench proved to be a launching pad to great success for a litany of superb Messenger alumni including, among many others, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller and Keith Jarrett.

No collateral stardust from his many associations with big stars, however, ever really rubbed off permanently on O’Neal. This despite a handful of quality recordings and his outstanding reputation among his peers.  Musicians and critics have even spoken of his virtuoso playing in the same breath when paying homage to such titans in the jazz piano pantheon as Oscar Peterson and the godlike Art Tatum. (Even the immortal Fats Waller asserted that Tatum was God.)

In the 1980s just when things seemed to be going well for him in New York City, O’Neal was severely injured in a mugging in 1986 just outside of his Harlem apartment. Traumatized and disgusted, he precipitously pulled out of New York City. It was like bailing out of the center of the jazz universe, guaranteeing a free-fall from grace to obscurity.  

The mugging incident occurred just one year after O’Neal had made his Carnegie Hall debut as the opening act for Oscar Peterson, one of his staunch loyalists.  Even aside from making his Carnegie debut, O’Neal was working frequent gigs with big-name performers for whom he was a first-call pianist.

The self-taught piano genius faded from view for almost a quarter of a century after the mugging convinced him to make his exodus from New York. Becoming a kind of nomad, he worked in relative obscurity in other parts of the country, light years removed from the media attention and the world class club scene in the Big Apple.  

When you hear the irrepressible O'Neal play or sing today, you hear absolutely no sign in his music of any of his life's travails.

O’Neal, who is bisexual (another drawback in the traditionally macho jazz world), was first diagnosed with HIV in 1996. As he became increasingly ill and unable to work regularly, he lost his health insurance and couldn’t afford the medication he desperately needed. His health was ravaged. His weight dropped by 100 pounds.

In 2010 he returned to New York and began working in clubs again as he regained his health. With his nimble fingers, mind and spirit back up to their signature velocity, he began getting press notices. Most dramatically, there was a breakthrough article in 2014 in the New York Times trumpeting his inspiring comeback. That article, he has acknowledged, helped put him back on the map in the jazz world, maybe even resurrecting his dream deferred of someday achieving wide recognition.

Johnny O'Neal, world-renowned jazz pianist.
Credit John Rogers

In a recent major triumph, O’Neal made an acclaimed live recording in 2013 at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, leading his trio featuring bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Charles Goold. Live at Smalls was released on SmallsLIVE, the live recording label for the jazz club where he’s worked regularly since his return to New York.

O’Neal’s most famous, celebrity moment in his up-and-down career occurred when he got to appear as Art Tatum, his idol since his boyhood days in Detroit, in the 2004 biopic of Ray Charles’s life, Ray, which starred Jamie Foxx in the title role.

O’Neal appears on-camera in a nightclub scene playing a full-bodied, Tatumesque rendition of Yesterdays. He landed the choice cameo appearance through the recommendation of his friend Oscar Peterson, one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century. Peterson himself was considered by many critics to be the heir apparent to Tatum’s title as jazz’s supreme grand master pianist.

Credit Brad Berger

When you hear the irrepressible O’Neal play or sing today, you hear absolutely no sign in his music of any of his life’s travails. Self-expression abounds. Self-pity doesn’t exist. Never less than celebratory, his piano and vocal solos, in fact, always look for the silver lining even in the sorrows of the blues.  

O’Neal’s "Live at Smalls" album demonstrates what Mulgrew Miller called his “million dollar touch” with its sound and “natural feeling of swing.”

You can hear elements of Tatum and Peterson, along with hints of other great stylists ranging from Phineas Newborn to Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner and others. Bud Powell, a virtuoso of bebop piano, was another idol from early on. A basically self-taught player, O’Neal has absorbed everything from stride to bebop and more. Yet he’s woven all these various elements into an individual, thickly textured, technically dazzling sound on piano.

As a singer, he gets a lot out of his gruff, hoarse sounding, instrument-like voice. Sometimes it sounds like an unlikely seeming but pleasant enough blend of Mose Allison and Joe Williams, albeit a Williams without his spot-on operatic pipes. O’Neal’s fluent, unforced scatting is reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie’s, with far less bravura than Diz, of course, but nonetheless quite musicianly and melodic.       

Because he took his first steps into music as a child playing gospel piano in church, he’s quite fluent in soulful expression, which may account for why the blues sounds as if it were his first language.

On piano, he gets down to serious, stomping business on the CD with tunes by Billy Pierce and Walter Davis. For all his blues hipness and scatting savvy as a singer, he’s also an unabashed sentimentalist, a romanticist who loves to caress a ballad for all its worth and more.    

His basic music credo is best and most succinctly summed up by the title of his comeback CD’s grand finale: "Let the Good Times Roll."

Side Door’s Star-Studded Weekend

As part of its star-studded summer package, The Side Door this weekend features two young, preeminent horn players, with tenor saxophonist JD Allen leading his trio on Friday, June 26, and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt performing with his quartet on Saturday, June 27. Downbeat time for both shows is at 8:30 pm Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Jeremy Pelt, jazz trumpeter.
Credit Philippe Levy-Stab

Pelt is back for an encore with his band featuring the Italian-born pianist Simona Premazzi, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Victor Lewis. Allen, who’s also welcomed back once again to the shoreline club, stretches out with tight, crackling backup from the classically trained bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston.

In another giant step in Allen’s ascension as the successor to the crown as king of all resourceful, big-toned tenor players inspired by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, the saxophonist/composer has a new, regal release out called Graffiti (Savant Records), in which he soars with his two terrific, telepathically tuned-in collaborators, August and Royston. Because of his big, bold approach, Allen recalls the power and the glory of Trane and Sonny. At the same time, however, he’s a ruggedly independent thinker and progressive, even philosophical artist entirely in his own right.

Right from his new CD’s opening selection, a duo tenor/drum track called "Naked", Allen immediately launches into an explosive mix of thematic invention and emotional intensity. What sounds like a clarion call summoning of the troops to a dramatic showdown, he displays majestic might sharply seasoned with an emotional, plaintive edge. With the bass sitting out, "Naked" embodies the pure, unadulterated sound of tenor and drums linked in an exciting colloquy, a prologue to the full trio’s upcoming crackling conversations.

On his tune "Jawn Henry," Allen makes his horn dramatically sing the praises of John Henry, the mythic Steel Drivin’ Man and super hero of the famous African-American folktale of man pitted against the machine. Third Eye, another Allen original, is a spiritual pilgrimage to transcendental vistas explored in the tumultuous 1960s by Coltrane and Albert Ayler.

Saxophonist JD Allen, recently released a CD entitled "Grafitti."
Credit James Mahone

In brief comments that preface each of his nine original compositions, Allen describes his intentions and gives hints on his working strategy with his trio mates. Here’s a sample of some of his reflections on  his compositions and his overall philosophy of how to create new, challenging music that makes freedom ring and emotion resonate.

“Everything we play should be about the blues. In my opinion, the most unselfish thing that a jazz musician can do for a listener is to play the blues. When all the makeup of the day comes off, we all have the blues in common,” Allen said in his most striking, musical and humanitarian insight.

On another original called Sonny Boy, he writes: “This is my attempt at trying to phrase and play the way John Lee Hooker sings.”

And on his "Indigo (Blue Like)", he adds: “Sometimes I feel that the most avant-garde thing that a jazz musician could do today is to try to straight up and down swing. What is swinging? What is beauty? Different things for different people for different reasons.”

With a poet like Allen, beauty is truth, truth beauty, which is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.

The Golden Thread Gallery in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Credit Courtesy The Golden Thread Gallery

24-Karat Jazz at The Golden Thread Gallery

Steve Davis, a West Hartford resident, exhibits his internationally acclaimed trombone artistry with his trio in An Evening of Music and Art on Friday, June 26, at 6:30 p.m. at a fundraiser for The Golden Thread Gallery, 303 Tunxis Road, West Hartford.

Steve Davis, West Hartford resident and jazz trombonist.
Credit Bill Morgan

Davis, who’s celebrating the release of his new album, "Say When" (Smoke Sessions Records), is joined by the noted bassist Nat Reeves and Davis’s son, guitarist Tony Davis.   

Celebrating its second year, the gallery is currently featuring a music-themed exhibition, Rhythm & Blues, whose paintings play on the aesthetic link between music and the visual arts through their mutual use of rhythms and colors, including the many hues of the blues.

While the 23-piece exhibition consists mostly of paintings, it also features sculpture as well as one original song created by artists from Connecticut to as far away as India. Curated by The Golden Thread co-founders, Tricia Haggerty Wenz and Kate H. Wilson, the show opened in mid-May and runs through June 27 in the newly renovated gallery graced with high ceilings, natural light and a professional exhibit space.

The Golden Thread Gallery’s somewhat exotic sounding name, Wenz explains, “represents the invisible, underlying connection that weaves together the spirit of humanity through the arts.” Tickets for the gallery’s gala fundraiser are $40.00, which includes drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Information: goldenthreadgallery.org and (860) 760-9766.

Litchfield Jazz Salutes NOLA

Saxophonist Donald Harrison, a native of New Orleans, participates in The Litchfield Jazz Festival’s Salute to New Orleans and Its Heroes of Katrina in an all-star concert on Saturday, June 27, at 7:30 pm at Western Connecticut State University’s new, state-of-the-art Visual and Performing Arts Center, 43 Lake Avenue Extension, Danbury.

Don Braden, Albert Rivera, and Nick Roseboro are going to be performing at the Litchfield Jazz festival on June 27.
Credit Dale Rothenberg

Harrison is joined by fellow Litchfield Festival stalwarts, saxophonists Don Braden, Albert Rivera and Gary Smulyan; trumpeter Nick Roseboro, drummer Winard Harper, pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Avery Sharpe, trombonist Peter McEachern, vocalist Antoinette Montague and others.

Proceeds benefit Litchfield Jazz Camp scholarships. Tickets: $37.00 at wcsu.showare.com and (203) 837-TIXX.   

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