Bill O’Connell released his latest album, Wind Off the Hudson, a few months ago, back then it was a bit more topical. This is a summer album, the kind of jazz you listen to while walking in New York City, that ephemeral mix of Latin jazz that you might have heard on vacation in Dominica but still floating through the streets and alleyways when you got back home. Pianist and composer Bill O’Connell has been around since the ’70s–his first break was as the keyboard player for Mongo Santamaria. After 13 albums as a leader, O’Connell has established himself as one of the main forces of Latin jazz in NYC. While his piano playing has influenced many others in the city, it’s his composing and arranging skills that have made him a legend.
Wind Off the Hudson features Bill and his Afro Caribbean Ensemble, which is making its debut on this recording. “I’ve been planning on this recording for the better part of the last decade,” he explains, and the album’s perfection is a result of this cautious planning. The ensemble comes from Rutgers University, where Bill O’Connell is the director. This gives Wind Off the Hudson the same feel of the University of North Texas’ lauded jazz program–most notably a sense of perfection, that these young musicians are all hoping to get noticed and become the legend O’Connell is.
Bill O’Connell and his approach to jazz is straightforward and full of impact. These are direct and powerful performances, eschewing unessential tangents and improvisations for a tight, uniform delivery. O’Connell’s piano is typically understated, possessing a style that shows he is leading with a spare touch so that the others can get inspired. There’s also a brightness in the songs–take the spirited version of “Oye Como Va” that’s anything but a mere copy of the original–and you can tell that O’Connell the instructor is fond of having fun, and fostering that same enthusiasm among his young cohorts.
It’s a cold, snowy day here in Western New York, and the inherent sunniness of Wind Off the Hudson seems at odds with the outdoor temps. Despite that, I feel warm and lighthearted. This is the kind of music that reminds you of warmer days, perhaps a little sweat on your forehead, and how those sporadic breezes become mini-highlights of a very pleasant day. If you’re suffering from the winter doldrums, Bill O’Connell has the perfect medicine.