AND THEN IT RAINED / O’NEILL: Port of Spain. Emerging Impressions. Early Spring. One for Kenny. Cloudscape. And Then it Rained. Mavericks Samba. Song for Mama Bear. Four Cornered Circle. Suite Iris. The Dreams We Left Behind / Michael O’Neill, t-sax/cl/a-sax/s-sax; Michael Bluestein, pno; Dan Feiszli, bs; Jason Lewis, dm / Jazzmo Records JR005
Reedman Michael O’Neill has had an interesting background. After studying clarinet at a young age, his parents nudged him to focus on his interest in science. Thus, after a stint as clarinetist with the Air Force Band, he entered college as a biology major with a music minor, studying composition, arranging and jazz performance. But you could tell where his heart was. He played jazz in clubs in the evenings. Note that he didn’t do biological experiments in clubs in the evenings!
Even so, after graduating college he pursued a Ph.D. in, of all things, Insect Physiology (in the science field, somewhat analogous to basket weaving in the arts) but still played around town when he wasn’t in classes. After two years of Insect Physiology, he had had enough. He moved to the San Francisco area and studied saxophone with Joe Henderson while still playing gigs.
This is his fifth CD, but the first to be purely instrumental (the others all feature singers) and the first to highlight his own compositions. The opener, Port of Spain, is a catchy but not particularly innovative piece, built around a repeated motif played on the soprano sax with a bridge in the middle of the chorus, before slowing down into a moodier, more lyrical melody. No offense meant, but O’Neill’s high range on the soprano struck my ears as a little shrill, but then, I’ve been spoiled by Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Steve Lacy and Eric Dolphy. After the tempo picks up again, pianist Bluestein plays a terrific solo, not just fluent and “busy” but bursting with ideas and beautifully structured. Drummer Jason Lewis is an excellent percussionist; he knows exactly what he wants and how best to propel the music without sounding over-busy or getting in the way.
In Emerging Impressionism, it is the piano and bass that open the track, with bassist Feiszli playing the opening melody. O’Neill enters on tenor sax and changes that melody around. This piece struck me as pleasant but pretty ordinary; nothing really makes it stand out as a composition, but O’Neill’s improvisation on his original theme is wonderfully flowing and his tenor tone is splendid.
By the time I reached Early Spring (played on the clarinet, and beautifully so) I came to realize that O’Neill learned how to compose in a very traditional manner and has apparently stuck with it. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but to call them “dynamic” is going a bit too far. The jazz compositions of Jungsu Choi, Enrique Haneine and Silke Eberhard are dynamic, and innovative. Nonetheless, as I say, these pieces are very nice in their own way, and the solos on them, particularly those of O’Neill and Bluestein, are superb in every way. I was especially impressed by the leader’s playing on One for Kenny, an uptempo piece with changing rhythms in the background. Cloudscape, also played on tenor, is a nice, medium-tempo piece with a slight allusion to the bossa nova beat, and sounds like something that Stan Getz would have recorded back in the early 1960s.
Much the same is to be heard in the pieces that follow: good if unexceptional tune construction, excellent bass and drum support, and outstanding solos from O’Neill and Bluestein. For those reasons alone, this is an excellent album and one worth seeking out. I, for one, am very glad that O’Neill has given us a purely instrumental CD because his talent deserved it.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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