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Harold O'Neal: 'Whirling' Jazz Moves

Harold O'Neal's Whirling Mantis is named for a defensive move in karate. The martial-arts reference suggests one way to look at how O'Neal's music operates: The players react to each other's moves, deflecting one another in stylized interaction. It's about whirling and split-second responses; of surging and then letting the other spinning tops come to you.

O'Neal and drummer Rodney Green have recorded together before, like Green and bassist Joe Sanders. This session was the first time they'd all played together, here joined by Jaleel Shaw on alto sax. Not that you'd know it. Jazz musicians pull off the miracle of quick cohesion all the time. One reason it works here is that the players share a broad frame of reference that takes in bop, funk and free-style, without giving any of them the upper hand.

Harold O'Neal's best tunes slink like a panther: The players ride a groove, even as they circle each other. His "Neptune Dream" uses a ploy carried over from the last tune: The pianist's left hand doubles a tricky bass part for a fatter bottom end. (Oh, grow up.)

O'Neal wrote these pieces over a number of years, and they're not all equally strong; his ballads can be a little diffuse, and he leads off with a too-blatant nod to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" called "Aint G." But on any material, the band delivers the goods, and O'Neal shows his cunning as a player. Like many pianists, he's influenced by Herbie Hancock's jitters behind Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner's ocean waves with Coltrane. But O'Neal's phrases take odd turns and sidetrips, making it hard to tell sometimes where he's headed from one second to the next. Which is what you'd expect from a gyrating martial-arts master.

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Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.