© 2024 WRTI
Your Classical and Jazz Source. Celebrating 75 Years!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After a frightening fall, pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly rises up

Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.

For the Philadelphia Eagles, playing hurt is just part of the job. The same doesn’t necessarily apply to the musicians who have backed Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson on their popular Philly Special Christmas recordings. But when Luke Carlos O’Reilly sat down at the piano in Conshohocken’s Elm Street Studio to record the teammates’ third annual album, he was less than two weeks removed from a head injury to rival anything suffered on the football field.

O’Reilly had been dealing with the lingering aftereffects of COVID, which often left him fatigued. One morning in late April, he fainted at the top of a spiral staircase that runs down the center of his Fishtown loft, falling three-quarters of the way down the vertiginous spiral and incurring a concussion and an infection on his leg.

“Ever since I had COVID, I’ve had an issue where the toxins from my waste get into my bloodstream,” he explained over coffee last week, after a day of teaching at the University of the Arts. “My doctors told me that there’s a barrier between your blood system and your brain, and when I hit my head I broke that barrier. So now I have constant headaches and some dizziness and fogginess. It left some neurological effects, but it’s getting better.”

Despite what sounds like a traumatic accident, O’Reilly has hardly slowed his pace. This Friday, he’ll lead his trio with bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Anwar Marshall at Chris’ Jazz Café, joined by Washington D.C. saxophonist Tim Green. Over the weekend of June 7-9, he’ll be at South Jazz Kitchen with Philly vocalist PHER, paying tribute to the late saxophonist and vocoder wizard Casey Benjamin, with whom he had plans to record. And in addition to his ongoing work with the caroling offensive linemen, he’s been in the studio with pop star Cyndi Lauper and jazz singer Denise King.

Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.

All this while still in the midst of celebrations for his latest album, Leave the Gate Open, which was released in February by Orrin Evans’ Imani Records label. O’Reilly’s fourth album as a leader, it’s his first piano trio outing, featuring Parrish and Vicente Archer on bass, paired with drummers Jerome Jennings and Little John Roberts.

“I'm finally starting to embrace and enjoy the nakedness of just playing trio,” explains O’Reilly, whose previous releases have boasted a wealth of horns and other guests from Philly and beyond. Though he’d been friends with Jennings, Parrish and Roberts, he either hadn’t played with them or hadn’t reconnected with them in years; Archer he hadn’t crossed paths with at all. That was by design, according to Evans, his producer.

“No matter where you live, you can get caught in a rut of playing with people you know,” Evans tells WRTI. O’Reilly appreciated the nudge. “Orrin frees me up because he’s a very outside-the-box thinker. He’s always like, ‘Show me your comfort zone.’ And when you do, he says, ‘Cool. We're going to operate here.’” With that, O’Reilly pointed to a spot clear across the table from the imaginary box he’d drawn in front of him.

O’Reilly released his debut album, Living in the Now, in 2011, followed two years later by 3 Suites. Both featured a blend of original music, jazz standards and arrangements of pop songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Beatles. An eight-year gap followed before the release of his first Imani effort, the impassioned I Too Sing America: A Black Man’s Diary.

“I was doing a lot of gigging during that time,” O’Reilly says, explaining the pause. “But you reach certain milestones in life. We go through our own challenges, we see other people go through their challenges, we lose people. I decided to try to do as much music as possible.”

He credits that philosophy in part to one of his mentors, the late trombonist Curtis Fuller. “Curtis used to always tell me that if you’re just a cat that plays and plays, that legacy will eventually disappear. The most long-lasting effect you can have on people musically is through teaching and through the records that you make.”

Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Luke Carlos O'Reilly in the recording studio.

Born in Cali, Colombia — the adopted son of two teachers, an Irish-American father and an Italian-American mother — O’Reilly grew up outside of Boston. He resisted the lure of teaching for a long time, but finally succumbed in recent years; in addition to being an adjunct professor at UArts, he runs a high school mentorship program through the School District of Philadelphia called Mic’d Up, and the Kimmel Center’s “Jazz for Freedom” program for elementary students.

And O’Reilly has stepped up his pace on record, releasing two new albums in the span of three years. I Too Sing America, named after Langston Hughes’ poem, was a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “In 2009 I was beaten up by a Black police officer,” he says. “That was my first — and thankfully, my only — incident of police brutality. I think the best thing any artist can do coming out of trauma is to turn it into art. I realized that my music is my form of activism.”

Leave the Gate Open can not only credit its existence in part to the encouragement of Curtis Fuller and other key mentors, but it explicitly celebrates the continuum of teachers and students in the jazz community. Fuller is represented by his composition “Mini Mama,” given a raucous Cannonball Adderley party-in-progress treatment, while the funky “Keep on Keeping On” was penned by another early employer, the late flutist Dave Valentin, who encouraged Luke O’Reilly to start using his middle name in honor of his Latin American heritage.

The soulful album also includes pieces written by or associated with organ great Joey DeFrancesco, bassist Charles Fambrough, violinist John Blake, Jr., and gospel icon Marian Anderson — all Philadelphia natives. O’Reilly is not, but he’s more than made up for his Boston-area upbringing by becoming a mainstay of the local scene since arriving in the city more than 20 years ago to study at Temple University. He caught the tail end of the nurturing sessions at both Ortlieb’s and the Five Spot, and hosted a thriving jam session at Time for three years. In addition to his own music and his near-ubiquity as a sideman, he co-leads an organ trio called The Mini-Q’s with guitarist Ben O’Neill.

“Luke is keeping up the legacy of people like Eddie Green, Sid Simmons and Shirley Scott, who shared their talent with the world but called Philadelphia their home,” attests Evans, another transplant who’s become intimately associated with his adopted city. “Even though Luke was not born and raised in Philadelphia, he continues the Philadelphia sound, the Philadelphia keyboard history, and that tradition of giving back.”

Luke Carlos O’Reilly performs an album-release show on Friday at Chris’ Jazz Cafe. For information about that and other upcoming shows, subscribe to Moment’s Notice, our weekly event guide.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.