Bill O’Connell Leads Augmented Quartet Feat. Steve Jordan (Rolling Stones) on ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Bill O’Connell’s A Change Is Gonna Come is ideally timed as the pianist, composer, and arranger is fresh off a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Arrangement (Instrumental or A Capella)’ for the song “Chopsticks” on Richard Baratta’s album Music in Film: The Reel Deal. Co-produced by band member and renowned drummer Steve Jordan, (yes, that same drummer who has now taken Charlie Watts’ historic spot with The Rolling Stones), O’Connell plays alongside long-time collaborators bassist Lincoln Goines, percussionist Pedrito Martinez, and special guest Craig Handy on tenor and soprano saxophone. O’Connell has proven to be a formidable force in both straight-ahead and Latin jazz. His 2019 Wind Off the Hudson, with the ten-piece Afro-Caribbean Ensemble, featuring both Handy and Goines, was one of the most energetic albums not only in Latin Jazz but in any form of jazz heard that year. A Change Is Gonna Come is instead straight-ahead jazz that offers a balance of hard swinging and deeply emotive, evocative ballads.

“Moment’s Notice,” the Coltrane piece which opens the album, is filled with intensity and harmonic nuances. Propelled by funky, incessant Jordan beats, the band bursts out flying but reins it in a bit when O’Connell, Goines, and Jordan each take a solo, O’Connell fading out gently in the outro. “Loco-Motive” starts with Jordan’s snare beats and builds to an explosive climax, with both Jordan and the leader showing their chops. Tempo eases for “Covid Blues” with Handy’s strong entrance on soprano capturing the anxiety and disorientation we’ve all been feeling. Yet the playful exchanges between O’Connell, Handy, and Jordan, provide hopeful tones. 

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” brings timely requisite calm, through an arrangement that O’Connell first wrote years ago for Charles Fambrough. It’s charged with gospel but both O’Connell and Handy, on tenor this time, reach deep with soulful restraint, as in a peaceful, impassioned protest versus a violent one. If anything, the country is as racially divided in some regards as was six decades ago. Handy especially channels that burning need for change in his soloing.  

The band jumps right back to a blistering pace on “Sun For Sonny,” nodding to the great Sonny Rollins who once employed each member of the trio. The calypso groove and “St. Thomas” quote in O’Connell’s melody should be a dead giveaway. It’s also suitably (for a Rollins tribute) percussive—with Martinez returning and Goines switching to the electric bass. The original “Enough Is Enough” is a declarative statement, delivered with swing, and plenty of angst as reflected in Handy’s aggressively anguished tenor blowing. Jordan stirs up a maelstrom on the kit, bringing this frenzied piece to another dynamic climax. “Sweet Peanut” goes in the opposite direction, evoking a comforting vibe through O’Connell’s shimmering work on the ivories.

As cute as O’Connell may be in word play “A Prayer for Us” (‘A Prayer for the U.S.”), the tune is provocative, filled with gospel tinges in the leader’s improvisational solo, that unlike “Sweet Peanut,” strikes both sad and optimistic tones, emblematic of most of our dispositions as we’ve struggled through this obstacle course of unsettled health and socio-political issues. Goines’ heartfelt bass solo resonates deeply too. Maybe there is no better way to follow this reflective piece than with “Chaos,” as the quartet goes full throttle with Handy’s soprano soaring above the frenetic rhythm team. O’Connell seems determined to end this session on an uplifting high note, carrying the same rapid-fire energy into the closer, “My Foolish Heart,” another brilliant showcase for both the leader and Jordan’s whirlwind funk on the kit. 

The album runs the complete gamut in both tempo and emotion, with many beautiful moments to savor as it’s impeccably executed at every turn.

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