A veteran post-bop/Latin jazz/hard bop pianist from New York City, the Bill O'Connell profiled in this bio should not be confused with the swing/bop drummer who has led the Chicago Skyliners Big Band in the Windy City in the '90s and 2000s; nor should he be confused with rock manager Billy O'Connell, who is married to singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh (formerly of the alternative pop/rock group Throwing Muses). Pianist O'Connell has his share of Latin credentials; along the way, he has played with New York trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez's Fort Apache Band and crossed paths with flutist Dave Valentin, Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and the late Cuban percussion master Mongo Santamaria. But O'Connell has not played Latin jazz exclusively; the major non-Latin artists who have employed the pianist as a sideman over the years include, among others, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the late trumpeter Chet Baker.
As a pianist, O'Connell is known for a lyrical approach that owes something to Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Chick Corea as well as Herbie Hancock. But it should be stressed that O'Connell is not the sort of jazzman who only sees himself as a soloist; in fact, his albums have underscored his talents as an arranger, bandleader, and composer. O'Connell can -- as Duke Ellington often put it -- use his band as his instrument. One thing that O'Connell will probably never do is become a full-time trio pianist; he has too much of the bandleader mentality for that. And coincidentally, the bandleader/arranger perspective is one thing that he has in common with the Windy City drummer who has headed the Chicago Skyliners Big Band, but stylistically, they're two very different artists -- that Bill O'Connell has been greatly influenced by Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and is quite mindful of the big bands of the '30s and '40s. Pianist O'Connell, meanwhile, gets a lot of his bandleading/arranging inspiration from Latin greats like Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Machito, Ray Barretto, and Eddie Palmieri (all of whom are identified with Afro-Cuban jazz as well as salsa).
Pianist O'Connell was born in New York City on August 22, 1953, and grew up in suburban Port Washington, Long Island. After high school, he studied classical piano at Oberlin College in Ohio but has lived in the New York area most of his life. As a leader, O'Connell has recorded sporadically over the years. In 1978, he recorded an LP titled Searching for the small Inner City label -- and 15 years later, in 1993, he recorded Lost Voices for Creed Taylor's CTI Records (with Taylor himself serving as producer). After that, O'Connell didn't do any more recording as a leader until the early 2000s, when he signed with the independent Random Chance Records (a small, New York-based label with a fondness for jazz and blues). Black Sand, O'Connell's first album for Random Chance, came out in 2001; that disc was followed by Latin Jazz Fantasy, which was recorded in 2003 and released in 2004. ~ Alex Henderson