Johnny O’Neal Leads Fierce, Playful, Eclectic Night at Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club


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Johnny O’Neal — finishing off a busy year of touring with his last gig of the decade at the Side Door in Old Lyme — presided at the piano with grace, ease, and rippling arpeggios. Like a ringmaster in a silver sparkling suit, he led Mark Lewandowski on upright bass and Itay Morchi on drums through dynamically arranged songs, sometimes at scorching paces. But subtlety was an even more notable feature. During piano passages of stunning delicacy, O’Neal turned out deep pockets of finesse, hush, stillness, and blues.

Born in Detroit, O’Neal has had a long and tumultuous career, playing with jazz legends like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Clark Terry, Ray Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie. He disappeared from New York City during the height of his early fame in the 1980’s, following a violent mugging at his apartment building’s doorstep, and spent several decades in relative obscurity. But he has always been acknowledged in jazz circles as one of indisputably great talents of his generation on the piano. In fact, he was recommended by his friend Oscar Peterson to portray Art Tatum in the 2004 movie on Ray Charles, “Ray.” His career has enjoyed a resurgence in the last decade — welcome news for jazz fans everywhere.

O’Neal moves easily through piano-playing, singing, ambling around the stage, taking sips of cocktail, all the while speaking directly to the audience. Genius and a lifetime of experience allows a performer like O’Neal to do anything. He can assess the moment, decide on a song, and unroll it. There wasn’t anything pre-formed about this show. The set list was called out on the spot. It was all top-notch, apt, and surprising.

The songs ranged the musical spectrum, from gospel to bebop to raw traveling blues to soft-touch lyrical 1970s ballads. O’Neil himself remarked that it was hard to choose from the wealth of songs in his vast reservoir. Among the composers were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Stevie Wonder, Fred Fisher, Thad Jones, Mabel Wayne, Clare Fischer, Johnny Mercer, and J. Russel Robinson, and included several spoken-blues songs, wringing out the wry truths of life… “This is a song for all the divorcees out there” or “This is a song about waking up on the road, and not knowing where you are” or “This is a song about, well, drinking.” His deadpan delivery brought down the house each time.

O’Neal’s singing was direct and unfussy, like talking, at times sustained in deep warm tones, at times wavering to a whisper. Reaching even deeper, he pantomimed singing, without making an actual sound. He coughed, chuckled, hummed, scatted.

His performance reminded this listener of Captain Beefheart’s first commandment of his famous Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing: Listen to the Birds. O’Neal obviously listens to the birds, the full spectrum of them. He is an antenna for sound and silence, the spaces between the notes, and for gathering an audience together to listen. He draws us into the deep-shared pool of unconscious listening.

The Side Door is an ideal jazz venue — there is not a bad seat in the house, and the room wraps around the performers like a kidney bean around a sprouting core. All seats are close to the stage. Audience members can see and feel the tempos.

O’Neal’s rhythms, phasing, stylizations built slowly or dramatically switched on a dime. Songs were played “nice” and then “rough.” Sometimes the songs built to such sustained frenzy that you could see brows furrowed and veins standing out on the necks of the two younger players – all the while O’Neal, at age 63, appeared completely effortless and relaxed on the keys.

In fact, a delicious part of the evening was watching Lewandowski on upright bass and Mordi on drums — both wearing 1950s cool blue tailored suits — react and respond to O’Neal’s prompts. Lewandowski was a steady presence onstage when he was not breaking into fierce dynamic solos, as he did on “Let Me Love You” by Blossom Dearie. Morchi started off the evening with the lightest, most restrained touch, but as the evening warmed up, his work grew dangerously playful. By the end of the second set he was haranguing the cymbals with the recklessness of a rock drummer. His act of silencing them, suspended in stillness, waiting for the right moment from O’Neal, was most interesting part of all, in fact, a kind of dance.

For this listener the highlights were the two turns at gospel. O’Neal’s took a solo piano moment on “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington. He introduced it with, “I love gospel, so now I’ll take you back to my gospel roots,” but he actually gave the audience a blazing tour of piano history – classical, ragtime, stride, as well as a round of gospel. And in the encore, landing squarely on his Detroit roots, the Trio played the traditional gospel song “Climbing Higher Mountains,” made most famous by Detroit preacher C.L. Franklin and his daughter Aretha. O’Neal, a jazz pilgrim, clearly climbs the depths and heights, stepping into the unknown possibilities in his live shows. He takes his audiences along for a memorable trip.

Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.