Monday, June 14, 2010

Johnny O'Neal, Jazz Pianist: Leaving them Laughing

(reflection on a recital by Johnny O'Neal, pianist, at the Southwest Arts Center of Atlanta, June 13.  With trio.)

Atlanta jazz lovers know the voice of H. Johnson, host of "Jazz Classics" beginning every Saturday night from 9 p.m. 'til  two o'clock, and it was around midnight that I woke up to hear Johnny O'Neal playing and talking jazz with H.   A few hours later, I was seeing both of them at a fine community theatre, as H. introduced his old friend.

The affable Mr. O'Neal, looking a bit thinner than his picture here, played for more than two hours with local guys on percussion and bass.  He opened with "Put on a Happy Face," setting a theme for the show.   Once he had established the tune, he played around with it.   One hallmark of his style is his penchant for very suddenly pulling back on the volume, barely touching the keys, often while the room resonates with a chord he has just pounded out.   His improv included dozens of notes that seem like a spray of sound, soft and brilliant.

He followed that with "Some of My Best Friends are the Blues," getting laughs with scat.

There was hardly a moment when laughter wasn't a part of the performance.  There was slapstick comedy of the Victor Borge variety, but there were also moments when he seemed to surprise himself with an idea and chuckled. 

He got serious with a version of Whitney Houston's hit "Savin' All My Love for You," played mostly as a languorous jazz waltz, followed by a Seventies ballad, "With Every Breath I Take," sung with a deep baritone that rose to crying, sighing high notes.

Just when I was thinking that he hadn't done anything in the Gospel vein, he obliged, though his improvisation rather overwhelmed the familiar gospel riffs.  He concluded with "I Need A Vacation From the Blues."

While he was vigorous at the keyboard, he looked frail when he walked.  He seemed like a wizened kid in his dad's suit, making me wonder if he has gone through some bad times recently.

Still, he left us with a lot of happy faces.

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