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Album Review: Harold O'Neal's Marvelous Fantasy

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Harold O'Neal Marvelous Fantasy
Courtesy of Smalls Records
The photos on the cover of pianist Harold O’Neal’s Marvelous Fantasy, with the artist sitting alone at his piano, say a lot about the content of the music. O’Neal has made a quiet, contemplative album that is unpretentious and sincere in its simplicity. This is not to say that O’Neal’s playing isn’t polished. On the contrary, it is poised, fluid and assured. This pianist presents a highly personal set of compositions that deal with the subtle development of memory, imagination and sensibility, not just a display of technique. The real motivation behind the work is to take the listener down the artist’s own memory lane with remembrances of his first musical inspirations in the spirit of what he calls “youth’s first adventure.”

With a strong emphasis on a classical pianistic approach to texture, complete with the rippling chords, colorful “impressionistic” harmony and ample use of the entire keyboard, it is clear that O’Neal’s music is inspired by the French pianist and composer Maurice Ravel. But O’Neal’s foundation is also firmly rooted in jazz, and the influence of Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett is evident as well. O’Neal draws on another great repertoire inspired by the meeting of the African-American and European traditions, that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. “The Lovers” has a romantic feeling that the title of the piece suggests, but also an elegant and charming sophistication that would have made the Duke proud. O’Neal comes to this recording with a wealth of tradition at his fingertips and makes heartfelt music at the confluence of European classical music and the African-American jazz tradition.

Each song on the Marvelous Fantasy is a fantasia, or a piece whose form is intentionally loose or vague, and which develops according to the performer’s improvisation based around an idea rather than adherence to a specific harmony or formal structure. Improvisation is the root of this record, but O’Neal’s compositions are a vital piece of the puzzle. His compositions allow him great freedom, but also set some clear boundaries and a compelling atmosphere which he explores with grace and patience. This collection treads ground between the wide-open, all-improvised freedom of solo piano music by Keith Jarrett or Cecil Taylor, but also has much more room to breathe than some of the solo efforts by Brad Mehldau or other more rigid players.

The comparison of the music of French composers like Ravel or Claude Debussy can be based on the fact that many of O’Neal’s pieces eschew virtuosity in exchange for subtle colors, and soft melodies accompanied by chords chosen for their distinct character rather than their harmonic function. “Miya,” for example, unravels slowly over the course of several minutes in hushed tones. It builds to an uncertain climax briefly, only to return to a whisper. The music, like much of Debussy’s, seems as though it could be programmatic. “Foe Feito de Vera” begins with floating chords and melodies built on gestures rather than lines, but later begins to swing, and incorporates melodies more akin to those found in jazz. It is a perfect example of O’Neal’s synthesis of jazz and the music of Ravel and Debussy.

The opening piece, called “Atanos,” with its pulsing rhythms and brilliant sound is a bold beginning and fitting thesis statement for the album. O’Neal works through several different versions of this theme before a brief return to its original instantiation that ends the piece. Throughout, the piece has a refreshing, buoyant energy that carries on through the rest of the album. O’Neal sets himself apart through a uniquely warm touch on his instrument. Marvelous Fantasy is a stark contrast to his first album as a leader, the swinging quartet record called Whirling Mantis, but is a fitting choice for a musician who is also active as an “actor, Bboy, martial artist, and magician” in New York City. Marvelous Fantasy is well worth an attentive listen.

Release Date:

November 8th, 2011 on Smalls Records

Track List

  1. Atanos
  2. Miya
  3. Foi Feito de Vera
  4. Trieste
  5. Marvelous Fantasy
  6. The Lovers
  7. Mr. Piccolo
  8. Dance from the Night in Gales
  9. Little Ones
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