A veteran jazz pianist from New York City, Bill O'Connell is gifted soloist and bandleader known for his long-running Latin jazz big band. Born in New York City on August 22, 1953, O'Connell 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.
O'Connell has not played Latin jazz exclusively and worked as a sideman with such luminaries as tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the late trumpeter Chet Baker. However, he does have 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.
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. Much of his bandleading/arranging inspiration comes 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).
As a leader, O'Connell debuted in 1978 with an LP titled Searching for the small Inner City label He then joined longtime associate flutist Dave Valentin's band, touring and recording for several years before returning to his solo work with 1993's Lost Voices on Creed Taylor's CTI Records (with Taylor himself serving as producer). Several of O'Connell's big-band albums also appeared in the mid-'90s with Jazz Alive and Unfinished Business. O'Connell also continued working with Valentin, and played on albums by Charles Fambrough, Jon Lucien, and others.
In the 2000's, O'Connell 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 in 2004. Four years later, he returned with the trio album Triple Play, featuring Valentin and percussionist Richie Flores. Rhapsody in Blue followed in 2010. A year later, he delivered the follow-up to Triple Play, Triple Play Plus Three, which showcased a rotating lineup of guests including Valentin, clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, vibraphonist Dave Samuels, and others. O'Connell then joined his Latin Jazz All-Stars for a series of albums including 2013's Zocalo, 2014's Imagine, and 2016's Heart Beat. In 2017, he delivered the intimate solo concert album, Monk's Cha Cha: Solo Piano Live. ~ Alex Henderson