Bill Connors: Return

Robert R. Calder

A versatile guitarist settling for plain mainstream jazz with what's currently a contemporary accent; a characterful pianist, and bass and drums to match: not at all bad.

Bill Connors


Label: Tone Center
US Release Date: 2005-02-01
UK Release Date: 2005-02-07
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Connors has had a varied career, starting with Chick Corea's Return to Forever and proceeding to where he eventually disconnected his guitar from amp and accessories and power supply. If he once had the option of being a fashionable jazz guitarist, he seems to have followed the not-remunerative-but-highly-commendable option of preferring to be just a jazz guitarist rather than fashionable. He now plugs his guitar directly into his own no-gimmicks, no-accessories amp. Contemporary echo effects and play with harmonics are achieved by interplay or melodic unison, usually with the pianist, but also the contemporary electric bass of Lincoln Goines.

Here, Connors is the nominal leader of a together quintet playing his original compositions, but sharing front-line duties throughout with a mightily impressive pianist whose name isn't all that different -- Bill O'Connell -- and who without, it seems, having presence on any electronic front, has been working away for some twenty five years but producing perhaps only a handful of recordings. There are inevitably gaps in the reference sources one can look up, and some recordings hard to find out about. If there are many more by either of these men, well, neither of them has taken much part in glutting the market.

Each of them is certainly up there with a number of people whose playing has been celebrated and easy to find on disc, and they work very well together in a decently bold and outgoing post-bop mainstream style. The drumming of Kim Plainfield, sometimes with Myra Casales on added percussion, does seem to date it to the early twenty-first century. It's a variety of post-bop that metabolises Latin features into a new rhythmic complexity that only very occasionally sounds overtly (though never strongly) Hispanic.

Having of late come on a couple of relative newcomers or not-yet-famous players who have Wes Montgomery in their music's family tree, it's rather a more outgoing Kenny Burrell who might have been this guitarist's grandpappy. Connors can go right back and play as if he were alongside Burrell when he takes a breather from doing his own compositions, and plays Coltrane's neither very Brazilian nor terribly Coltranean -- and here thus paradoxically titled --"Brasilia".

The set might have… might well have… nay, presumably would have been improved by another couple of tunes brought in from outside. As well as adding thematic variety, some well-chosen imports would have given the listener a nice experience of such things as played with a real youthful vigour and verve. It is presumably easier to write 'original compositions' for this sort of set than to find inspired and inspiring choices of repertoire. The result is at least as likely to lead to adventure, innovation, and stimulation of the listener as the sort of continual generation of bespoken vehicles, given the harmonic and rhythmic opening up of possibilities of improvisation which occurred in jazz (so-called free jazz, or free improvisation, are not indulged in here) from the 1940s onward. A kind of technical over-refinement can set in, producing experiences pretty well analogous to what can be had listening to extremely efficient eighteenth century composers whose names have slipped my mind. You hear one and remember them all.

Connors tends to be inside his tunes with an understanding that presumably gives him the edge on almost all possible performers of them. As the set proceeds, he turns out to have too much of an edge on the pianist here.

O'Connell is indeed a year or so past his fiftieth birthday, but very plainly in his prime. On "Mr. Cool", the pianist underlines his empathy by playing what are essentially guitar licks, before the guitarist goes into a passage of straight blues. This is a standard post-bop number, with fresh-sounding harmonies and a generally bracing ambiance. The same could be said of a lot here.

"McMinor" opens with Connors sounding muted and the pianist as definite as elsewhere on the opening introduction or verse. "Mind Over Matter" has a stirring theme which might have been sold to a television cop show. "Minor Matters" is more of a ballad. Combine the sort of improvisation here with the dynamic underlying rhythmic complexity and power of the drummer and persussionist, and there's a sort of inescapable minimum speed beneath which the group cannot relax into anything at an easier tempo, or just plain slow, or slowly or soothingly plain. There's some beautiful balladic stuff from the guitarist on "Minor Matters", and O'Connell plays lovely direct lines on "Terrabill Blues", but the pianist can't really settle in "Minor Matters", and the end of his solo and of the performance in a fade seems a good, convenient idea.

O'Connell, when judged by high standards, does fall maybe half of the time into something of an admittedly not very severe rut, despite his inspiring vigour,. He seems to be so at home with the guitarist's original compositions that routine comes more easily. Another track concludes with a fade somewhere into the piano solo, and it is worth asking whether to some extent O'Connell can't find so many ideas in these compositions by the guitarist.

He doesn't have a solo on "Brasilia", and listening again to that outstanding ballad performance does make me wonder whether the whole set-up -- not excluding the single source of compositions -- is a less than ideally productive one for him. I couldn't think it would be a musical shortcoming on anybody else's part which allowed Connors superiority on his own pieces. This music can be invigorating, but its real virtues aren't unique to it. Relative newcomers might well take to the sound of this professional, thoroughly integrated group.


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