by Michael Katz
It’s opening night, mid-week, mid-recession, early pandemic. A sparse but good-natured crowd has gathered at the Jazz Bakery to see Triple Play, a Latin jazz trio featuring pianist Bill O’Connell, flutist Dave Valentin and percussionist Munyungo Jackson. O’Connell and Valentin have been playing together for nearly thirty years, but the first set at a new venue is always a feeling out process. Sound, spacing, acoustics, all come into play, as well as integrating the talented Jackson, with his full arsenal of congas, timbales, cow bells and more.
Not surprisingly, it takes a few numbers for the group to get centered. The first two tunes, from the current CD Triple Play (fronted by O’Connell), are bright, the playing accomplished. The title piece is a showcase for the pianist, with Valentin providing a flute intro, then picking up his hand clave while O’Connell takes over. “Machu Pichu,” in ¾, features Valentin, starting to find his pace on the flute, searching for a tone that fits the room.
The group breaks for two duets, the first featuring Valentin and O’Connell on an unnamed piece, Valentin stretching the limits of his instrument in the manner of Roland Kirk, playing/singing through the instrument. The second features O’Connell and Jackson exploring the outlines of “Just In Time.” Jackson begins to show his chops, moving deftly from bongos to congas.
There is a profusion of birthdays on this night. Much of the crowd has come to celebrate with proprietor Ruth Price and it turns out Valentin is celebrating his 57th as well. Add to that Duke Ellington’s 110th and the late conguero Ray Baretto, and the karma begins to reach critical mass. The vehicle is John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” played in 6/4, featuring Munyungo Jackson on shekere, a beaded, swollen gourd like-instrument. Valentin starts with a rhythmic flourish and O’Connell contributes an extended solo, dancing over the upper registers of the piano. Valentin’s flute, sounding a bit muffled earlier, is crisp and clear now, O’Connell’s piano robust. The good vibes continue as the trio closes the set with another piece from the new album, Second Son, this time featuring Jackson on timbales.
There’s a certain liberating feeling to a second set before a small crowd and those who stick around are treated to a terrific show. The set kicks off with a medley of “Cinnamon & Clove” and O’Connell’s “Dansette,” featuring a lovely solo by Valentin. O’Connell and Jackson shine on a duet of Thelonius Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” with O’Connell playing a sprightly Latin rhythm and Jackson echoing on the congas. The set is highlighted by Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue.” Valentin’s interpretation has always seemed particularly apt, with a haunting flute line opening up, augmented by Jackson again on the shekere. O’Connell winds it down with a slow dramatic roll, before Valentin and Jackson close in a fury.
Triple Play continues at the Bakery through Saturday, hopefully with a deservedly larger audience.