Saturday, October 16, 2010


Johnny O'Neal (photo by Frank De Blase)
You covered a lot of ground Friday night at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café’. To recap for those who missed the concert, you opened the set with the Stevie Wonder favorite “Overjoyed”, taking the melody on a few improvisational excursions. Next, you performed the Billy Preston ditty “With You I’ m Born Again”. From there you volleyed from jazz standards to blues tunes you concocted on the spot. The blues you sang kept the crowd pumped. The talkative fellow seated next to me at the bar kept grabbing my shoulder, telling me how great your voice was. This year, I have attended many good jazz concerts, but your set left a mark.

You know how to wow an audience. Plus, you kept your cool when some of rude patrons talked during the show. The talkative fellow’s date asked about your background. She was amazed you could play more than one style of jazz. I explained your dad Johnny O’Neal Sr. was a big shot jazz pianist and vocalist around Detroit. As a teenager, you hung out at many of his local performances. He bought you a piano, and you taught yourself to play. Many years later, you got your big break in New York when the drummer and bandleader Art Blakey hired you. I stopped there because you called “Sudan Blue”, a tune you performed often as a Jazz Messenger, and I wanted to hear Sean Dobbins’ solo. The drummer and bassist Marion Hayden complemented you because they are just as versatile.

Dobbins has matured a lot over the years. Early in his career, he was accustom to showboating when the spirit hit him, making funny faces, and twirling his drumsticks in the air. At first, the showboating was cute, but over time, it became annoying. That changed, however, when Dobbins struck out on his own, and formed the ensemble Sean Dobbins and the Modern Jazz Messengers. Last night, Dobbins soloing was discreet, and he never had a hey-mom-look-at-me flashback.

As for Hayden, a student of hers from the University of Michigan Dearborn attended the show. He asked my opinion of her. I explained Hayden is a priceless jazz bassist. She never grandstands or takes long solos. Musically, she has plenty of mother wit, always giving her band-mate support, but she never babies them. All night long, she kept time better than an alarm clock. Dobbins and Hayden were a dynamic supporting cast. The enthusiastic crowd showered your trio with appreciation all night. The more they applauded the harder you all worked.
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