Press Reviews and Features
The New York Times
Oct 17, 2011
Harold O'Neal / Marvelous Fantasy
By Ben Ratliff
Harold O'Neal's "Marvelous Fantasy" is a solo piano record in two ways. He plays his instrument unaccompanied, and the album is a piece of work that seems to be out there on its own. I have an idea where the music comes from, but I'm not hearing it anywhere else.
Mr. O'Neal, 30, is a New York jazz pianist, though a rare sighting in clubs; he's busy with other things, including teaching kenpo karate. He does make small-group jazz that's more typically of this moment, and you can hear that on an album that came out last year, "Whirling Mantis." But "Marvelous Fantasy," the strange and gorgeous whole of it, sits somewhere between Ravel's "Miroirs" and Duke Ellington's great 1953 album "Piano Reflections." (Look that one up. When you do, zero in on the slaying solo parts: "Retrospection," "Reflections in D," "Melancholia.")
This album is a set of nine quietly rhapsodic solo piano pieces, sometimes virtuosic but always easy to follow, strong and slow, played with a lot of sustain pedal. And they are carefully plotted; improvisation steals in during repetitive stretches, but the superstructures are unmovable. They contain some mesmerizing right-hand detail, soulful left-hand changes and runaway melodic currents that seem to sketch mobile states of mind. They get close to you, each one becoming kind of intense, one long step beyond ballads.
But they don't fall apart, or become music about anticipation and silence. They're on the long side, 6 to 10 minutes each, but they don't outstay their welcome. They're sturdy. They stand up straight.
Some of these pieces lean more toward European music, and some, like "Marvelous Fantasy (Roughenstein)" and "The Lovers," more toward Ellington and vaguely toward the stride-piano tradition. But they all contain bits of both and, overall, the record seems to come from an earlier, unspecifiable 20th-century moment. Don't be mistaken: there's no forced-antique feeling on this record. It just seems suggestive of a time when people had more time to play and listen.BEN RATLIFF