Although Hod O’Brien has been recording relatively consistently for the past 25 years, his Reservoir albums heralded his re-appreciation by legions of jazz enthusiasts who for the most part hadn’t been aware of him since his work at a young age in the New York jazz scene in the late 1950s, when he was performing with the likes of Oscar Pettiford, Red Rodney, Art Farmer, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Stan Getz, Cameron Brown and Elvin Jones. He appeared to have never regained top-of-mind awareness when he dropped his musical activity for studies in mathematics at Columbia University. Until now. His engagement at Blue Alley turned out to be a fateful one, for now three albums have resulted from it, calling attention to O’Brien’s steadfast adherence to bop piano.
As he did on First Set and Second Set, O’Brien mixes standards with some more obscure jazz compositions that he enjoys playing. Standards: "It Could Happen to You" and "Easy Living." Overlooked jazz gems: Howard McGee’s "Double Talk" or Tadd Dameron’s "The Squirrel."
In addition, there is a common thread in much of the Third Set, that thread being the fact that the majority of pieces are composed by Dameron.... with gratifying results. For O’Brien plays with a combination of logic and feeling for the music, his flowing improvisational lines being structurally sound even as O’Brien improvises as if freed from melodic constraints. Even so, O’Brien stays close to the melodies, never forgetting the underpinnings of songs as he plays them. In addition, Ray Drummond and Kenny Washington, consummate professionals that they are, elevate the level of playing to that of the renowned piano trios of the past due to their high level of instantly spontaneous interactivity.
Some of the highlights of Third Set, besides the re-appreciation of obscure jazz tunes, include "Dameronia," which O’Brien takes from single-note improvisation to fully chorded, closely spaced chroruses. Drummond luxuriantly lays down a solo to "Easy Living," backed by O’Brien’s spare accompaniment. And Washington propels Dameron’s "Our Delight" with palpable enthuasiasm from the start, eventually setting up O’Brien’s loudly applauded solo chorus, only to be followed, of course by a crowd-pleasing trading of fours between piano and drums.
Despite O’Brien’s initial misgivings, even he, the perfectionist, had to agree that the "an overall sense of excitement.... pervades throughout these performances." The listener can perceive that too, not only from the audience’s reactions, but also from the energy the trio injects into their live combined performances. In retrospect, but for the reluctance of O’Brien to release all three CDs at once, the Live at Blues Alley series could have been a single set of three CDs. Even so, their staggered release has effectively enhanced anticipation and facilitated appreciation of each album as O’Brien organized each set from intriguing concepts.