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TERRY GROSS , host:

Our Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of a new album by pianist Harold O'Neal. He was born in Tanzania and raised in Kansas City where he played and recorded with hometown saxophonist Bobby Watson. He's also an actor, karate teacher, shiatsu therapist, a break dancer, and a former kick boxer known as Harold Make em' Kneel O'Neal. O'Neal's new quartet album is called "Whirling Mantis." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the pianist could give up all his day jobs.

(Soundbite of song, "Whirling Mantis")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The title track from Harold O'Neal's "Whirling Mantis" named for a defensive move in karate. The martial-arts reference suggests one way to look at how O'Neal's music operates: The players react to each other's moves, deflecting one another in stylized interaction. It's about whirling and split-second responses; of surging and then letting the other spinning tops come to you.

(Soundbite of song, "Whirling Mantis")

WHITEHEAD: Pianist Harold O'Neal with Jaleel Shaw on alto sax. O'Neal and drummer Rodney Green have recorded together before, like Green and bassist Joe Sanders. This session was the first time they'd all played together - not that you'd know it. Jazz musicians pull off the miracle of quick cohesion all the time. One reason it works here is the players share a broad frame of reference that takes in bop, funk and freestyle, without giving any of them the upper hand.

Here's O'Neal's "Motion M."

(Soundbite of song, "Motion M")

WHITEHEAD: I love the cool pulsation of that track. Harold O'Neal's best tunes slink like a panther: The players ride a groove, even as they circle each other. His "Neptune Dream" uses a ploy carried over from the last tune: The pianist's left hand doubles a tricky bass part for a fatter bottom end.

(Soundbite of song, "Neptune Dream")

WHITEHEAD: Harold O'Neal wrote these pieces over a number of years, and they're not all equally strong; his ballads can be a little diffuse, and he leads off with a too-blatant nod to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" called "Aint G." But on any material, the band delivers the goods, and O'Neal shows his cunning as a player. Like many pianists, he's influenced by Herbie Hancock's jitters behind Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner's ocean waves with Coltrane. But O'Neal's phrases take odd turns and side trips, making it hard to tell sometimes where he's headed from one second to the next. Which is what you'd expect from a gyrating martial-arts master.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "Whirling Mantis," the new CD by pianist Harold O'Neal on the Smalls label.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Love and Other Drugs," starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is FRESH AIR.

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