A Jazz Pianist's Cinematic 'Fantasy'

Dec 25, 2011
Originally published on December 25, 2011 4:06 pm

Harold O'Neal is a jazz pianist with an unusual resume. Born in Tanzania and raised in Kansas City, Miss., O'Neal is also a hip-hop dancer, martial artist and actor. He's just released a new album with an unusual back story of its own: Marvelous Fantasy is a largely improvised collection of solo piano pieces, an homage to the music of silent films.

"Each one of these pieces is a soundtrack in itself," says O'Neal, whose style has been pegged by critics as straddling the line between jazz and classical. "When I was a kid and first started playing, I didn't know nothing about different styles of music, like most kids. ... I wanted to make a record that someone did not have to be a jazz aficionado or a classical enthusiast to be able to appreciate."

Guy Raz speaks with Harold O'Neal about making Marvelous Fantasy, and O'Neal performs live at NPR.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And what you're listening to right now is pianist Harold O'Neal at NPR's grand piano. He's released a new album of original solo piano pieces. It's an homage to music from silent films. It's called "Marvelous Fantasy." The record is largely improvised, and that's precisely what he's doing right now. Let me get out of the way so we can hear some more.


RAZ: That is Harold O'Neal. His new album is called "Marvelous Fantasy." He's here in NPR's performance Studio 4A with me. Harold, welcome to the program. That's just absolutely a beautiful piece. I didn't recognize it from the new album, though. What is it?

HAROLD O'NEAL: Oh, that's actually a piece that's not on the album. It's a new composition, "Dance of the Dream."

RAZ: And what's it about?

O'NEAL: That piece, well, it's inspired by a couple of Ravel pieces. He's one of my favorite classical pianists. And this piece, harmonically, is a lot of minor chords moving in all kinds of different intervals. And there's this common rhythmic pulse, so there's something about those sad type of chords moving in a happy way. So that's kind of the idea with that one.

RAZ: Interesting you mention Ravel. I was reading a New York Times review of your record, and it said it's somewhere between Ravel and Duke Ellington, which is pretty high praise. And in listening to it, it actually makes almost perfect sense. It kind of straddles this line between jazz and classical.


RAZ: It's almost hard to define. How would you describe this music?

O'NEAL: Well, to tell you that, I'll go back to the inspiration. You know, when I was a kid and first started playing, I didn't know nothing about different styles of music, like most kids, but I did notice that there were these sounds I was hearing with these images I was seeing and they seemed like the perfect sounds.

RAZ: You're talking about cartoons.

O'NEAL: Yeah. Cartoons.

RAZ: Right.


O'NEAL: Yeah. So I wanted to - with this album, I wanted to make a record that someone did not have to be a jazz aficionado, did not have to be a classical enthusiast to be able to appreciate and connect with this music.

RAZ: Well, we are here in NPR's performance Studio 4A in front of NPR's grand piano with Harold O'Neal. And it would be great to hear something from this record. But before you do that, can you tell me what you're going to play and something about it?

O'NEAL: Sure. This piece is entitled "Marvelous Fantasy." And it's kind of like the climax of the album. Even though all the pieces are separate, this one's a climax. And this one had the most time put into it as far as work. So this is "Marvelous Fantasy."

RAZ: All right.


RAZ: That's pianist Harold O'Neal here in NPR's performance Studio 4A with a piece that appears on his new record. It's called "Marvelous Fantasy." And that track is also called "Marvelous Fantasy." What a beautiful piece, Harold.

O'NEAL: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to share that with you guys.

RAZ: Your background is so interesting and unusual. Your family is American, goes back a few generations, but you were born in Tanzania.

O'NEAL: Yep.

RAZ: How did that happen?

O'NEAL: Well, my father was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and my mother is from Tanzania in a village in Arusha. And my father was in the Black Panther party and moved to Africa in the '70s to change his life, change the pace, get away from that scene and be with his older brother who's still in exile now over there. He was the leader of the Kansas City chapter of the Panther Party.

And my father was in a Black Panther party and moved to Africa in the '70s to change his life, change the pace, get away from that scene and be with his older brother who's still an exile now over there. He was the leader of the Kansas City chapter of the Panther party. And my dad went over there and met my mom, changed his life and decided to raise the rest of the family here in America. So we came back.

RAZ: I was looking through your Wikipedia entry, and it seems, Harold, that hackers may have broken into it because...


RAZ: ...it has some of the most bizarre stuff anybody could come up with. Here's what it says: On top of being a jazz pianist, you're a B-boy hip-hop dancer.

O'NEAL: Oh, man.

RAZ: You've been a competitive kick boxer. You're a karate teacher, a shiatsu practitioner, a magician, and you can solve a Rubik's cube in 30 seconds. Is that all accurate?

O'NEAL: Yeah. I guess so. I've got a couple of new things.

RAZ: Oh, I see, that you would add to the page.


O'NEAL: Yeah.

RAZ: So this was not hacked into. This is real.

O'NEAL: I would hope so.


RAZ: Let me ask you about some of these individually. The martial arts...

O'NEAL: Sure. Yes.

RAZ: ...karate. How did you become involved on karate?

O'NEAL: I did karate when I was a kid and stuff, but it wasn't really serious. It was just a few lessons here and there. But when I was in high school, I had a friend who was a couple of years younger than me, and we would try to pick on him, and he'd just toss us around like a sack of potatoes getting thrown out, you know? And I said, what is going on here? And he said, my dad's a karate teacher.

And to tell the truth, I was probably like the only one out of that whole group that decided to connect with him and start studying with his dad. And that was years ago. But that's how I got into that.

RAZ: You are a professional kick boxer...

O'NEAL: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...and you go by the name Harold "Make Me Kneel" O'Neal. Is that right?

O'NEAL: Make 'Em Kneel O'Neal.

RAZ: Make 'Em Kneel.

O'NEAL: Yeah.

RAZ: Sorry. Not make me kneel. Yeah. You would want to make them kneel, of course.

O'NEAL: Mm-hmm.


RAZ: You're a B-boy.

O'NEAL: Yes.

RAZ: Which is a hip-hop dancer, of course.

O'NEAL: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And you actually appear in a Jay-Z video "Young Forever"...

O'NEAL: Right.

RAZ: ...which is a great video. Have you tried your hand at hip-hop yourself?

O'NEAL: You know, me and my brothers used to do that a lot growing up, but it's way out of practice. But I see the phrasing in jazz improvisation and hip-hop is very similar, because they'll say (singing) dup, dup, da-ba-da, uh, uh, uh, ba-du, dup, dup, da-ga-da, uh, uh, uh. And then it's (singing) dup, dup, da-ba-da (unintelligible). It's the same kind of phrasing.

RAZ: Yeah.

O'NEAL: Yeah.

RAZ: I notice that the last line of your Wikipedia page entry says that you can solve a Rubik's cube. What is your record?

O'NEAL: You know what? Most of the time, I don't keep track, just because I just love doing it.

RAZ: Right.

O'NEAL: But the last time I did it, and it was the fastest time, it was 25 seconds.

RAZ: Wow.

O'NEAL: Twenty-six-ish.

RAZ: Harold, I have to test you on your Rubik's cubes skills.


RAZ: And I have - I actually have one.

O'NEAL: Whoa.

RAZ: I actually have a Rubik's cube right here.

O'NEAL: Oh, my God. Uh-oh.

RAZ: And I am going - and it's all jumbled up.

O'NEAL: You're going to call me on that number, huh?

RAZ: I'm going to call you on it. And I'm...

O'NEAL: Now, I'm going to tell you right now, man, like all kinds of different numbers come in all the time.

RAZ: Yeah.

O'NEAL: And it really just depends on how it's mixed up.

RAZ: OK. We're going to time you.

O'NEAL: That sounds like an excuse, right?

RAZ: We're going to put you on the clock. I'm going to walk over, hand you this Rubik's cube, and I will tell you when to go.


RAZ: All right. Do we have the clock ready? Clock is ready.

O'NEAL: This is about to be like five minutes, folks.

RAZ: All right.

O'NEAL: You're going to have to cut to commercial.


O'NEAL: All right.

RAZ: OK. Go for it. That's an old Rubik's cube that he's working with, I should say, but he's moving fast. His fingers are moving fast on that Rubik's cube.


O'NEAL: I should've told you, man, just because it's the fastest time doesn't mean it's the average time.

RAZ: Yeah. It's a sticky Rubik's cube.

O'NEAL: Yeah.

RAZ: Yeah. This is an original one from the '80s. But you're making progress.

O'NEAL: I'm almost done.

RAZ: You're making progress. I could see just - see his fingers moving fast...


RAZ: ...like on those piano keys. Here he comes. Getting close. Getting close.

O'NEAL: Good thing I took down that post that said I could eat like 1,000 firecrackers.


RAZ: Yeah. Yup. Good thing you did take that down because, of course, we have a bagful.

O'NEAL: OK. I'm done now.

RAZ: Wow.

O'NEAL: Sorry about that.

RAZ: That's pretty good. That's a minute, 18.

O'NEAL: That's...

RAZ: Pretty impressive.

O'NEAL: Yeah, but...

RAZ: Pretty impressive.

O'NEAL: Oh, thank you.


RAZ: My guest is Harold O'Neal. He's a kick boxer, a Rubik's cube champion, a B-boy dancer. Most importantly, he is a jazz pianist, and his new album is a collection of pieces for solo piano. It's called "Marvelous Fantasy." I know that your great-grandfather was also a pianist.

O'NEAL: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: But he had a very specific specialty. Can you tell me about him?

O'NEAL: Well, actually, I'm named after him and his son. His name was Harold Pennington. I found out after a while - after years of playing the piano and doing this, that my great-grandfather played for silent films in Kansas City. And my grandmother told me that she remembers when she was about 5 years old that he had a jazz trio, and they would rehearse, and she remembers sitting in the theater...

RAZ: In Kansas City?

O'NEAL: ...in Kansas City. Sitting in the - because around that time period, Kansas City was, you know, a certain way with the scene.

RAZ: Presumably segregated in movie theaters.

O'NEAL: Right. So she said she remembers being in the theater and sitting behind the piano on the floor next to his feet as he's playing for these films.

RAZ: Wow.

O'NEAL: That was him.

RAZ: So he would probably play improvisational piano, depending on what was on the screen, right?

O'NEAL: That's right. Yeah.

RAZ: If you don't mind, I thought we would put you through a little exercise inspired by your great-grandfather Harold.

O'NEAL: Oh, wow.

RAZ: And I'm going to call out some scenes from a silent film. We'll just make it up as we go along, let's say...


RAZ: ...and I'd like you to play along. All right. So let's start off with "The Exhibitionist." Here's a man walking down a city street.


RAZ: OK. All of a sudden, another man is on that street. He pulls out a gun, and he starts chasing this man down the street, Harold.


RAZ: All right. He gets away, right? And as he's running away, he sees his girlfriend, his beautiful girlfriend, and they run toward each other in slow motion.


RAZ: It's a beautiful moment, Harold, but she has a secret that she is keeping from him, and it's a horrible secret.


RAZ: Turns out she's a spy, and she's on a secret mission.


RAZ: And just in time, Harold, our hero, our protagonist finds out, and he saves the day. He manages to find out, and he saves the day.


RAZ: And now, the big finale as the credits roll.


RAZ: Well, I'd watch that movie for sure. That was incredible.


RAZ: I can't believe you pulled that off. Harold O'Neal, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the program. Thank you so much. And Merry Christmas to you.

O'NEAL: Thank you so much. Happy Holidays to you and everyone out there. And thanks for listening and having me here. I really appreciate it.

RAZ: Before you go, Harold, can I ask you to leave us with one more piece from the new record?

O'NEAL: Yes.

RAZ: And let me know what you're going to play for us.

O'NEAL: This piece is entitled "The Lovers."


RAZ: And you can hear full performances of those Harold O'Neal pieces at our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.