John C. O’Leary III

The Sundering

The liner notes (“unpacking instructions,” as one critic has put it) by pianist John C. O’Leary III are essential to understanding The Sundering. Its arc of majesty, drama, mystery and inquiry weaves a compelling story, but a confusing one unless one reads O’Leary’s remarkable recounting of his own cultural background and search for a unified self against that background. That story gives The Sundering its true beauty.

Without this, for example, the uncertainty — the feeling of loss — in his version of “All The Things You Are” (a duet with Snarky Puppy’s Shaun Martin) makes no sense. Given the context, it is deeply moving instead. Ditto the non-festive “Christmas 1992,” whose dimension comes from O’Leary’s wordless vocal and Martin’s subtle synths, and the fraught resolution of the closing “The Coupling.”

Which is not to say that the music has no potency on its own. The context gives shading to “Contextual Binding Theory” and “Ghosts In The Desert” parts 1 and 2, but the dark spiraling of the former and the eerie sparseness of the latter can also speak for themselves. “Samba Jelly” — written specially for the album by its other guest pianist, Dick Hyman — works as more of a plug-in than a segment of the arc. The other pieces mentioned above all have their own charms as well. Still, it’s a bit like appreciating puzzle pieces as standalone objects: reasonable, but beside the point. Absorbing the whole story elevates The Sundering from a fine collection of piano tunes to a profound work of art.

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