Johnny O'Neal Credit: Jimmy Katz

Pianist Johnny O’Neal seemed destined for success when he moved from his native Detroit to New York in 1981 and scored a regular gig at the Blue Note, where he played behind heavies including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, and Nancy Wilson, among others. A year later he was working in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers—a virtual finishing academy for some of hard bop’s most respected figures, and in 1985 he opened for fellow pianist Oscar Peterson at Carnegie Hall. But in 1986, a mugging led him to return to his home city, where he was diagnosed as HIV positive two years later. Over the next decade his profile was seriously diminished, though he cut a few records, but things began to turn around when he played the role of pianist Art Tatum in the 2004 Ray Charles biopic Ray and paid homage to that pianist alongside clarinetist Buddy DeFranco at the 2009 Chicago Jazz Festival. Encouraged, he finally moved back to New York in 2010, where he’s led a relaxed but steady comeback with regular gigs at popular spots such as Smalls and Smoke. As displayed on his 2014 album Live at Smalls (Smalls Live), he’s made avuncular singing part of his act, tackling standards with phrasing that’s more nuanced and supple than his well-worn voice. But his adroit, stylistically middle-of-the-road playing sounds sharper than ever on last year’s In the Moment (Smoke Sessions). Joined by his working rhythm section, bassist Ben Rubens and drummer Itay Morch, O’Neal puts the focus on his piano playing, although he sounds great singing on the ballad “Guilty,” which swings with as much crispness and drive as anything he’s ever done. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Grant Steward sit in on a few tunes and push the sound toward the Jazz Messengers, but by and large it’s a fabulous showcase for O’Neal’s assured, rhythmically nuanced piano skills. For this rare Chicago performance he joins forces with the redoubtable local rhythm team of drummer George Fludas and bassist Dennis Carroll.   v