In 1971, British comedy troupe Monty Python released And Now For Something Completely Different, its absurdist first feature film. Roughly 35 years later, percussionist Brian O’Neill formed Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica (orchestrotica.com), a group that’s taken that title concept into musical terrain ever since.
Featuring O’Neill on vibraphone and hand percussion, Geni Skendo (bass flute, contrabass flute), Adam Good (resonator guitar, oud), James Heazlewood-Dale (bass), and Jeremy Smith (percussion), the quintet’s “Chromatic Adventures Tour” includes an afternoon appearance at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach on April 16.
And if the unorthodox instrumentation isn’t enough of a clue, consider that O’Neill’s arrangements run between original compositions, a Bach interpretation called “Would You Like Bongos With That Fugue?” and a Seattle grunge medley featuring music by Nirvana and Soundgarden.
“Our approach is that there’s always inspiration there, even though we may not do the literal version of something,” O’Neill says by phone from his home in Boston. “A fugue, for example, won’t be played in its original meter. We’ll adapt, change, and add material. Yet some of the original fugue content will still be inside our arrangement. In reaching for the unusual, I wondered what a Bach fugue would sound like with a groove to it.”
O’Neill has consistently led this ensemble into uncharted territory since 2007 — combining jazz, classical and world music with spices from everywhere imaginable, including Latin America, Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East and beyond. He sees it as a modern update of the popular instrumental music called “exotica” from the 1950s.
“The way I describe it, in a few words, is global jazz and exotic chamber music,” O’Neill says. “What I like about it is that it can sound like it’s from some faraway land, but you can’t really pin it to any one culture.”
A 46-year-old Phoenix native, O’Neill earned a bachelor’s degree in percussion performance from Northern Arizona University before relocating to Boston in 1999. With its major musical learning institutions (Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory), Beantown is a rare major American city to be so open-minded about such genre cross-pollination.
The multi-faceted percussionist is able to earn a living in the expensive market through touring, teaching and freelancing in myriad different settings and styles, including with symphonic orchestras and as a pit musician in popular theater performances. He’s the drummer and percussionist for the Lyric Stage Company’s presentation of Sister Act in Boston for much of April and May.
Like all percussionists, O’Neill is what he calls a “pluralist,” playing several different instruments. For most Western percussionists, that means the traditional Afro-Cuban combinations of djembe, conga and bongo hand drums, perhaps mixed with timbales (played with sticks) and a variety of hand-held shaken instruments. O’Neill plays many of those percussives, but also the classical mallet instruments vibraphone and marimba, several different varieties of tambourine, the Middle Eastern doumbek hand drum, Irish bodhran, Afro-Peruvian cajon, and beyond.
Also a pianist, O’Neill’s dexterity extends to his writing. Rather than copy material exactingly like a cover band or tribute act; compose exactingly without improvisation, or improvise exclusively as in free jazz, he not surprisingly finds ways to blend such different approaches.
“I think of it as compositional improvisation,” he says. “You usually think of it as a player improvising, but I try to think of what I can improvise at the composing or arranging stages as well. And the influences come from all places.”
Mr. Ho’s Ochestrotica is a stripped-down version of the percussionist’s 23-piece Esquivel Megaband, named for Mexican composer, arranger and pianist Juan Garcia Esquivel (1918-2002), whose popular instrumental pieces from the 1950s and ’60s helped spark a lounge music revival in the 1990s. He’s called “the king of space-age bachelor pad music” on the group’s website.
In both of those group settings, O’Neill creatively crafts his worldly musical influences into arrangements exclusively his own, whether on cover material or original compositions like on the Orchestrotica’s two albums, Third River Rangoon and Where Here Meets There.
“Brian O’Neill isn’t just a great musician;” states Tony Sachs in the Huffington Post, “he’s also a first-rate composer.”
As for the “Mr. Ho” nickname, lest one get the wrong idea, it’s actually another testimony to the percussionist’s versatility. O’Neill was once referred to as “Haole O’Neill” by the manager of a Hawaiian band he worked with. “Haole” can be translated as “white guy,” “outsider,” or both.
In other words, something completely different.
If You Go
Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica performs at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach
When: 3 p.m. April 16
Tickets: $15 museum admission, $10 for members
Info: 561-832-5196, www.norton.org