In the Irish language, céilí, pronounced KAY-lee, broadly means “dance.” That’s an apt description of the effervescent pianistic style of Caili O’Doherty, who will bring a quartet to the Bop Stop on Sunday to support “Quarantine Dream,” her new recording released last Friday.
According to O’Doherty, the name is no accident. “My parents had the Irish word in mind when they named me, but they were afraid that people would pronounce it like ‘seely’ so they changed the spelling,” she said in a video call from her home in Jersey City, New Jersey.
O’Doherty grew up in Portland, the child of an American-born father who met her mother, a native of County Roscommon in Ireland, while both were in Crete. The pianist holds dual Irish and American citizenship.
Though her dad was an amateur guitarist with a love for bluegrass, it was the family’s piano that attracted his daughter’s attention. She asked for lessons and at age five set off on a fairly conventional classical piano trajectory. O’Doherty’s talent was apparent early on, but she soon began to feel confined by classical piano pedagogy and began to improvise on the pieces. “I think I was getting tired of playing the same music over and over and trying to make it perfect,” she said.
When her musical interests veered toward jazz, O’Doherty became part of a generation of remarkably accomplished musicians who were enrolled in Portland’s American Music Program, including bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger.
The methods of the Program’s founder, the late Thara Memory, were unconventional and his legacy is not without controversy, but O’Doherty credits the training she received as foundational to her approach to music.
“We learned from a lot of guest artists who introduced us to different ways of thinking about the music,” O’Doherty said. She described a drum circle that often preceded lessons or rehearsals as a valuable tool. “I think it’s important to really feel the music in your body, to feel the effect the music can have on the body and drumming is a great way to do that.”
It’s not hard to hear that effect in O’Doherty’s own music, which pulses with rhythm even at slower tempos. It’s probably no accident that “Blues for Big Scotia,” “Quarantine Dream’s” opening track, bounces along at mid tempo with a relaxed yet insistent forward lean, a balancing act rare among pianists so young. And it’s no accident that the blues was written by Oscar Peterson, whom O’Doherty cites as a primary influence.
“My dad and I drove up to Seattle to see Oscar Peterson at Blues Alley and we sat almost next to the stage,” she remembered. “It was after he had his stroke and on one of his last tours, but it was an incredible experience. His music always felt good to listen to and it feels just as good to play.”
On “Quarantine Dream”, her second release as a leader and first for Los Angeles-based Posi-Tone Records, O’Doherty’s own compositional voice looks forward and backward at the same time. Though the title of her new CD hints at darkness (O’Doherty contracted COVID-19 in the first terrifying weeks of the pandemic before the disease had been identified), “Quarantine Dream” sparkles with pearlescent single-line solos wrapped in lush harmonies. “Salt & Vinegar” recalls mid-60s compositions by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter while the stuttering, stop-start theme or “WTF” nods toward Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Her original ballads are tender dedications. “Al,” a tender waltz for a family friend, is an unaccompanied showpiece while “Mr. O,” dedicated to the pianist’s uncle, a beloved Portland teacher, is rich with fragrant harmonies.
In her time at Boston’s Berklee College of Music O’Doherty’s was inspired by Panama-born pianist Danilo Perez, now artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, both musically and for his outreach activities. O’Doherty is carrying the tradition forward. She will embark on her first State Department-sponsored tour sometime in the next two years. “The date and the countries haven’t been set yet, but I’m really looking forward to this opportunity,” she said.
In the meantime, preparing for her “Quarantine Dream” release tour of the Midwest tops her list. At Bop Stop, the second stop on the six-city tour, the band will include drummer Cory Cox, who can be heard on the CD and Martin Nevin on bass. In place of the recording’s saxophonist Nicole Glover, a fellow Portland native, will be Tim Armacost, who was O’Doherty’s teacher at Queens College.
The concert marks a return to the Hingetown venue that she last played in 2016 as part of a quartet co-led by saxophonist Caroline Davis. “It’s a great club and the audience was wonderful,” O’Doherty said. “And it had a really nice piano.”
Caili O’Doherty, June 19, 7 p.m., at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person $15 available here. The concert will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.