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By Lauren Wise
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About a month ago, singer-songwriter Pete Forbes and his band were in Los Angeles rehearsing for a club gig that night. During a short break, the band's drummer, a wiry, bespectacled, mad scientist of the skins named John O'Reilly Jr., idly picked up a violin belonging to Forbes sideman John Ettinger.
Someone in the band asked O'Reilly, "Do you play?" O'Reilly sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and mumbled back that he really didn't know what he was doing on the instrument, but he'd check it out anyway.
Over the next few seconds, the 25-year-old drummer proceeded to play with the kind of artistry that can only come from years of study, eventually setting down the violin with an aw-shucks self-effacement that would be infuriating if it wasn't so damned genuine.
The moment was vintage O'Reilly. Not only the most gifted, versatile drummer in the Valley (all apologies to John Neish and Dave Cook), he's also uncommonly sweet-tempered and modest, possessing absolutely none of the bravado so common among topflight musicians. In fact, his shy graciousness is so disarming, it's tempting at times to view it as a put-on.
"His modesty is not false," says Jamal Ruhe, who plays with O'Reilly in both Niner and Yearofthemule, and who also worked with him in the late, beloved One. "I don't know where he gets off being so talented and thinking he's normal."
Forbes chimes in: "Everyone knows John is musically brilliant, and he is. But the thing that impresses me almost more than that is his attitude about things, and just his general spririt. He's an extremely humble guy, and he is so kind and so generous in his attitude about wanting to help make the music happen, to go out and sacrifice and do the things necessary. Money's never been an issue for John.
"There are so many players in this town--and I respect those players--who have to work for a living. But John's one of these guys where, if he really likes it musically, that's really what it's about for him."
O'Reilly's willingness to follow his heart (at the expense of his bank account), and his unerring musical taste have combined to place him in several of the Valley's finest bands, often at the same time. Perhaps best known to some locals for his stint with One (which was signed to Mercury Records), he currently wrangles the beat for Forbes, Niner, Yearofthemule, Hammertoes, and occasionally performs with jazz keyboardist Phil Strange. In his spare time, he composes and plays recitals at Arizona State University, where he's studied, on and off, for the past six years.
O'Reilly's boundless musical appetite makes his recent decision to move to Boston all the more traumatic for the local scene. There aren't many players whose absence could throw a big chunk of the music scene into havoc, but O'Reilly is one of them. How do you replace someone who's got chops to match his high level of commitment? Whose amiable disposition is the stuff of legend? That's the question facing people like Forbes and Ruhe.
"People are cool about it," O'Reilly says of his decision to move. "Jamal is a little bit like, 'What am I gonna do?' But I think everyone understands why I'm going."
Actually, O'Reilly himself is not exactly sure why he's going, aside from the fact that he needs a change, and he's anxious for a musical challenge. O'Reilly is careful not to suggest that he feels stifled here, but he will concede that he's looking forward to soaking in the eclecticism of Beantown, a place where a band like Hammertoes wouldn't be the token exotic, world-beat band, but would be part of a rich movement.
"It's really just to go, to see what it's like over there," he says slowly, measuring each word. "I have mixed feelings. I'm lucky to be able to play in so many different things out here, and I know I'll miss it. It's just something to do. I don't know how much I'd like to stay out here, even with all the stuff that's happening."
Making the move (currently set for late May) a bit easier for O'Reilly is the fact that he's already hooked up with at least one group of musicians, a funk ensemble called Jigawattica.
"Two of the guys were out here last year," he says. "We played out here for nine or 10 months. The bass player and singer are out there, and I've been good friends with the bass player for a long time. It's not why I'm going, but it is convenient. I've got a place to live, with people I know I like, and a band that's fun."
Among other things, what really sets O'Reilly apart from most human metronomes is his utter command of musical forms that are usually not complementary. Most rock drummers don't have the finesse to handle jazz, and most jazz drummers don't have the bash-it-out spirit needed for rock, but O'Reilly leaps back and forth from one world to another with apparent ease.
If he seems the perfect mix of garage-band passion and conservatory training, it's probably a reflection of his richly musical heritage. Born in Long Island, at 3 he moved to Los Angeles with his parents and two older sisters. His father wrote educational band music and teaching methods for elementary school kids. His mother, a flute player, also taught music. They started John on piano when he was barely out of his diapers, and in third grade he picked up the violin.