Live Jazz: the Bob Mintzer and Bill Cunliffe Big Bands

By Don Heckman

Anyone who doubts the excitement, the imagination and the contemporary vitality of big band jazz should have been at Vitello’s last weekend.  Over the course of Friday and Saturday nights, two stellar ensembles – the Bob Mintzer Big Band and the Bill Cunliffe Big Band – offered invigorating reminders of the still-potent pleasures of big band jazz.

Friday night’s program featured the Mintzer band in a program titled “Homage To Count Basie.”  And composer/saxophonist/bandleader Mintzer couldn’t have chosen a better model than the iconic Basie band with which to display his group’s impressive musical wares.

The Bob Mintzer Big Band

The Bob Mintzer Big Band

Mintzer opened, appropriately, with the Basie theme song, “One O’Clock Jump.”  And the music began to cook from the first opening passages, as the rhythm section – pianist Russell Ferrante, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer Peter Erskine – dug deeply into the classic Basie groove.

There was more Basie to come, including the familiar strains of “April in Paris,” Neal Hefti’s “Cute,” and “Shiny Stockings.”  Topping it off, Mintzer added some Basie-inspired music of his own, including “Lester Jumps Out” and “Home Basie,” an irresistibly swinging musical blending of Basie’s rhythms and James Brown’s effervescence.

Add to that more originals – “Elegant People” and “Havin’ Some Fun” among them – showcasing Mintzer’s broad, far-reaching skills as a composer/arranger.

Bob Mintzer

Bob Mintzer

Also a hard-driving tenor saxophonist, Mintzer added some substantial soloing of his own.  But his band was also filled with other primo soloists, among them saxophonists Bob Sheppard, Keith Fiddmont, Brian Scanlon and Adam Schroeder, trumpeters John Daversa and Wayne Bergeron, and pianist Ferrante, all playing in a manner that honored the Basie style.

And it was fascinating to observe the excitement coursing through the full house crowd as the sounds of big band jazz at its finest filled the room.

On Saturday night it happened all over gagin, as the Bill Cunliffe ensemble offered a “Big Band Holiday Kick Off.”  Toward that end, however, pianist/composer/bandleader Cunliffe began his set with a quartet – featuring his piano along with guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe La Barbera – playing a non-stop medley of holiday tunes.  Among them – “Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night” (featuring seasonally atmospheric soloing from Chiodini) and “Carol of the Bells.”  Cunliffe added a solo piano take on “Christmas Time Is Here,” and singer Dawn Bishop joined the ensemble, singing “The Christmas Song” (and later adding her engaging versions of “Almost Like Being In Love” and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” — not exactly seasonal songs, but appealing, nonetheless).

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

Cunliffe’s great versatility in big band scoring was also highly visible in the Latin rhythms of “Havana” and an original piece (title unannounced) written for a film about the Celtics.  In it, Cunliffe perfectly captured the driving, big band Swing era style of the late ‘30s.  His version of “Round Midnight,” featuring tenor saxophonist Jeff Elwood, brought traces of Thelonious Monk dissonances into the big band fabric. And there were numerous other fine soloists as well: including trumpeter Bijon Watson, alto saxophonist Bruce Babad and trombonist Alex Isles, among others.

Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe

The closing piece, whimsically titled “The Goldberg Contraption,” was a work based on various J.S. Bach compositions (including the Goldberg Variations).  In it, Cunliffe adroitly positioned rich Bach harmonies and compelling contrapuntal passages within the colorful textures and surging rhythms of big band jazz.

Call it a brilliant, two-night display of the far-ranging possibilities of the big jazz band format, when it’s in the hands of composer/arrangers as gifted as Bob Mintzer and Bill Cunliffe.  Big Band jazz, in their work, is still very much alive.  Ask anyone who was present in the full house crowds.

Bob Mintzer photos by Faith Frenz.

Bill Cunliffe photos by Bob Barry.

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