By Don Heckman
Bill Cunliffe is a musical adventurer. His CDs, as well as his live performances reach out in all directions, challenging his pianistic and compositional skills with a compelling range of genres and instrumentations.
On Saturday night at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. he led his “Imaginación Quartet” in a group of Latin-jazz oriented selections from his Imaginación album. But he elected, even here, to explore the music with a group that differed from the horns and rhythm orientation of the album. Working with bassist John Belzaguy, drummer Jimmy Branly and percussionist Scott Breadman, Cunliffe pared the music down to its basics. And the results were enthralling.
The program actually began slowly. Although the first number, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave,” simmered with the rhythms of bossa nova, and a pair of following pieces by Joe Henderson and Miles Davis added some dynamic contemporary jazz energy, Vibrato’s houseful of conversational diners remained largely out of sync with the music. But when Cunliffe dipped into some selections from the Imaginación album – the Coots & Gillespie standard “You Go To My Head,” an original titled “El Optimista” and Irving Berlin’s classic “Heat Wave” – the quartet came to life with irresistible rhythmic vigor and creative ingenuity.
Cunliffe was at the center of the music, moving effortlessly from rhythmic tumbaos and montunas to lyrical boleros and superheated sambas. But, beyond his stylistic versatility, it was his musicality – deeply linked to his ability to improvise in a way that took his lines into new areas without losing touch with their roots – that made every one of his solos into a compelling musical excursion.
He was solidly backed by his associates. Belzaguy was both a sturdy rhythmic foundation and a consistently inventive soloist. Branly – as he always does – played his standard drum kit with an ear for timbres and textures that elude many jazz drummers. And Breadman’s percussion contributions – moving slyly from congas and bongos to shakers and tambourine – kept the Latin jazz rhythms cooking.
Cunliffe ended the set with a hard swinging, bebop-meets-Afro-Cuban rendering of “How High the Moon,” tossing in a quick romp through “Ornithology,” the bebop line based on the song’s chord changes, for good measure. It was, altogether, a scintillating display of the musical versatility that brought Cunliffe a Grammy last month for his equally adept Best Instrumental Arrangement of a medley of music from West Side Story.
On April 17, he’ll display more of his far-ranging skills, leading a 17-piece big band in a performance of his original compositions and arrangements at Vitello’s in Studio City. And on May 2, Cunliffe will lead a seven-piece band in a free Playboy Jazz performance at the Beverly Hills Civic Center Plaza.
Photo by Adrienne Tripp