Live Jazz: Bill Cunliffe’s Big Band at Vitello’s

By Tony Gieske

The magnificent Bill Cunliffe orchestra played an interesting encore before leaving the bandstand at Vitello’s Saturday, a classic Count Basie number that you’d think would be hard to mess up. And yet….

Bill Cunliffe

Not that the leader’s “One O’Clock Jump” chart wasn’t played beautifully. The five-man sax section sounded as one, and so did the four trumpets and the four  trombones, each of them a rich chocolate layer cake.

Jeff Ellwood found a Lesterian tenor groove after a while, and there followed a trumpet solo by Jonathan Dane that hinted ever so delicately at Sweets Edison before it became expository in Berklee-esque fashion.  Bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera knew how to create a credible version of the All-American Rhythm Section and deftly underpinned the spectacular doings of the three horn sections, high-powered as they were.

Rob Lockart

But that was just it. The charm of “One O’ClockJump” is its pastoral core, quiet as a meadow until the final chorus brings its restrained dot-dash trumpet shouts, placed exactly so. Like Basie’s piano playing, it’s all about space. The Cunliffe view is to cram as much harmonic complexity into the chart as humanly possible, so that no chord is left by its lonesome.

John Daversa

Which is a roundabout way of saying that he tends to overwrite. Sometimes this works, as in “Minnesota,” a wildly careening version of “Back Home in Indiana,” that included a startlingly sophisticated trumpet chorus by John Daversa and another by tenorman Rob Lockart.

Willie Murillo

The guy that thrilled me all night was Willie Murillo, a screech trumpeter in the tradition of Al Killian, Ernie Royal and Pete Candoli. Except that he didn’t screech. Everything was full and ringing. It was the icing on the various baked goods that Cunliffe was offering, keeping the ears a-tingle all evening..

“West Side Story,” in Cunliffe’s Grammy-winning chart, was the evening’s wide-ranging centerpiece, and it was certainly impressive, particularly the “I Feel Pretty” part, taken at breakneck speed.

Again, it was a gas to hear this great band tackle Cunliffe’s challenging creation and make it sing. At the end, it had become a memorable night brimming with musicianship… another feather in the Vitello cap.

Photos by Tony Gieske.  Read and see more of Tony Gieske’s jazz essays and photos at his personal web site


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