Live Jazz: The Bill Cunliffe Quartet and Big Band at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Grammy Award-winning pianist/composer/arranger Bill Cunliffe put all his talents on display Saturday night for an early celebration of the holidays.  All of which made for a broad tapestry of musicians spread across a jam-packed stage, a full house audience and a virtually non-stop program of music.

The opening set was devoted to the Cunliffe Jazz Compass quartet – with the leader’s piano, Larry Koonse’s guitar, Tom Warrington’s bass and Joe LaBarbera’s drums – performing selections from their album, Snowfall.  And the result was a prime display of Christmas and seasonal sounds, rich with the modal melodies and Baroque harmonies that jazz players have always loved to play.

There were many high points: Koonse’s exquisitely articulated version of “Silent Night”; LaBarbera’s atmospheric snare drum on “The Little Drummer Boy”; an enthusiastic rendering of the Bach cantata, Sleepers Awake that made up, in emotional warmth for what it occasionally lacked in precision; a briskly swinging version of the album’s title track – Snowfall—once the theme song of the Claude Thornhill band.  And, best of all, the musical empathy between the players, coming together with the creative intimacy of musicians who know and respect each others work.  Call it jazz with a Christmas spirit.

The second half of the program featured a sixteen piece collective of L.A.’s finest players, romping through a program to Cunliffe arrangements.  Despite a hesitant beginning, the opening “One O’Clock” jump, finally came to life, recalling the spirit, if not always the rhythmic airiness of Count Basie.  But with a band that included such stellar soloists as tenor saxophonist Rob Lockart, trumpeters Carl Saunders and Bob Summers, and trombonist Bob McChesney – among others – the creative level of intensity soon began to peak.

The set’s piece de resistance was Cunliffe’s Grammy-winning score for West Side Story Medley.  Arranged with a rich feeling for the jazz accents implicit in the Leonard Bernstein score, it was played superbly, rising to an emotional peak with the lovely, soaring melody of “Maria.”

Listening to the work of this impressive assemblage, one couldn’t help but be thankful for the frequent opportunities that L.A. jazz fans have to hear the Southland’s great cadre of musicians in action – even when they’re playing different big band music, under different leaders.  And especially when the level of the writing and the quality of the playing coincide as well as they did Saturday night.


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