By Don Heckman
Bill Cunliffe’s accomplishments are many. Not only is he a world class jazz pianist, composer and arranger. He’s also acknowledged for his many skills by his musical compatriots. He’s been honored with a Grammy Award, a Down Beat Award, multiple Grammy nominations, and several Emmy nominations. Add to that a winner’s award from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano competition.
It’s unlikely that either Cunliffe or his full house audience at Vitello’s Saturday night were giving much thought to his many attainments. The focus on this engaging evening of music was on the here and now of Cunliffe’s multiple skills, as he opened the performance with his sterling quartet and topped off the evening with a big band full of the Southland’s finest players digging into his rich textured, briskly swinging music for large jazz ensemble.
The performance was enhanced by the presence of tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, one of the rare contemporary masters of traditional and swing style improvising. Working with Cunliffe’s quartet in a program of tunes ranging from standards (“But Not For Me”) to Christmas tunes (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), his soloing flowed with the captivating lyricism of such predecessors as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.
Like them, Allen’s playing recalled the old admonition that jazz improvisers, when playing standards and ballads, should also be familiar with the words of the songs. Each melody he played came to life with the intimate, story-telling connectivity of a jazz vocalist.
Allen also soloed brilliantly with Cunliffe’s big band, as well, playing with such appealing musicality that the band’s five saxophonists – whenever they had a rest – were completely focused on his warm, inventive improvising.
But the band, playing Cunliffe’s ever-fascinating compositions and arrangements, also offered their own superb playing. The charts, which included selections from a soon to be released Cunliffe big band recording, were definitive displays of his far-reaching creative imagination. The high points included the bossa nova classic, “The Girl From Ipanema, a hard-driving Cunliffe original – titled “Bonecrusher” – from his Latin CD, and a glorious take on “’Round Midnight” featuring Allen at his finest. Topping off the big band set, guest artist Grammy-winning composer/arranger Nan Schwartz conducted her own briskly swinging arrangement of “Sunny Side of the Street,” and dedicated it to her mother, a former Swing era big band singer.
Memorable musical nights at Vitello’s are not unusual. And this one was no exception. How could it be, with Cunliffe in the command position, aided by the stellar work of Allen, the superbly crafted arranging of Schwartz, and – above all – the splendid playing of the gifted musicians, including the Southland’s finest, in the Cunliffe band.
So give thanks to April Williams, Vitello’s music manager, for opening the door for Cunliffe, his music, his guests and his players. Let’s hope they return again, soon.