Pianist/Composer/Arranger Bill Cunliffe Revels in the Melding of Classical and Jazz on New Big Band Album, out June 2, 2017
BACHanalia turns classics by Bach, Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla into briskly swinging jazz featuring Denise Donatelli, Terell Stafford, Joe La Barbera and Bob Sheppard
"Bravo, Bill Cunliffe! You successfully blend your love for the classical world with everything else you embrace. The result is a collection of colors that draw me in from the downbeat to the last fermata." - John Clayton
"Bill Cunliffe is an incredible pianist and unique big band composer/arranger. He combines varied elements in a way that gives his music a sound and feel all its own.He is one of the main voices in the big band genre today." - Bob Mintzer
When composer Gunther Schuller began hybridizing jazz and classical music 60 years ago, he famously coined the term "Third Stream" to describe the results. In 2010, pianist, composer and Grammy-winning arranger Bill Cunliffe wrote a Grammy-nominated concerto for trumpet and orchestra that put his own twist on the merger, calling it fourth stream La Banda. Now, with his newest album, BACHanalia, Cunliffe boldly crosses the streams, mashing together classical repertoire and big band jazz with swinging abandon and irreverent glee.
BACHanalia, out June 2 on Cunliffe's own Metre Records label, obviously tips its hat to a towering figure in the history of music, Johann Sebastian Bach. But it also suggests that audiences are in for a musical bacchanal, an evening of merrymaking and revelry (level of debauchery left to the listener's discretion) that would be temperamentally suited to Cunliffe's raucous, gleam-in-the-eye style. The arrangements spotlight the pianist's gift for transforming a wide range of material into rollicking charts that are as bracingly fun to listen to as they are packed with creative ideas and sparkling wit - all skills learned through working with such legends as Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and James Moody.
"I was always a wannabe classical pianist," says Cunliffe, modestly downplaying the years of classical training that preceded his college-age immersion in jazz, inspired by hearing Oscar Peterson for the first time. "These days, stylistic differences aren't viewed in quite the same way they used to be. Big band jazz is more intricately written, so it's moving toward European music; and modern classical music uses more indeterminacy, like jazz. And players now can do everything."
In addition, Cunliffe invites special guests to enliven the proceedings: Three-time Grammy nominee Denise Donatelli adds evocative wordless vocals to several tracks as well as a seductive interpretation of a Cole Porter classic; trumpeter Terell Stafford, who has played with the bandleader in the Clayton Brothers band and taught alongside him at Philadelphia's Temple University, takes a breathtakingly vulnerable solo turn on "Blame It On My Youth"; saxophonist Bob Sheppard offers a thrilling soprano workout on Cunliffe's "Afluencia"; and the incomparable drummer Joe La Barbera anchors the band throughout with the exhilarating propulsion that Cunliffe insists is central to any music he makes.
"It's got to swing," he states simply. "That rhythmic engine is so important. It brings people together. The structures of classical music lend themselves extremely well to large group jazz improvisation, but you've got to find rhythms that are readily translatable. Bach has always had that pulse. The Russian stuff - Shostakovich, Prokofiev - always feels like bebop to me."
The sound of La Barbera's brushes opens the album, setting the gentle but upbeat tone for "Sleepers Wake." Cunliffe's take on the beloved Bach cantata lets Donatelli's glowing vocalise carry the melody, joined at times by sax, guitar, trumpet, or Cunliffe's piano. A similar setting is given to the Baroque melodic twists and turns of "Solfeggietto," by the great composer's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Donatelli's voice blends into the surging swells of Falla's "The Three-Cornered Hat," which Cunliffe originally arranged at the behest of legendary "Tonight Show" bandleader Doc Severinsen.
The rich, complex harmonies of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto caught Cunliffe's ear from the first time he heard the piece. Here he transforms it into a lively samba highlighted by his own adventurous solo as well as a hypnotic run by saxophonist Rob Lockart, a former Eastman School of Music classmate. The final classically inspired piece is "Goldberg Contraption," which uses Glenn Gould's acclaimed recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations as a touchstone before veering off in some wild and eclectic directions. The title pays winking homage to cartoonist Rube Goldberg, whose whimsical devices went to ridiculous extremes to achieve simple goals, using a hodgepodge of found items. Cunliffe approached the composition similarly, patchworking a parodic fugue with New Orleans brass and simmering bebop, with the tongues that aren't playing instruments planted firmly in cheeks.
"I think music should be, among other things, funny," Cunliffe says. "I think that musicians - and people in general - who don't laugh at themselves are missing the boat." More often, though, the fun of Cunliffe's music comes from the joy of the players and from the pianist himself, who exults in recomposing his pieces on the bandstand. "I love being able to conduct the ensemble and break things apart at times. It's never the same twice."