Bill Cunliffe is a jazz pianist who teaches at California State University at Fullerton. Originally from Massachusetts, Cunliffe attended Duke University and studied with Mary Lou Williams while she was there between 1977 and 1981. After he graduated from Duke, he went on to earn a masters degree in music education from the Eastman School of Music. Then he toured with Buddy Rich, performed behind Frank Sinatra and worked with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson and James Moody.
Cunliffe won the 1989 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition—winning the approval of pianists and tough judges Hal Galper, Ahmad Jamal and Barry Harris. He also won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement of Oscar Peterson's West Side Story Medley.
His 2008 recording of Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2 is a nonet interpretation of the original 1961 classic by Oliver Nelson. Your instincts may tell you that the original hardly needs freshening up, but you'd be wrong. This album is brilliantly arranged by Cunliffe and the solo work throughout is spectacular.
Musicians on the date are Larry Lunetta and Terell Stafford (tp) [pictured], Andy Martin (tb), Bob Sheppard (sop, ts), Jeff Clayton and Brian Scanlon (as), Bill Cunliffe (p,arr), Tom Warrington (b) and Mark Ferber (d). That's only two more than the Oliver Nelson album, but the way the musicians are arranged by Cunliffe, it feels like twice that number.
Rather than purely mimic the original, Cunliffe's rendition remains faithful to Nelson's intent but heads off on a series of adventures without any padding or back-pedaling. His arranging skill is particularly evident on Hoe-Down, Yearnin' and Teenie's Blues. In Cunliffe's hands, an album that is considered untouchable has become both a tribute and an expansion of Nelson's original concept.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Bill Cunliffe's Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2 (Resonance) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Teenie's Blues...