Bill Cunliffe is one of those musicians who does it all. Not only is he an award-winning pianist and composer and the author of books on jazz, but he is also a professor at California State University Fullerton. Here are some of the details. In 1989 he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Award. His arrangement of Oscar Peterson’s “West Side Story Medley” won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Instrumental Arrangement. His musical compositions include works for small combos, big bands and symphony orchestras. His books on jazz, Jazz Keyboard Toolbox and Jazz Inventions for Keyboard, have become standard texts on the subject. Over the years he has worked with the elite of the jazz world.
Listen to River Edge, New Jersey, the album his trio released in April, and you can’t help but understand why. Not only will the six original pieces give you some idea of the range of his musical interests as a composer, but all 10 of the tunes make it clear that this is a jazz pianist who knows his way around a keyboard. Working with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner, musicians he had collaborated with in other projects over the years, he has put together an album of straight-ahead modern jazz filled with music that only needs one work to describe it: beautiful. There are a couple of Latin pieces, a little classic rock, and even a song culled from the Great American Songbook to round out the set. New song, old song—it doesn’t matter. The Bill Cunliffe Trio can play.
“Sweet Andy,” the Cunliffe original that opens the album, is dedicated to Andy Simpkins, who played bass with Sarah Vaughan. It begins fittingly with an appropriate little thematic intro from Wind and Horner before Cunliffe, as you would expect, very quickly takes over. But these are musicians who know how to work together. Turns out most all the original songs, Cunliffe explains in the liner notes, are about people who had some effect on his life. The swinging blues “Blue Notes” was written for trombonist Bruce Paulson. “What Might Have Been” is a wistful ode to the end of a prior affair. “To Wanda” is dedicated to his current lady.
He gives a nod to his work in Latin American music with new arrangements of the Antônio Carlos Jobim classic “The Girl from Ipanema,” always a welcome addition to a jazz album. There’s also his own piece, “Choro,” from his 2009 suite “Nostalgia in Corcovado,” which Cunliffe had previously recorded with the ensemble Trimotif. They do killer versions of Harry Nilsson’s “One” (a 1969 hit for Three Dog Night), something of an unusual choice for a jazz album, as well as the Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz standard “You and the Night and the Music,” a tune that has become a favorite of many jazz musicians. His arrangement builds to an inventive climax.