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January/February 2004

Bil Cunliffe Sextet
How My Heart Sings
Torii

There's no shortage of pleasant surprises on this album, which finds one underrated musician giving respect to another. Cunliffe is a Los Angeles-based pianist with a "musician's musician" rep; Zindars is a percussionist and composer of high professional regard but virtually no public presence. On How My Heart Sings, the former scores the latter's tunes for a midsize ensemble, and the results often sparkle.

It probably helps that two additional figures lurk in the background. The first is the ghost of pianist Bill Evans, who recorded the most famous interpretations of Zindars' songs. The second is John Clayton, the arranger and bassist whose Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra has long featured Cunliffe's piano prowess. On the title track, Cunliffe adapts Evans' trademark voicings to a septet translation redolent of Clayton's arranging style. The same happens on the gentle jazz-waltz "Elsa" and impressionistic ballad "Mother of Earl."

On the rest of the disc, Cunliffe achieves a balance of personalization and unadorned homage. He arranges "Here's to Neil" like a big-band chart, complete with shout choruses, contrapuntal figures and transitional interludes-but leaves "Soirée" well enough alone, letting the luminous chords do their stuff. His most successful customizations, the wry "City Tune" and earnest "Silverado Trail," feature horn parts that sound as if they were original components of the tunes.

Musicianship throughout the album is top-notch, although thrill-seekers may be disappointed by a cast of soloists who color within the lines. Trumpeter Bobby Shew plays with characteristic warmth and wit. Saxophonist-flutist Bob Sheppard, bassist Jeff D'Angelo and trombonist Bruce Paulson all deliver the goods as well. A newcomer, Justin Ray, comports himself favorably on his two tracks. But the album's irresistible center is clearly the bond between Cunliffe and drummer Joe La Barbera, who played in Evans' last trio. Reaching across the years, they pay Zindars the highest compliment by reapportioning his shining hour.

Originally published in January/February 2004
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