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Bill Cunliffe: Imaginacion

Since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Award in 1989, Los Angeles-based pianist-composer-arranger Bill Cunliffe has performed and recorded prolifically. Imaginacion features a collection of his eclectic Latin/Caribbean-style arrangements of originals (mostly his) and a few standards.

The focus is on Cunliffe as an arranger, since he does not solo on half the tracks. When he does play, however, he displays his usual sparkling inventiveness. But he doesn’t need to improvise on every tune thanks to such superb cohorts as tenorist/flutist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Bobby Shew and trombonist Arturo Velasco. Cunliffe’s engaging charts are scored for a smallish ensemble that also includes a second trumpet and trombone and a rhythm section augmented by two percussionists.

Arranging highlights include the rhythmically irresistible calypso of “Chucho” and cleverly inserted snatches of “Manteca,” “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Shiny Stockings” in Reed Kotler’s “Flying High.”

Cunliffe also handled the arrangements and piano chair for The Music of Reed Kotler, as performed by a quintet of top L.A. jazz musicians. Bob Sheppard is present once more, along with guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Mark Ferber. Kotler’s tunes sound as though they might have been written by Great American Popular Song composers. Attractive, tuneful melodies and straightahead chord changes characterize a program that includes lively up-tunes, medium-to-uptempo groovers, affecting ballads, scintillating Latins and a gliding waltz.

Again, Cunliffe develops his stellar improvisations in a logical, coherent fashion. That the ever-swinging Sheppard can create long, cogent lines out of short melodic fragments is demonstrated in spades on the uptempo “Love’s Such a Funny Thing.” And he showcases his sensitivity and gorgeous flute d’amour sound on the lovely “Waltz for Gary” (Foster). Koonse, too, displays a gift for melody as well as a solid sense of time. Oles and Ferber accompany and solo with precision and exquisite taste.

Originally Published