Bill Cunliffe: The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2

In the introduction to his book Weather Bird, Gary Giddins observes, “Interpretation, the lifeblood of classical music, is downgraded to imitation in jazz, beyond occasional attempts at orchestral repertory.” Bill Cunliffe dares to challenge this principle with an album that revisits, for purposes of interpretation, a consensus masterpiece: Oliver Nelson’s 1961 Impulse LP The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

Nelson’s recording contained six indelible compositions, each manifesting a different relationship to the blues, and spare, immaculate arrangements for septet. The album also contained some solos for the ages from Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans.

Cunliffe wisely walks a fine line. His new arrangements do not radically alter Nelson’s music, but rather offer subtle shifts in harmonic and rhythmic perspective. His nine-piece ensemble plays the six famous tracks of the Nelson album in their original order. The most famous is the first, “Stolen Moments,” a diaphanous, mysterious 16-bar blues in C-minor. The Nelson version contains four sublime solos from Hubbard, Dolphy (on flute), Nelson himself (on tenor) and Evans. Cunliffe’s reconsideration of the song is shorter and more urgent, with some new grace notes and details and flourishes in the theme, and a darker, more complex instrumental blend. It also has three strong, brand new solos from trombonist Andy Martin, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and bassist Tom Warrington.

Cunliffe’s personalization of “Stolen Moments,” like this whole project, is revealing and valid. New elements in his arrangements (like Mark Ferber’s drum breaks on “Cascades”) sound organic. Cunliffe shares with Nelson a commitment to charts that set up inspired blowing. Saxophonists Clayton and Bob Sheppard and trumpeter Terell Stafford respond with some of their most creative recent work on record, volatile (Sheppard), aggressive (Stafford) and free (Clayton).

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.