Bill Cunliffe Trio: River Edge, New Jersey

This album marks the recording debut of pianist Bill Cunliffe’s new trio, but nothing about it suggests the tentative approach that often mars maiden studio voyages. The reason for that is plain enough. Cunliffe has recruited two musicians whom he admires and with whom he seems to have a natural rapport: bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner. As the trio moves through this collection of pop standards and multifaceted original pieces, all smartly arranged and often featuring sharp contrasts, with vibrant chromaticism giving way to knotty syncopation, the performances are as surefooted as they are challenging. Cases in point include the rhythmically tricky Cunliffe-penned opener “Sweet Andy” and the warm reprise of “You and the Night and the Music.”

One of Cunliffe’s chief talents is his ability to unfurl familiar tunes in fresh and inventive ways. Nothing illustrates that gift here better than “One (Is the Loneliest Number),” the Harry Nilsson-penned pop hit, which receives more than just a brand new coat of paint. Melodic alterations, reharmonized passages, nimble rhythmic interplay and colorfully improvised tangents all play a role in providing listeners with a genuinely distinctive perspective. Much the same could be said for the trio’s rendering of “The Girl From Ipanema,” another reminder of this group’s collective wit and spirit. Piano trios come and go all the time, but it would be a shame if this ensemble doesn’t return to the studio soon and often.