Bill Cunliffe’s “BACHanalia” a Fun Ride


J.S. BACH: Sleepers Wake.* Goldberg Contraption (arr. Cunliffe). CUNLIFFE: Afluencia. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3: I (arr. Cunliffe). C.P.E. BACH: Solfeggietto (arr. Cunliffe).* LEVANT-HEYMAN: Blame it On My Youth. DE FALLA: The Three-Cornered Hat (arr. Cunliffe).* PORTER: I’ve Got You Under My Skin* / Bill Cunliffe Big Band: Wayne Bergeron, John Daversa, Dan Fornero, Jamie Hovorka, Kyle Martines, Kye Palmer, Jon Papenbrook, Terell Stafford, Bob Summers, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Erik Hughes, Alex Iles, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Ido Meshulam, Ira Nepus, Francisco Torres, tbn; Ben Devitt, Cody Kleinhans, Bill Reichenbach, bs-tbn; Jeff Driskill, Nathan King, Brian Scanlon, Bob Sheppard, a-sax; Jeff Ellwood, Bob Lockhart, t-sax; Tom Peterson, Adam Schroeder, bar-sax/bs-cl; Bill Cunliffe, pn; John Chiodini, Larry Koonse, gtr; Alex Frank, Jonathan Richards, bs; Joe LaBarbera, dm; *Denise Donatelli, voc / Metre Records M1009

Here’s a fun CD, due out June 2, in which pianist-bandleader Bill Cunliffe mixes some classical themes of two Bachs—J.S. and his son C.P.E.—Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla with jazz. To alternate, he throws in an original tune, a rare Oscar Levant song and a timeless standard by Cole Porter.

I describe the album as a “fun” disc because although the arrangements are clever and swinging, they’re not as sophisticated as those done in the past by Gil Evans, Willem Breuker or Jack Walrath of classical pieces. (Check out Walrath’s great album The Serpent’s Kiss for an example of what I mean.) They are, rather, light and airy, with a lot of space in the big band arrangements, which emphasize a mellow rather than a bright timbral blend. So much is evident from the opening track, a takeoff on J.S. Bach’s Wachet auf, featuring the wordless vocal of Denise Donatelli who appears on four tracks. Cunliffe’s piano solos remind me a bit of Vince Guaraldi and a bit of Gordon Goodwin (whose work I think is vastly underrated by jazz critics). In the band arrangement, Cunliffe plays some nifty tricks with rhythm and key transitions.

This is followed by his own original, Afluencia, which ironically starts off with a dense atonal chord more startling than anything he did to Bach. Following this, however, we are in an irregular Latin-style rhythm (it sounds like 7/4 to me). I should point out that not all of the huge list of names in the header above play on every track, as the album was recorded over a three-year period in different venues with different personnel. On Afluencia and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto, for instance, the only trumpets are Bergeron, Palmer, Stafford and Summers, the only trombones Iles, Martin and McChesney, with Reichenbach on bass trombone, Sheppard and Scanlon on alto saxes and clarinets, etc. It’s too complicated for me to reproduce here, but the info is all in the CD liner notes. Sheppard’s soprano sax dominates Afluencia.

The principal theme of Prokofiev’s concerto is taken way down at a ballad tempo to start with, but quickly morphs into yet another uptempo Latin-styled piece, with Rob Lockhart’s tenor sax pushing the beat with an edgy solo, but this extra-long track (17 minutes), which slowly continues to build in tempo and excitement, is largely a showcase for the ensemble with spot solos. The Latin beat shifts from samba to cha-cha for Cunliffe’s own solo, then relaxes into a swinging 4 for some band ensemble with spot drum breaks. All in all, I felt this was one of the real highlights of the album, a fascinating joy ride on the back of a very serious composer. The multiple tempo changes put me in mind of some of the Boswell Sisters’ great tracks of the 1930s.


Denise Donatelli

Despite my being a huge fan of C.P.E. Bach, I admit not being able to positively identify the Solfeggietto used here, but then again, the man wrote even more music than his father, which is saying something. This puts us back in a definite and very uptempo swinging 4/4, again focusing on Donatelli’s vocals and Cunliffe’s piano. I was rather amazed to learn that Donatelli was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not too far from my own birthplace of Shamokin, and that she was originally a classical pianist for 15 years, winning first place in the National Federation of Music Clubs competitions three years consecutively! No wonder she has such great pitch and style.

Levant’s Blame it On My Youth is by far one of the most advanced and sophisticated charts on the set, the tempo taken way down and substitute chording provided to make the piece sound almost contemporary. This is a vehicle for some lovely floated brass-reed combinations and an even lovelier trumpet solo by Terell Stafford which dominates the tune. Following this, Cunliffe creates some fascinating interwoven lines which then fall away into quietude for Larry Koonse’s guitar solo.

J.S. Bach’s principal theme from the Goldberg Variations becomes the impetus for Cunliffe’s arrangement, which he calls Goldberg Contraption. By and large, however, this is a more genial and less complex arrangement than the Prokofiev concerto, despite some nice spot solos and occasional ensemble licks. Much tighter, and more impressive, is his wonderful conception of the theme from de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat ballet. Here Cunliffe pulls out all the stops insofar as rhythmic subtlety and timbral blends are concerned, with a centerpiece of the arrangement being a sudden tempo and theme shift to a fast-moving flamenco-styled passage and back again. Donatelli again appears in spot vocal passages. The tempo is suddenly suspended for a brief trombone appearance by Ido Meshulam, then again for Jon Papenbrook’s trumpet. This is a terrific rewriting of this piece.

The closer is Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, once again in an asymmetric tempo (basically in 3, but with added beats), and once again with Donatelli on vocals, this time singing the words. It’s a warm, relaxed ride-out to this basically fun album.

Recommended for the Prokofiev and de Falla arrangements, Cunliffe’s Afluencia, and some of the very fine solos.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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