This is one of those recordings that I like to wave a flag about, an example of the kind of musicianship that jazz players are capable of. From beginning to end, this is a beautifully crafted session, with Cunliffe's beautifully crafted arrangements of Earl Zindars' beautifully crafted compositions. Erdmann is quite right when he writes that: "The real star of this recording is Cunliffe's extraordinary arrangements. . . Each piece is a gem of harmonic/timbre construction and it's obvious Cunliffe has a real intuitive sense of the best combination of instruments to call for in order to seek out the heart of each composition." Fine. But then he feels compelled to add that the charts are ". . . not quite in the category of Herbie Hancock's hugely evocative and highly influential sextet arrangements on The Prisoner." Cunliffe himself invites this comparison, writing in the liner notes about his Silverado Trail arrangement, pointing out that the alto flute/flugel/trombone lead was "made famous by the Herbie Hancock sextet, one of my favorite groups."
The comparison should end there. In the words of John Lydgate (in his 'Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep', circa 1440): "Comparisons are odious." In this case, comparing two sessions made thirty-four years apart, and emerging from rather different esthetics, can be very dangerous, especially when one of the sextets in question-the Hancock-was actually nine pieces. I have listened to both of these recordings very carefully and conclude that they are both outstanding, but quite different. If anything, Cunliff's writing is more precise, and Zindars' compositions add a nice sense of variety and contrast to the session. On the other hand, the looser feeling works better for Hancock. Apples and oranges.
Erdmann has another criticism. He claims that the soloists on the Cunliffe recording "don't appear inspired." Again, how do we judge inspiration? I imagine Erdmann is comparing Shew, Paulson and Sheppard to Johnny Coles and Joe Henderson, and Cunliffe with Hancock. To my ears, this is not Coles' best work and I have never been a big fan of Henderson. I find too much "scribbling" in his solos-I can play chromatic note flurries all night, so it doesn't impress me. Sheppard's work is incisive on all of his horns, especially his alto which is not heard that often. Shew is impressive throughout, Paulson's solos have the swagger associated with the best trombone work and Cunliffe sounds on top of his game throughout. No lack of inspiration here. Indeed, the solos are as beautifully crafted as the arrangements. And it is a mistake to assume that craft and inspiration are mutually exclusive.
So, do not be put off by Mr Erdmann's review-that is just his opinion. My opinion is that if you like small group writing of the highest quality, and would like to enjoy the work of some of the finest West coast professionals who we don't hear from very often, you would well to check out How My Heart Sings.