Grammy nominee and winner of the 1989 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Award, pianist Bill Cunliffe’s latest recorded project is a collection of his own arrangements of compositions by percussionist Earl Zindars. Zindars is best known as the composer of a number of pieces recorded by pianist Bill Evans in the 1970s, of which How My Heart Sings is perhaps the most well known in the Evans canon. On this recording Cunliffe has taken ten of Zindars’ pieces and scored them for sextet.
In addition to Cunliffe the ensemble includes jazz heavyweights Joe LaBarbara on drums and one of the most underappreciated trumpeters/flugelhornists of this era, Bobby Shew. The other musicians are fine capable performers who contribute to the overall sound, especially multi-reedist Bob Sheppard who is equally capable on a shopping list of woodwind instruments (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones along with multiple flutes and clarinet), but don’t stand out within the context of this recording.
Truth be told, no one musician shines. An overall sense of musical malaise permeates the solos on this recording and the emotions never run past simmer on the hot-stove index. As soloists, it’s as if the musicians are reading the charts for the first time and only the opening get-acquainted attempts at the solo changes were used in the recording. Bobby Shew makes a valiant attempt at heating things up with an exceptional solo on Here’s To Neal, but the ensemble doesn’t catch the spark. Cunliffe himself is a fine soloist, but for some unknown reason isn’t able to reach his usual high standards on this set, especially when compared to some of his earlier recordings. It’s not that the soloists play poorly or bad, it’s just they don’t appear inspired.
The real star of this recording is Cunliffe’s extraordinary arrangements. While not quite in the category of Herbie Hancock’s hugely evocative and highly influential sextet arrangements on The Prisoner, Cunliffe’s writing is smart, stylish, witty and some of the most finely crafted sextet work to appear since Hancock’s. 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.
For the arranging alone this recording is highly recommended to all would be tone-smiths looking for a way to blend subtle tonal/harmonic shadings with deep instrumental richness. On the negative side, this recording never takes off. The reason for this may be the highly introspective nature of the delicate arrangements. On The Prisoner Hancock’s arrangements were balanced by coolly shifting solos by some of jazz’s greatest artists which amplified the rich palette Hancock created within the ensemble sections. On Cunliffe’s recording, however, the soloists, with the exception of Shew, are only able to create sophisticated background music for a posh cocktail party.