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Jazz Review

Cunliffe Pulls Gem From Bag of Versatility

October 20, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pianist Bill Cunliffe is a master of many musical guises. In his role as a regular in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, he functions as a versatile, big-band rhythm section player, stepping into the foreground to play everything from Basie-like blues to Jelly Roll Morton stomps. Leading his own sextet, his compositional skills surface in a diverse array of musical textures. He even has composed and recorded a piano concerto with full orchestra.

But Cunliffe is probably best heard in a trio--a setting with an open airiness that allows him to mix and match all of his many talents. And on Wednesday night at Rocco's in Bel-Air, he was in particularly fine form, working with the especially simpatico support of bassist Darek Oles and drummer Dean Coba.

Interestingly, the relatively modest turnout for the performance tended to create a more intimate atmosphere. Cunliffe is always an inner-looking player, but for this set, he seemed to concentrate even more intently upon the music.

Starting with the standard "Alone Together," he moved on to other familiar items. Shifting through musical moods, he rendered "You've Changed" in a slow, measured pace that brought out the emotional subtext of the song's falling melody line. "The Way You Look Tonight," in contrast, burst out of the starting blocks at a rapid up-tempo, a perfect vehicle for Cunliffe's supercharged, bop-tinged soloing.

But there was one more outfit left in Cunliffe's musical wardrobe, and it was showcased in an imaginative, solo version of the Adagio from Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony. The spare recasting of the line, in which Cunliffe positioned it somewhere between the original and a soaring ballad, was the work of one of jazz's more versatile and provocative artists.

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