Cunliffe: Crowd Pleaser

“Now I’m going to take some requests,” said jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe ’74 about halfway into his performance last Saturday; “one jazz piece, one classical piece, and one pop piece.” The audience began to shout out favorites but Cunliffe humorously narrowed the candidates down to a desired three: “Misty” for jazz, “Hungarian Rhapsody” for classical, and Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations” as the pop choice. Within seconds he had jumped on the piano and was making his way through a completely improvised medley of the three unrelated songs. As an amazing pianist with a fantastic personality to match, Cunliffe made his performance with the Academy Jazz Band a pleasure to attend. The concert began at 7:30 p.m. with John Coltrane’s “Impressions” performed by PA musicians Dan Serna ’04 (trumpet), Danny Silk ’07(saxophone), Andrew Liao ’04 (trombone), Kevin Dalias ’05 (guitar), Nick Pappadopoulos ’04 (piano), Kevin Gordon ’04 (bass), and David Coit ’04 (drums). The piece consisted of a basic theme upon which each musician improvised in turn. By the end of the song, all instruments had performed at least one solo, my biased favorite probably being the fluid saxophone riff by Silk. The second and third pieces were performed expertly by another small jazz ensemble. The second, J. J. Johnson’s “Blue Nun,” was characterized by a brilliant electric guitar solo by Peter Mistretta ’05. The third, “Unit Seven,” featured a bouncy, effervescent bit on trumpet courtesy of Ben Heller ’05. Both were performed by select members of the Academy Jazz Band and were great tunes that made the audience want to get up and dance. Following this smaller Jazz quintet, the whole Academy Jazz Band performed four pieces before the introduction of Cunliffe. Two of the songs they performed were actually written (or arranged) by Cunliffe himself: “All’s Well in Wellington” and “We Three Kings”. The former was fun, fast-paced jazz, appropriate to the piece’s quirky title. With some notable grooving on drums by Coit, the toe-tapping tune was completed by the saxophone of the illustrious Robert Kim ’05, who performed a sultry solo testing the highs and lows of his instrument. The latter had a much different feel. Cunliffe presented himself before the song and told the audience the story about the history of the song: despite its wintry title, it was written in late July. Cunliffe’s rendition of the traditional classic was much more of a “swanky soiree” then any typical holiday song. Highlights included Junior Matt Villanueva’s eerie piano solo and Senior Sophie McCoy’s fluid saxophone part. Also performed was Sammy Nestico’s “Biscuits ‘N’ Honey” which had some great writing for piano and sounded to me a bit like the M*A*S*H theme song. Then Cunliffe talked a bit about the late and great composer Frank Mantooth who died earlier this year. Cunliffe told of Mantooth’s brilliant writing for the “not quite professional” crowd, such as skilled high school bands like ours. Mantooth’s song, “Rhythm of the Masses” was a choppy sort of jazz piece with all instruments playing at a noticeably higher volume, along with another guitar solo from Mistretta. After a quick break to reset the stage, the audience returned to their pews to witness the actual performance of Grammy-nominated Cunliffe. Following a brief synopsis of Cunliffe’s accomplishments while at Andover, Cunliffe and his trio were formally introduced and began to play. Cunliffe on piano, John Lockwood on bass, and an especially animated Mark Ferber on drums provided the entertainment for the rest of the evening. The three opened with a whimsical piano melody, beautifully demonstrating the agility of Cunliffe’s quick fingers and incredible technique. The piece also included a fantastic bass solo by Lockwood and not only a great beat but also some mesmerizing drumstick spinning by Ferber. “Nobody Else But Me” and “How My Heart Sings” followed this impressive start as high-energy tunes, especially the former. “How My Heart Sings” also showed use of two different counts- as a waltz in the beginning but switching to 4/4 about halfway through which as Cunliffe pointed out, “makes toe-tapping a little difficult!” Bringing a little personal touch to the performance, Cunliffe then performed “Santa Doll” in what would be its second performance at PA. When Cunliffe was a student here in the ’70s, he played the song once in a concert held in Borden Gym with his friend and benefactor of his visit, the late Thomas Chapin ‘75. The song went back and forth between abrasive and gentle states, ending with a great section by Ferber on the drums. Next came an Anglican hymn arranged by Cunliffe entitled “Ireland” in honor of a British hymn-composer of the same name. This song was much lighter and explored many different drum techniques creating an almost outdoorsy feel. Topped off with Cunliffe’s flawless piano, this was definitely an audience favorite. Cunliffe ended the evening with his amazing, amusing three-song medley and the fun “Un Poca Boca,” a fast-paced jazz piece by Bud Powell. All in all, Cunliffe’s concert was fantastic, full of fun yet relaxing music.