Groovin' with Mr. C at the Library
Bill Cunliffe Sextet
Los Angeles, CA
One of the exciting things about really good jazz is the delicate interplay between organization and chaos.
On Thurs. Jan. 24 the Bill Cunliffe Sextet, probably the largest ensemble ever to play the music room of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, confronted what might have been the largest audience ever to assemble there.
From left to right stood Bruce Paulson (trombone), Ron Stout (trumpet) and Chuck Manning (sax) and, behind them, Bill Cunliffe (piano), Jeff D'Angelo (bass) and Joe La Barbara (drums) presenting what Cunliffe calls an updating of the standard Art Blakey sextet.
Their free approach to melody, harmony and improvisation is tightly structured within Cunliffe's scored arrangements and original compositions. Even though this demands thorough rehearsal, there will always be some of those telling moments when the whole team has to respond to a change of game plan semaphored from behind the keyboard.
A front man looking the other way had his elbow gently touched by Paulson's fully extended trombone to draw attention to Cunliffe's stage whispers. An original composition, "Fubar," began with the incantation, "Two times in and two times out. Chuck's first solo? ... Sorry Chuck. I'm gonna do the first one and you can do the second."
The affect is a little like overhearing Michelangelo shouting, "Giuseppe! Luigi! Stick some more cherubs up over there and I'll need 20 more cans of this blue for some sky."
Disaster was narrowly averted when crucial papers spilled from Stout's music stand onto the floor during one of the opening numbers. "I managed to hold on to the coda," he told Cunliffe at the end of a seamless and eloquent performance.
Just before a Cunliffe composition ominously named "Quirk of Fate," they couldn't find enough sheet music for D'Angelo. But this is jazz.
"When in doubt, improvise!" Cunliffe told D'Angelo, assuring the audience, "You don't have to know what's going on. There's going to be a groove all the time." And, true to his word, there was a groove all evening while each musician seemed to have plenty of room to produce spellbinding solos.
Aside from Cunliffe's original material, they played "Ain't Nothing New" by Thad Jones, "Crepuscule with Nellie" (Thelonious Monk) and "Satin Doll" (Duke Ellington). According to legend, Satin Doll's original manuscript was salvaged from a waste bucket by Ellington lieutenant Billy Strayhorn. Cunliffe's bright and sparkling interpretation can be heard on the CD "Live at Bernie's."
Along with "Quirk of Fate" and "Fubar," the sextet played Cunliffe's "Lakeside," "Home," "Minnesota," "Kingston," "O.C." and "Nilesology."
Cunliffe explained that the shuffle entitled "Fubar" was named after a fraternity at his alma mater, Duke University, during the seventies when fraternities were not considered cool.
The crisp piano passages on "Home" was released in 1996 on "Just Duet" a CD he recorded with San Diego flute phenomenon Holly Hofmann, whom Cunliffe repeatedly referred to as "my favorite chick flautist."
"Kingston," intended as a reggae-bop hybrid, came across as an excellent hard bop composition with a hard driving riff.
"O.C." was named for Ornette Coleman, the first guy to get rid of chord changes in jazz, according to Cunliffe. "Sometimes we go with the chord changes and sometimes we ignore them entirely," he said. Stout's exquisite trumpet solo on this number should be counted as one of the high points of the Athenaeum's current season.
"Nilesology" is Cunliffe's celebration of the legendary KLON disk jockey Chuck Niles. Cunliffe said he appreciated the way Niles always tended to play music that musicians enjoy, such as Hammond B3 trios rather than the vocal tracks favored by other DJs.
For this grand finale, Cunliffe introduced a surprise guest, his favorite chick flautist Hoffman, who in a very workmanlike way took her place beside the three horn players to contribute with her famously muscular style.
The evening fully justified Cunliffe's jocular claim to being the finest L.A. band in their price range.
The series ends tomorrow night, Feb. 7, when solo pianist Jessica Williams returns. She last appeared at the library in January 1998. Her influences run from early stride pianists, to the dance influenced styles of the swing era, to a particularly strong and intuitive connection with the work of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
Her solo CDs were among the year's top five recordings in Jazz Times' Critics' Poll in 1999 with "Joyful Sorrow" (her tribute to Evans) and in 2000 with "In the Key of Monk."
Tickets are $15 ($17 non-members). The concert begins at 7:30 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall Street, La Jolla. Call (858) 454-5872 for reservation or waiting list information.