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A Fireside Chat With Bill Cunliffe

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AAJ: Your latest recording, How My Heart Sings is comprised of the compositions of Earl Zindars.

BC: The idea came from the head of Torii Records. I knew a few things. I knew "How My Heart Sings," "Mother of Earl," and "Elsa." I had played "Elsa" a lot. I love that tune. Earl sent me fifty or sixty tunes. There was an awful lot there that was interesting to work with. He was an interesting composer in that he was one of the first, along with Brubeck, to write songs where the time signature changes. For example, on "How My Heart Sings," the first part of the song is in a waltz feel, but the middle part of the tune is in a 4/4, medium, swing jazz feel. That was very, very innovative for the Fifties. Very few guys were doing that. His music is very interesting harmonically as well and he has a really strong melodic sense. He's a very good composer.

AAJ: Producing vocalists, are singers benefiting from the respect that comes with sales?

BC: I think the pendulum swings. I think that good singers were underrated for a while and then I think we're in it right now, where vocalists are getting a whole lot of attention. In fact, there was an article in a magazine saying if vocalists saved jazz and all my friends were saying that vocalists killed jazz. I think that vocals are getting attention because modern people like to look at things. They like to look at something rather than just listen. I think that is kind of a shame. When I was a kid, we would sit on the sofa and put records on the phonograph and sit and listen to them. We don't do it now because we're all really busy and I think it is a visual era. Singers are as much a visual experience as they are an auditory experience. I think that is why vocals are popular now. The standard tune as really established itself once again. I just heard Rod Stewart singing a standard in a Starbucks the other day. They are all doing standards albums, which I think is a great thing. I'm really happy about that.

AAJ: What is the state of jazz in Los Angeles?

BC: It's not very good, except for everywhere else. Given all that we have, it's not bad. There's radio support for it. There are clubs. There's not that many clubs, but there are a few really good places to play here. I've spent a lot of time in New York and it is getting rough back there. The super high real estate has eliminated a lot of clubs. San Francisco has this really intense interest in jazz, but there is nowhere to play there. L.A., because it is spread out and real estate isn't quite as expensive, there are all these little joints. Everyone I know is working and I think that is really great. In that way, L.A. is fairly strong. What L.A. isn't strong at is guys getting together. It is geographically far apart and there is not as much interaction and synergy as I would like. It is a mixed report. We have good jazz radio here. We have a great talent pool here. We have a few good places to play. We don't have the collaborative nature we should.

AAJ: And the future?

BC: In February, I am recording an album of salsa/Latin based music. I am using Ramon Banda and Papo Rodriguez, and some of regular guys in my band, Bobby Shew, Bob Sheppard. I am working on that. I am working right now on a commission for the Eastman School of Music. I am writing a jazz version of the Prokofiev Concerto for Piano no. 3 for big band and piano. I've loved this piece since I was a kid. It really works well in jazz. It is really a jazzy piece anyway. I just finished a DVD of beginning jazz and blues piano. I will be playing at the Jazz Bakery with a singer names Melissa Sweeney. I produced her first album. She is a really good singer.

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