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Bill Cunliffe: A Day In the Life

Tish Oney By

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I'm completely a jazz person. I cannot imagine not doing jazz, no matter what happens to the business model of jazz, which we all know is not an easy way to go... the whole idea of people working together as human beings is in danger of being lost... —Bill Cunliffe
Grammy award-winning arranger and pianist Bill Cunliffe has been on the cutting edge of large ensemble arranging and jazz trio performance for the past few decades. An avid composer, performer, film scorer, educator and author of several jazz piano books (and online workshops), Cunliffe is focusing his creative output these days around a few select projects. His thorough exploration of several genres and his delivery of relevance in his work throughout his career reveal an inquisitive artist capable of appreciating and assimilating a wide swath of global experiences and cultures.

All About Jazz: Your recordings to date have explored so much aural territory—from contemporary jazz blended with classical/art music, to contemplative piano improvisations, to a Grammy-winning large ensemble arrangement, to big band and symphonic works, to explorations of pop music, Latin music, the blues, children's songs, Christmas music, standards, film music... and you've authored some fabulous jazz books...so how would you describe your musical journey thus far?

Bill Cunliffe: Well, I think I pursued, especially in the early part of my life, many, many different roads, partially because I'm a curious person. I think that's the main reason, actually. And anytime I heard something that I thought, "Wow—I want to see what that's about," I would jump right in there. These days I'm narrowing my focus quite a bit and thinking primarily about playing piano in a trio format and big band stuff. That's what I'm mostly focusing on these days.

AAJ: In light of that journey, what do you see on your immediate horizon?

BC: Well, I've done a big band project that's going to come out in February and it's pretty interesting. Actually next week at Vibrato I'm premiering one of the pieces which is a celebration of our presidential election. It's got three movements in it. The three movements are "Hillary," "Bernie" and "Donald," and it will survey what people are thinking about these people. It's not a point of view. I don't have a point of view in this piece. It's primarily just a description of what I hear going on around me. So, I mean, I love the large ensemble stuff—I'm continuing to do that. I think trio is really my favorite thing to do. I have some guys in New York: Martin Wind (bass) and Tim Horner (drums), and I really enjoy playing with them. We're doing more and more things. I think the trio is the most fun that a musician can have because there's interaction and you can really do your thing. I teach at Cal State Fullerton, and I will set the kids up like a six-piece band. I will set them up in a group and they'll practice playing duo with each other. We all go around the room and play a little duo, then they play trio with each other, and then they play quartets with each other. You know, just going around the room—free, with no agenda. And without exception, trio is the easiest and the most favorite format for them to play, because you are being given things but you also are able to express yourself. And I think three is a magic number. I like interaction. You can put musicians in three categories: those that are primarily generators of ideas, musicians that respond to others, and musicians that are in the middle, (doing) both—that's where I would be. I'm as much a receiver of ideas as a generator.

AAJ: Please tell us about your playful and fun 2015 release, Playground Swing, and how you came to select that repertoire.

BC: Well, that actually was originally a Disklavier project for Yamaha. I recorded a bunch of tunes on the Disklavier, we did a little bit of editing (not very much), and then they were uploaded to customers of the instrument. All the Disklaviers have Wi-Fi and so when you're on your piano, as funny as this is, you go onto a server, download these files, and the piano will play them and it's a surprisingly realistic thing. It sounds a lot like the original player—in fact, sometimes people can't really tell that it's not a person actually playing. So a lot of this came from that. I do a few other things in addition, but a lot of this music came from Disklavier files. A lot of it was selected by Yamaha, but I added some as well just to round out the project.

AAJ: Would you please share with us about your fascinating work with the ensemble, Trimotif?

BC: I haven't done much with them lately, but I really love the group. It's a group featuring Phoebe Ray on bassoon, David Shostac on flute (he plays for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra), and Chris Bleth (oboe). It's a combination of classical meets jazz, which is an area I really enjoy, and a lot of it is composed, but a lot of it is also improvised. Everyone in the group improvises. So that's really a lot of fun. I like when the improvisations are structured and not just random blowing, because I think that when musicians are placed with limits, I think often musicians play better. I think that when you're bumping up against things, it's better, because you have to interact with something. It's kind of like having a conversation as opposed to a monologue. That group actually did start out as a trio but became a quartet. This group has been dormant a while, but very, very fun. Fun bunch of people.

AAJ: Given how prolific a composer, arranger and performer you are, you must have several irons in the fire at any given time. What projects are you working on right now that we can expect to see in the near future?

BC: Let me talk a little more about the big band project since we're here talking about the classical-jazz thing. The big band project is largely consisting of jazz versions of classical tunes. The record will be out in February, by the way. It's called BACHanalia. The better part of the recording is "The Goldberg Contraption" which is a set of variations on The Goldberg Variations. I also do a full-blown version of the first movement of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. That's really a lot of fun. In fact, it goes into the jazz vein really quite easily. Prokofiev's music is very "motor-y," very engine-like, very much like... it almost feels like it's got a rhythm section with it, because there's an up-tempo sort of an engine, so that really sets up the work quite well.

Denise Donatelli, one of my favorite musicians, sings on my version of "Sleepers Wake" (from Snowfall on Jazz Compass, 2006) by Johann Sebastian Bach. Do you remember a group called the Swingle Singers? They did a version of this years ago, and it's a little bit based on that, but it goes into some other places. Pretty interesting.

AAJ: What role do you think jazz can play in the world today, and what would you like to see it do?

BC: Well that's a great question. I really like that question, because I think jazz provides so many things that the planet needs. I'm completely a jazz person. I cannot imagine not doing jazz, no matter what happens to the business model of jazz, which we all know is not an easy way to go, but first of all, the whole idea of people working together as human beings is in danger of being lost, because in modern music it's very common for people to create tracks and play along with those tracks. Or when they're writing music for film or television, which I've done a little bit of, very often the entire track is composed by a musician, then recorded, mixed and edited by the same musician. As a result, it's not (to me) as successful as it might be if it were collaborative. For example—even pop music up until the late '70s was done with live musicians so that we all had to respond to what the bassist and drummer felt. So you're always responding to others and initiating things and (seeing if they) go along with you, and I believe that this sort of activity is in danger, because, starting with the click track, one of the elements of music became totally fixed and invariable so that it limits your options. Now great music can be made with click track, I don't argue with that, but more and more music is made by one person doing everything and I believe it is of lesser quality than when music is made in a collaborative way. I know with my own music, when I collaborate with others, everything I do is better.

I feel that we're in danger of that being lost and we can't lose that. We can't lose the idea of humans listening to each other, reacting to each other and helping each other. I think that's what's wrong with the planet. Not enough people are listening and reacting to others, especially in the sense that a lot of our problems in the world come from our being separated and isolated from each other. And the corporate culture enables this, because if you need a big company, the big machine, to provide your needs for you, then they have a better marketing opportunity. In other words, in the old days you got your news from talking to your friends on the telephone, reading the newspaper that was put together by human beings and writers that lived in your town that knew things that you knew. Now when most people get their news, often it's from Facebook. So this "news," this information, has been completely computerized and curated to meet the needs of corporations and advertising. So it is, by definition, defective, and not completely genuine and honest. I believe that is why people still believe things in this country that have been disproven a long time ago, and I won't go into any detail about these, but there are clearly things that people should accept as being true, and they don't because they are subject to a whirlwind of a bunch of Facebook people that believe something else that may not be true at all.

AAJ: In terms of managing your time to accommodate all your creative work plus teaching, would you please give us an idea of what a day in the life of Bill Cunliffe might include?

BC: Oh, gee, I can't really do that—every day is different. I try to create a little bit of... you know, obviously, it's a challenge for everyone in life... creating enough time. So one thing I've been doing lately is I've been meditating half an hour a day, and that's been very good. It focuses me on what's important. It's been very good for me. I would define meditation not necessarily as keeping the mind clear—because my mind cannot be clear—I am constantly enveloped and surrounded by stuff, but what you do in meditation is, when you have your eyes closed and you are sitting somewhere, when thoughts come into your mind you just observe them and move them to the side, rather than be angry at yourself for having them. I mean, that happens too... sometimes in the middle of the meditation I will get very angry that I have these thoughts, but I just live with it—I just kind of accept it. And it's really not the end of the world. So that training is really quite good for me, because meditative things are often thinking about one thing at a time. Elizabeth Gilbert had this book, Eat, Pray, Love. Very much relating to her work is thinking about one thing. Another thing that helps with that is physical activity. I try to exercise at least five to six days a week and I try to get some time on the piano—at least an hour a day. If I can do that and meditate and have physical activity, I will be productive the rest of the day.

In terms of what my days are like, I teach three to four days a week at Cal State Fullerton, so those are busy eight-hour days. Fullerton is forty miles away from my house, so at least one day a week I stay down there, and that usually allows me to get more done. I've become more disciplined in my life. In addition, although it's not always successful, I do try to write music every day, just a few bars of something. But, like I said, that has mixed results. I think to have that intention is a very good thing.
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