Bill Cunliffe – The Blues and The Abstract Truth, Take 2 – Resonance Records

by | Nov 3, 2008 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Bill Cunliffe – The Blues and The Abstract Truth, Take 2 – Resonance Records, HCD-2003, 48:40 ****:

(Bill Cunliffe – piano, arranger, producer; George Klabin – producer; Bob Sheppard – soprano and tenor sax; Jeff Clayton, Brian Scanlon – alto sax; Mark Ferber – drums; Larry Lunetta, Terell Stafford – trumpet; Andy Martin – trombone; Tom Warrington – bass)

Bill Cunliffe’s latest project, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2, is a re-imagining of a classic jazz album. Such an endeavor takes talent, ambition and an intimate understanding of the source material. Pianist/arranger Cunliffe shows all three attributes on his re-interpretation of Oliver Nelson’s 1961 effort, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Nelson was known primarily as a large ensemble leader and arranger, but he was also a potent saxophonist and composer. Nelson’s landmark outing helped define him as a musician and songwriter and in the process further characterized the early sixties jazz status quo.

Cunliffe challenged himself to rethink Nelson’s compositions, not only producing a tribute and homage to the root material, but also conveying a fresh way to experience Nelson’s music. Translating other artists is nothing new for Cunliffe, who has previously tackled Paul Simon and Brazilian styles. But The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2 takes Cunliffe’s output to a distinct and satisfying level. For example, like Nelson, Cunliffe spotlights gifted soloists, giving the record a temperament which also highlights Cunliffe’s jazz group organizational skills. There’s no way to surpass the contributions Eric Dolphy, Paul Chambers, Roy Haynes, Bill Evans or Freddie Hubbard gave to Nelson’s achievement. But saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist Andy Martin and the others recruited by Cunliffe add measurably throughout.  

Opening track “Stolen Moments” should not need any introduction to jazz heads, since the song has become close to a standard, recorded by musicians as disparate as Ahmad Jamal and Frank Zappa. The tune is also ubiquitously engaging, particularly when the horn section sparkles through a multi-part harmony while Stafford’s lead trumpet makes the melody an object of beauty. Its no wonder “Stolen Moments” remains an ageless piece decades after Nelson offered it to the jazz world.

Then there’s the second track, “Hoe Down,” an eager bop-oriented number with a country twang and some solid up-tempo call-and-response by the brass section, with some sharp fills and rhythmic flair from drummer Mark Ferber, a rising star on the New York scene, who reveals a bit of Peter Erskine’s rippling progression and some of Bill Stewart’s lateral sagacity.

“Cascades” and “Butch and Butch” also present a hard bopping good time. During both cuts, the band is on fire, with sax and trumpet flinging off flourishes, Cunliffe soaring across the piano keys, while the bass and drums toss up a fast paced beat. Cunliffe appends some subtle harmonic dissonance during “Butch and Butch” that demonstrates one of several appetizing modifications and light alterations to Nelson’s arrangements. Listeners may also notice “Cascades” has some adjunct sax and drum interactions not found on Nelson’s original charts.

The album’s blues bearing is best captured on “Yearnin’,” an undulating and slightly melancholy essay. Once again trumpet is a feature of the solo space, reaching for the firmament, while Cunliffe’s darker-hued, more earthbound keyboard tone communicates why he is an undervalued but integral part of the Los Angeles jazz landscape. The Nelson material finishes with “Teenie’s Blues,” which accents a singular double sax exhibit and Stafford’s and Larry Lunetta’s confident, dramatic trumpet playing.

Cunliffe ends The Blues and The Abstract Truth, Take 2 with two original compositions that share Nelson’s modern jazz approach, while emphasizing Cunliffe’s musical disposition. The driving “Port Authority” is a fiery, long-form bop piece that ebbs and flows with abundant solo room for each instrument. The closer “Mary Lou’s Blues” is dedicated to Cunliffe’s mentor, pianist Mary Lou Williams, who nourished Cunliffe’s emerging musical identity when Cunliffe was a student at Duke University. The impressionistic swinger is a fitting conclusion to an undertaking that illuminates music that has maybe lain dormant for too long in the memory of some jazz fans, but which has lost none of its power or charm in a new century.

1 Stolen Moments  
2 Hoe Down  
3 Cascades  
4 Yearnin’  
5 Butch and Butch  
6 Teenie’s Blues  
7 Port Authority
8 Mary Lou’s Blues

— Doug Simpson

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