The Jazz Man Cometh

Bill Mossman
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September 21, 2011
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A beaming Bill Cunliffe with his highly coveted gilded trophy

Validation of one’s work often comes in different forms and at different times. For Bill Cunliffe, noted jazz pianist, composer and arranger, that moment arrived at the Grammy Awards last year when, after years of being at the base of the proverbial mountain, he finally scaled the darn thing.

Nominated on two prior occasions for Best Instrumental Arrangement, Cunliffe ultimately walked off with the coveted gold-plated gramophone statuette for his arrangement of West Side Story Medley. It may have been just one of 11 tracks to appear on the CD Resonance Big Band Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson, but it was Cunliffe’s instinct to combine several songs into a medley that proved to be a stroke of genius on the opus.

His career has already been filled with incredible highs of studying at the feet of jazz legend

Mary Lou Williams while at the Eastman School of Music, of touring and performing with the likes of the Buddy Rich Orchestra, Frank Sinatra and other jazz luminaries such as Ray Brown, Benny Golson and Joshua Redman, of winning honors including the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Award.

Yet it took a Grammy to officially move Cunliffe out of the shadows and into the limelight. Precious few people, after all, ever appreciate the quiet role arrangers play.

“The special thing about the Grammy was that it told me I didn’t have to prove anything anymore,” Cunliffe tells Musical Notes. “Now, I can do whatever I want.”

Like find yet another reason to visit the Hawaiian Islands and thrill audiences who enjoy melodic improvisation. Cunliffe, who’s no stranger to these parts after having performed on Oahu just a year ago with jazz bassist and vocalist Bruce Hamada on Hawaii Public Radio, brings his inventive and soulful stylings to the 2011 Manoa Jazz & Heritage Festival, scheduled for Saturday evening at 8:30 inside Andrews Amphitheatre.

Making the trip with Cunliffe are good friends Tim Horner on drums and Martin Wind on bass.

“We’ve been playing off and on for about eight years,” explains Cunliffe of his trio. “This band is so tight that we can, on the dime, just change and everything flows together. We do that, for example, when playing All or Nothing at All. Everyone gets to pick the tempo they want for the chorus, so the tempo is always changing. It’s a real freeing type of experience.”

Musical Notes got the Jazz Man to free up a bit of his time recently and talk more about this weekend’s show and a career that continues to peak.

MN: Are you planning anything special for jazz enthusiasts this Saturday?

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

BC: There will be a bit of Thelonious Monk and some Latin music. But one of the interesting things I do with my audiences, and something I plan on doing in Hawaii, is that I ask them for requests usually a classical piece, a jazz standard and a pop tune and we put it all together and create a song, improvising and making it all up on the spot. It’s really a lot of fun.

MN: Your career as a jazz musician literally happened overnight as a college student while performing rock ‘n’ roll gigs at a restaurant, right?

BC: Pretty much. A friend of mine loaned me this record called Tristeza on Piano by Oscar Peterson and the trio that included Sam Jones and Bobby Durham, and it set me off! I said to myself, This is what I have to do. So yeah, I went from playing rock ‘n’ roll and listening to Stevie Nicks one night to becoming this jazz player.

MN: What do you remember most about playing with Buddy Rich and Ol’ Blue Eyes?

Dean Taba

BC: Buddy was the first guy who said, Write anything you want and if I like it I’ll play it. Aside from his support of my writing, playing with him was amazing because, well, he played with such people as Art Tatum and Bud Powell. As for Sinatra, the thing I loved most about him was he made every song feel like it was about him, like it was his own personal story.

MN:After conquering Mount Grammy, are there any other hills left to climb?

BC: Quite a few, actually. First of all, I want to learn how to write for an orchestra. I just wrote a trumpet concerto for Terell Stafford last year. But doing something for an orchestra now that would be special.

I’d also love to write a song that people really want to hear a song that’s more than just for a jazz audience. I’m not saying something commercially acceptable, but a standard tune that really speaks to people something like Kenny Barron’s Voyage.

Gates to the 2011 Manoa Jazz & Heritage Festival
open at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
For more information, call 956-8246.



Bopping along with Bill Cunliffe and his trio will be the Dean Taba Quintet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Andrews Amphitheatre. Taba, a local boy who’s made good as an electric/acoustic bass virtuoso and session player on the West Coast, once played a fabulous French horn with the Hawaii Youth Symphony Orchestra ... Opera buffs are in for a real treat as renowned soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa makes a stop in the islands Sept. 29 for a recital at Blaisdell Concert Hall. A native of New Zealand, Te Kanawa’s repertoire will consist of selections from Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti and Strauss. The curtains go up at 8 ... If you’re a fan of multiple musical genres such as country, pop, Latin and reggae, lend your ears to the band Pegasis Rising, whose justreleased self-titled album features a rainbow of original compositions that’s soothing for the easy-listening soul.

Made up of vocalists Rachel Kealani Jones, Judy Mililani Keys and Robert Klaiss, keyboardist/vocalist Jorge Gonzalez, bassist Eric Becera, drummer Howard Komatsu and guitarist Edward Suzui, Pegasis Rising and its music can be found at and iTunes, and be heard every week on the Oceanic 16 TV show Ultimate Japan.

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