Thursday, October 19, 2017

Bill Cunliffe: BACHanalia

Metro Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: BACHanalia

This terrific album comes from Bill Cunliffe, one of the finest big band composers and arrangers in the modern jazz world. The music is performed by some of today’s best instrumentalists, and the result is a marvelous demonstration of what the “new” can do with the very “old.”

The core of this release is based on compositions by J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Sergei Prokofiev and Manuel de Falla. Cunliffe has taken several of their most famous works, rewritten and arranged them into big band charts, and then gathered the most disciplined and swinging jazz orchestra that has come down the pike in years.

Two dozen artists are involved; the basic unit consisted of 18 performers, although the sessions were mixed and matched so that each was used on one or more tracks. Cunliffe conducts and serves as pianist on everything, as does drummer Joe La Barbara. 

The “classic” tracks include J.S. Bach’s “Sleepers Wake” and “Goldberg Contraption”;
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, First Movement; C.P.E. Bach’s “Solfeggietto”; and de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.” 

Cunliffe’s re-writing and arranging is unbelievably excellent, and his keyboard skills are marvelous. The orchestral passages, support and instrumental solo work are mind-boggling. Pay particular attention to La Barbara; he’s a stupendous percussionist. He hits every emphatic phrase perfectly, has beautiful volume control, and drives the band like crazy.   

The other charts are equally great. A Cunliffe original (“Afluencia”) is joined by “Blame It on My Youth,” featuring trumpeter Terell Stafford and guitarist Larry Koonse; and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” starring vocalist Denise Donatelli. She also contributes vocalese passages to several of the other charts; she has a gorgeous voice, hits every note dead-on, and is a true swinger.

This fantastic album is a must.

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