Category Archives: Jazz Piano

Can a machine help you relax when you play?

Recently I sat down with the delightful Dr. Rob Watson, professor of piano at Cal State Fullerton and director of the CSUF Smart Applied Music Studio. He explained the new machine that Fullerton had just acquired, a sort of combination of a digital grand piano, a PC, a video camera and an electromyograph (which measures muscle tension electronically). I would be hooked up with sensors on my shoulders and my lower arms, and the machine would measure my muscle tension as I played.

The red (upper) lines in the graphs measure the tension in my left and right arms, and the blue (lower) lines measure the tension in my left and right shoulders. You can play back the video, and the audio plays back in sync with the video, so, theoretically, you can find the exact place where tension occurs.

As you can see, my shoulders (represented by the blue lines) are pretty relaxed. Rob noticed, however, that there were a few places where my right shoulder tensed up. He wondered whether that correlated with the video evidence that my head was a bit far forward over my shoulders; this could create tension. I tried to balance my head a bit better, that is, move it over my shoulders rather than slinking as I normally do, and the reading was a little lower.

Next I suggested to Rob that I try to form a sort of “biofeedback loop” and WATCH the graph as I played. The result is below.

Notice here that I have made a real attempt to correct my head position, making sure my ears are over my shoulders. AND I’m watching the graphs as I’m playing. Pretty amazing result. Shoulder tension has been reduced almost to zero, and my arm tension is lessened as well.

I tried to keep a cupped hand whenever possible, letting the hand and arm, instead of the finger, reach for the note. Tried to make it all feel a little floppy. Bingo!

A few minutes a few times a week on this machine, and I think I’d play a lot better.

Kathleen Riley, one of the software developers of this system, hooked up the great pianist Garrick Ohlsson. He got the best relaxation reading of anyone who’s tried this machine.

But why are my shoulders tense as I’m typing? Hmm. Maybe I need to buy one of these things. Anyone got 50 grand lying around? Take credit cards?

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Bill Cunliffe and the Grammy that got away

Bill Cunliffe and his Grammy from 2010. Cunliffe lost his bid for two in a row to Billy Childs.

This was a bittersweet year for me at the Grammys. I was there because the orchestral piece, “fourth stream… La Banda,” that I wrote for my friend, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and the Temple University Orchestra, was nominated for Best Original Composition, the first time I’ve been nominated in this category.

I regard it as my best work in this genre. The Temple faculty were so excited that a bunch of them came out, including Dean Robert Stroker, conductor Luis Biava, financial officer Linda Fiore, and development director Tara Webb Duey, and some of their family. The night before, we had a spectacular dinner at Spago, and there was lots of anticipation in the air.

In past years, I’ve never prepared a speech, and never thought I had a chance to win, but . . . THIS YEAR!? We rehearsed our moves, what to say, how for them to follow me up to the podium, etc, etc. We had hoped to be the little engine that could, the tough state school with young musicians and a first time nominee in the category.

But it was not to be. Billy Childs, a friend and colleague, and great composer and jazz pianist, won for his Chamber Jazz Project. A masterpiece, recorded with world class musicians.

The air went out of the room among us. But we put on our game faces, and sat through the rest of the ceremony.

I agree with Branford Marsalis when he recently said that today’s popular music isn’t really for his generation, and that he wanted to pursue what interested him in classical and art music. But, as a professor at Cal State Fullerton, I still am always curious about what the young enjoy in music.  I’m usually quite pleased by my students’ taste. They like things that are alternatively melodic, and, outrageous.

The afternoon ceremony was filled with good vibes; the highlight for me was Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spaulding singing an unaccompanied duet on Miles Davis’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Kathy Griffin was hilarious as MC, many of her comments unprintable here.

The evening ceremony, musically not for people over 50 like myself, nevertheless had some high moments. Barbra Streisand, with a huge orchestra sounding very good despite a shaky opening in “Evergreen;” Mick Jagger singing and strutting around like someone at least twenty years younger; Lady Antebellum demonstrating a pleasing country pop with a lovely female lead. And Cee Lo Green and Gwyneth Paltrow were surprisingly funky and fun.

The Grammys have made, I think, the correct choice in making the thing play well on TV, so the requisite Lady Gaga pop production and choreography got the crowd buzzing, as did Eminem, to me he is a one trick pony, but good at what he does. I might add that the trumpeter Conte Condoli said the same thing about Mussolini.

Hopefully see you again next year!

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A tribute to Oliver Nelson and “The Blues and the Abstract Truth’

Oliver Nelson

For the last two years, I’ve been playing and enjoying the music of Oliver Nelson in support of my CD “Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2,” and as I’m getting ready to embark on some new projects, I’d like to give some closing thoughts.

Oliver Nelson is one of those big “what ifs” in jazz, along with people like Clifford Brown, Scott LaFaro, and Charlie Christian. This immensely talented man, who excelled at the alto sax, jazz composing and arranging, and film/TV composition,  died at the age of 40 in 1975 from, apparently, overwork.

I first was introduced to his seminal work, “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” at the age of 22 while in graduate school at Eastman School of Music, where we performed the entire recording in concert. For me, it was one of those brilliant blips on the jazz radar, an all star cast of greats playing simple, yet compelling compositions that hinted at genius by a young  guy who, although very productive in his career, didn’t fulfill the promise of those early works.

What was so interesting about this record is that these musicians got together only for this date and never again, and the concept of the album, although revisited somewhat in his “More Blues and the Abstract Truth,” side, was never really taken farther. But what remains great about this record, besides the spectacular playing of Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Eric Dolphy and Nelson himself, is the combination of incredibly compelling tunes with a very loose structure that allowed for jazz “blowing” of the highest order. Everyone seemed really “ on their game” on this unique session.

I later found other works of his, workman-like arrangements for big band, a saxophone sonata, and some extended works for jazz orchestra. All of these hint at a genius that was only partially realized; the spirit of a great jazz player combined with the inspiration and skill of a great composer and orchestrator. “Ollie, we hardly knew ye,” to paraphrase a John F. Kennedy admirer.

It was such a pleasure to take these six pieces that constitute “The Blues and the Abstract Truth,” and put them through my own grist mill of sounds and harmonies. I really didn’t want to change them, just to play them the way I heard them, and give the “cats” the same chance to blow that Oliver gave his men.

As time goes on, I throw these at other guys on the road, and it still gives me the same pleasure it did when I wrote them for the first time.  George Klabin heard one of these gigs, and insisted that we record it. I’m eternally grateful to him for this opportunity.

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Hawaii, the Other America

Don Gordon of KIPO FM between Noe Tanagawa of Hawaii Public Radio and Bill.

An Hawaiian love song?

I’ve always been, I  have wanted to convince myself, an adventurer. No one would ever confuse me with Richard Branson, but during my single days, I’ve skydived in North Carolina, gone to Brazil, Argentina, Bahrain and Turkey,  toured Japan, New Zealand and Thailand, studied Spanish in Mexico, backpacked across Europe, and, with people like Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra and on my own gigs, slept in hotel rooms in dozens of countries.

But now I have a wonderful girlfriend named Wanda, and her wishes now figure into my travel plans.

This last year was probably the busiest one of my life. I wrote probably a dozen big-band charts, and the orchestral trumpet concerto “fourth stream… La Banda” for my friend Terell Stafford; wrote a jazz keyboard book for Alfred Music; taught full time at Cal State Fullerton, and the most strenuous activity, got my house refinanced (no thanks to the evil Chase Bank, with whom I have never been late with a payment for ten years, who turned me down even though my house is worth four times what I owe on it, I have 800 credit scores, and I could have simply paid off the mortage with a check).

Oh yeah, did you hear I won my first-ever Grammy this year! What a year. So, I’m a pretty tired guy at the end of this. Hey, as great as Wanda is, having a girlfriend can be a bit of work, too!

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Talking music, his Grammy and the road ahead with LA Jazz Scene

This is the transcript of interview pianist/composer/arranger Bill Cunliffe gave to the LA Jazz Scene show in Los Angeles. It was originally broadcast in April 2010.

LA Jazz Scene: What is a typical week like for you? Are you highly scheduled or do you have enough free time for yourself?

Bill: I teach at Cal State Fullerton from Tuesday through Thursday, so those days are packed. I have to be there by 10 a.m. Living in Studio City, that can be a challenge just getting there. My iPhone has a great GPS program on it, though, so I can usually figure out the best way to get there in under an hour.

I get out of school around 7 p.m., and might just do homework, grade papers, etc, until 8. Then I’m home in about 50 minutes. Often I stay down there one night a week . . . there are many good cheap hotels down there.

I teach improvisation, direct four combos, a big band, have five piano students and teach arranging or jazz history. It’s a lot crammed into three days, but I really enjoy my students.

LAJS: You lived in New York for some time. You sent us columns from N.Y. so we got an idea about the jazz scene there. Why did you return to L.A.? What didn’t you like about New York?

Bill: I’ve been torn between N.Y. and L.A. for quite some time. I still have a place in N.Y., which is rented out a lot, and I love the people there, the scene, the energy. But it’s expensive, and living there takes up a lot of energy.

LAJS: It seems you’ve found enough work to satisfy you here in L.A. What makes L.A. good for musicians – the weather, connections, networking, more recording opportunities, etc. What do you think it is for you?

Bill Cunliffe flanked by trumpeter Terell Stafford and girlfriend Wanda Lau

Bill: For me, work has been good in L.A. and I have a great church here (All Saints in Pasadena where I’m composer in residence) and a great girlfriend, Wanda Lau, who is a copy editor for the L.A. Times. And the weather doesn’t hurt, either!

I never got into the studio scene here, just fell in with great players, such as John Clayton, Clay Jenkins, Bob Sheppard and Joe LaBarbera, and just couldn’t leave. Trombonist Bruce Paulson, who now lives in New Zealand, had a great weekly jam session at his house . . . that’s where I met a lot of my friends.

I do feel that because I travel a lot, L.A. is cool. If I were dependent on the L.A. jazz scene for my happiness, it wouldn’t be enough. It’s a very good scene, don’t get me wrong, and very underrated, but one night in N.Y., or even Chicago, tells you there’s a lot more out there.

These days, I’m as much a composer as a player, and L.A. is good for that. Excellent engineers and recording studios, and plenty of great players on every instrument. As the industry recording thing declines, it’s actually better for composers now, because you can get your stuff played and recorded, and these amazing players are available and interested in new things.

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A night of magic moves to Vitello’s

For one night only: The Bill Cunliffe Big Band

One of the biggest thrills of my life was winning a Grammy Award earlier this year.

I’ve been nominated three times, and, really, that’s enough. It means your peers respect you and know about what you’re doing, and that’s good enough. I’m savvy enough to know that as a jazz player I’m competing with the universe. But the arranging category is a bit smaller, so the odds of recognition are a little better.

But, I was honored, with the 2010 Best Instrumental Arrangement Grammy for the chart I wrote for Resonance Records’ “Tribute to Oscar Peterson.”

If you go on grammys.com, and scroll to minute 27 of the awards, you can see me, breathlessly running up to the front. I had been sitting in the back with my girlfriend, Wanda Lau, and friends Tierney Sutton and Alan Kaplan, her husband. I wasn’t expecting to win, obviously, so I was way in the back, just talking.

For whatever reason, I had sketched out my “bullet points” in the bizarre case of having to make a speech –  you gotta thank George Klabin, the owner of the label, Resonance Records; the cats in the band; your girlfriend; Oscar Peterson, since I’d borrowed much from him in the arrangement. And, of course, Leonard Bernstein.

When I got up on the stage, I saw a lot of friends sitting in the band – Ron King, Brandon Fields, etc – and I said, to no one in particular, “Yeah, getting an award is nice, but you guys have a GIG! Get me on it!!”

I’ve heard from so many friends about the award, and it’s been a wonderful experience, but I returned to earth very quickly. The next day, I was sitting in my living room with dozens of Cal State Fullerton student schedules sprawled around me, trying to figure out who’s playing in the jazz small groups there. Sigh.

I’m lucky to live in Studio City, just two blocks from a very fine Italian restaurant, Vitello’s. Many of you remember it from the Robert Blake days. I used to take people on my Studio City/Hollywood tour. I’d take them to Blake’s old house, where once, tagged on a wall, were the words “Mata Hari Ranch.” eeecchh! Then I’d take them to Vitello’s and show them “the dumpster.”

Well, OK, not THAT dumpster, but any old one I saw. You just make up things, like the double-decker bus drivers in NYC do. According to them, Madonna lives in about eight different apartments. Then I’d take them to the Brady Bunch house, on Dilling, the one they showed at the beginning of the program. Quite the contrast, don’t ya think?

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The “fourth Stream . . . La Banda”

Terell Stafford and Bill Cunliffe trade musical ideas

Terell Stafford and I have been good friends and musical compatriots for over ten years. He asked me a year or so ago to write something for him to play with his quartet and the Temple University Symphony, something classical, but jazz as well.

It’s tough to make jazz work with a symphony, seeing as the swing 8th notes feel entirely different than the straight ones you have with an orchestra.

But in Latin/salsa/Cuban/Mexican music, this is not a problem, as the 8th notes are straight there, too. Maybe that’s why Latin jazz and classical music work so well together, thinking about the Gershwin Cuban Overture, and Copland’s El Salon Mexico. And, of course, Paquito D’Rivera.

So I decided to do something in the salsa vein, but integrating it firmly with classical music, which was always my first love. The symphony orchestra is my favorite instrument.

I had been ruminating for, oh, maybe four or five years, about doing something on John Lewis’ “Django.” Now if you use his melody, it’s an arrangement, but if you just use a general example of his harmonic outline, then that’s a composition. And I wanted to really do something substantial that expresses a wide range of my interests.

So I decided to write a passacaglia, or bassline, on the harmonic pattern of “Django,” and write a set of variations on that, in the spirit of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, or the Elgar Enigma Variations. The Elgar particularly intrigued me because the theme is often hidden.

As I wrote the passacagla, a simple hymn-like tune in 3/4, I thought I could do so many things with it. We could “blow” on the changes with the jazz band. I could do a free fantasia based on the first few notes. I could construct a 12-tone row based on the rhythm of the passacagia.

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