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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Back to the beginning: After 21 years, a return to the Buckeye State

The Bill Cunliffe Trio: Tim Horner, Bill Cunliffe and Martin Wing at Dayton's Pine Club.

I left Cincinnati 21 years ago to pursue my fame and fortune in the City of Angels. I left a lot of great friends and great memories there.Last week, I got to relive them by returning to the Buckeye State for the first time to perform with my own band, my trio featuring the bassist Martin Wind and the drummer Tim Horner.I met both of these guys when I was living in NYC a few years ago, and the musical rapport was instant, so much so we knew we had to play together. We’ve done an album as three quarters of the Martin Wind Quartet (with saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson), and plan to record next year as a trio.

Last Thursday, I returned to the scene of the crime, where my career started; the idyllic campus of Central State University, in Wilberforce. When I graduated from the Eastman School, my only job offer was here. The man who would become my best friend, Paul Evoskevich, taught there, had been a classmate of mine at Eastman, and knew I might be looking for work.

Returning to campus was a real time-capsule experience, as the place looks exactly the same, and many of my faculty colleagues were still there, including guitarist Jim Smith and choral director Bill Caldwell. The kids are bright, interested, and a lot of fun, and we invited faculty member and master percussionist Leonardo Moses, who was one of my students back in the day, to sit in.

Next, we hustled down I-75 to get to the Redmoor Theatre, about six blocks from where I used to live in Cincinnati. This is a gorgeous old movie house that has been renovated into a fantastic performance space. We played two sets there, and lots of old friends showed up, including ex-girlfriend Joan Hoskins, her husband Steve, a fine saxophonist and arranger; guitaristWilbert Longmire, drummer Art Gore, singers Kathy Wade and Eugene GossCincinnati Symphony violinist Paul Patterson, pianist Phil De Greg, bassist Don Aren, and lots of other friends from the old days when I backed up people like Joe Henderson and James Moody at the Greenwich Taverntoo many years ago.

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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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Premiering “fourth stream . . . La Banda” at Temple University


Temple University's Terell Stafford and the Temple Symphony perform Bill Cunliffe's "fourth stream . . . La Banda"

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Philadelphia, visiting friends at Temple University,where I taught for three years. I really loved Temple, but the chance to live full-time in So Cal again was pretty irresistible, so I took a job at Cal State Fullerton in 2007.

I’ve remained close to folks back in Philly, and they asked me to write a piece for my favorite trumpet player, the great Terell Stafford, who is head of jazz studies at Temple.

I called it “fourth stream . . . La Banda” because Gunther Schuller called the mix of jazz and classical music the “third stream.” My piece combined those two with Latin music, hence, “fourth stream.” “La Banda” because it’s kind of, at times, a battle between the Latin jazz percussion section and the orchestra. The Latin band wins out.

Luis Biava and the Temple Symphony premiered the piece at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, the place where the Philadelphia Orchestra performs. Biava, for many years, was the guest resident conductor there and he was totally up to the task of conducting this score.

With that score, I tried to show a wide range of orchestral colors. Some of its tempo and time changes took everyone a little time to get used to, but once they did, the piece took off.

When we read the piece down a few weeks ago in Philly, Terell mentioned that he didn’t feel the ending was “big” enough. He thought I ought to give the Latin percussion more to do, especially near the end.

Maestro Biava thought the piece was a little long, as well. So I shortened a few sections and rewrote the ending, having the percussion go into a double-time mambo while the orchestra is still playing a slower 12/8 Afro-Cuban groove.

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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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