West Coast pianist Bill Cunliffe has released a most welcome holiday disc in That Time of Year. With Christmas coming commercially before Halloween in bigger and more brazen waves each year, having the music of the season reduced to its sheer elements by a well-versed master is refreshing, if not spiritually reviving. Cunliffe's pianism is urbane and lyrical, perfectly suited for interpreting a well- worn and loved repertoire. Cunliffe has previously demonstrated his knack for freshly focused concepts for old songs on Bill Plays Bud (Naxos, 1998) and The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2 (Resonance, 2008). He transfers this knack to seasonal fare seamlessly, painting with a much finer brush than that used by holiday piano mavens like George Winston and David Lanz while still retaining their dedication to simplicity.
Which is not to say that Cunliffe is new age. To the contrary, Cunliffe transcends these categorizations by the sheer information of his talent and experience. Cunliffe easily casts each carol in its own universe, cleverly moving among genera. "Angels From The Realms of Glory" a Christmas hymn from Cunliffe's Episcopal childhood is played gently with neither too much nor too little ornamentation. Cunliffe's left hand provides a soft undulation over which his right weaves the Christmas spell. If songs could have aromas, Cunliffes "Angels" would brag of frankincense, eggnog and pipe tobacco in a wood fire-warmed room. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is given a solid Ray Charles by way of Dave Franks treatment. With an introduction full of soul and rhythm and blues, the pianists warms up to walking-bass solo section that swings hard before dissolving back into a more traditional treatment. Cunliffe buffs all of the R&B rough edges to a high sheen of elegance.
Two carols that lend themselves to improvisation are "Coventry Carol" and "Carol of the Bells." Cunliffe handles both darkly, exposing a gravity in the pieces not often heard. Nothing ominous, merely respectful and reverent. He properly ornaments both pieces with thoughtful filigree and flattering tempi. "Coventry Carol" is a rumination pinned with a Lisztian left hand bubbling beneath the melody. He leaves plenty of space for consideration and and idea expansion. "Carol of the Bells," with its four-note repeating motif, sets up a hypnotic atmosphere sustained by Cunliffe's ethereal playing.
The real treat here is Cunliffe's duet with vocalist Denise Donatelli, whose When Lights are Low(Savant, 2010) was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Donatelli gives a creamy, rich reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Her inclusion here, a last minute decision by her and Cunliffe, begs for a full-scale holiday offering from Donatelli. Hopefully Donatelli will choose Cunliffe as her accompaniment and her full-scale holiday recital will be a simple duet. Should that happen, all will be well and welcome. it is clear That Time of Year is the holiday release of the year.