Christmas music and Christmas albums are usually a win-win situation for the artist and for the listeners. The artist experiences the joy of creating new songs and/or arrangements and performances and the possibility of evergreen returns - and listeners get the gift of timeless music to be enjoyed in perpetuity. After numerous accomplishments, well hones skills as a piano player, composer and arranger, Bill Cunliffe has created a noteworthy and memorable album full of music for the season, with his release of “That Time of Year”.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Bill Cunliffe began developing his name on the national scene in the 1980s as the pianist in the Buddy Rich Big Band. Among the many influential artists Cunliffe has performed and/or recorded are Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and others. With a degree from the Eastman School of Music, he is a jazz educator at the university level as well. Among his many awards, he won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement for his “West Side Story Medley” on the Resonance Big Band Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson.
With that introduction, you’d expect that a Christmas album from Bill would be a compelling listen, replete with compelling arrangements and superb playing - and indeed that’s exactly what it is. Bill commented that in the tradition of Mel Torme, this Christmas album was recorded on a hot day in July and that somehow Christmas tunes sound better in summer.
The album opens gently with Cunliffe in a pensive mood, delivering a lovely ballad rendition - solo piano throughout - with rich and sonorous voicings to complement the melody on “Angels From the Realms.” This is an ideal antidote to the hit you over the head cliché Christmas stuff we all experience this time of year. Cunliffe picks up the pace on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The track opens with a magnificent exposition of this well known theme, with some bluesy grinds to spice it up. He takes things into a toe-tapping, relaxed swing groove - and colors this chestnut with a solo demonstrating his ample and harmonically sophisticated technique. It’s clear that Cunliffe has thoughtfully programmed this holiday set, as the next track “On Christmas Day” moves delightfully into a jazz waltz groove. For his solo, he takes the festivities into a two beat swing groove. Bill’s deep understanding of the groove and his bebop roots are woven into this creative tapestry - momentarily tipping the hat to a potpourri of stylists from Bud Powell to Vince Guaraldi. Cunliffe delivers a clever syncopated introduction to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” You’ve never heard a rendition like this one - swinging, cycling - fabulously swinging medium groove solo heavily laden with bebop ideas and some McCoy Tyner quartal-type harmoniy surfacing to make it clear that this is an amalgam of sounds by a mature jazz solo artist. Among the many highlights on this extraordinary set is “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which Cunliffe takes up tempo - delivering another wonderfully swinging, harmonically developed articulated with crystal clarity - at once thoroughly improvised, and a textbook study into the bop vocabulary. If you had tired of “Jingle Bells,” Bill’s swinging rendition will rejuvenate your appreciation for this classic. If you’re not one of those listeners who is pre-conditioned to think that listening to music associated with Christmas is only for “the season,” you’ll find yourself listening to this gem again and again throughout the year.