Ace Octet in a Latin Groove
 by Don Heckman (Los Angeles Times)

Pianist Bill Cunliffe is one of the Southland's most versatile musicians. His resume spans big-band playing (with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra) and his own small ensembles to arranging and composing as well as writing a standard book on jazz keyboard. On Thursday at the Vic in Santa Monica, he added another brightly colored entry to that resume via his Latin Jazz Big Band.

Calling an eight-piece ensemble a "big band" was a stretch in nomenclature, yet the title was fully applicable in terms of the group's power and vitality.

The front line of two trombones (Bruce Paulson and Arturo Velasco), trumpet (Kye Palmer) and saxophone/flute (Bob Sheppard) was supported by the bass of Rene Camacho, the drums of Jose Rodriguez, the percussion of Joey DeLeon and Cunliffe's own piano. Their sound blended aspects of both the conjunto and charanga instrumentations of Afro-Caribbean music. But what Cunliffe did with that sound was very much the product of his own jazz-driven imagination.

In a pair of numbers -- Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave" and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's "Pure Imagination" -- the horns were orchestrated in close, tightly moving harmony, the sumptuousness of the sound recalling textures associated with Gil Evans. Tunes such as Steely Dan's "Do It Again" and Cunliffe's "Bone Crusher" took a different tack, opening up plenty of space for the ensemble's fine soloists, with Palmer making the most of the opportunity in a high-flying set of choruses on "Do It Again."

If there was anything missing from an otherwise scintillating evening, it was more of Cunliffe's piano work. Playing leader and orchestrator understandably minimized his opportunities to solo, but the music would have benefited from a larger dose of his far-ranging improvisational imagination.

Interestingly, a performance by a horn-heavy, percussively vigorous ensemble might have seemed a bit outsized for the intimate environment of the Vic. But that was far from the case, with this attractive, acoustically adaptable venue again demonstrating its capacity to present jazz in all its infinite variety.