WEEKEND: Putting bang back into big band

PORT TOWNSEND — In Bill Cunliffe’s hands, a big band isn’t what it used to be.

It’s a rock ’n’ roll outfit, a Latin jazz combo and a hot swing band. Cunliffe, who’s played with Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody and Frank Sinatra, plans to take the Centrum big band to some fresh places this Saturday night.

The arranger, bandleader and music professor — winner of a 2009 Grammy for his “West Side Story Medley” — will step up at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wheeler Theater in Fort Worden State Park, 200 Battery Way.

The concert is the culmination of Centrum’s three-day intensive workshop in big-ba nd performance, which has attracted musicians from across the northwestern United States and Canada. The resulting Centrum Participant Big Band, 17 players strong, will perform Cunliffe’s works, from a Jimi Hendrix medley mixing “Purple Haze” and “Fire” to tracks from Cunliffe’s Latin jazz album, “Imaginación.” There will also be gems from the bandleader’s travels with Rich, such as “One o’clock Jump.”

“It’s going to be really wide-ranging,” promised Cunliffe. The ensemble he’ll direct Saturday night — pianist, bassist, drummer, five saxophonists, four trumpeters, four trombonists — “really is a complete world. A big band can do any type of music … it’s much more than a jazz group.”

Background

Cunliffe knows from experience. He came to prominence in the early 1980s as a pianist and arranger with the Buddy Rich Big Band, touring Europe with Sinatra. He later performed with Hubbard, Moody, Ray Brown, Joe Henderson, Benny Golson and Woody Shaw, and has released more than a dozen CDs. His latest album, 2011’s “That Time of Year,” is a solo-piano take on traditional Christmas tunes.

Working with his Centrum students here, Cunliffe looks to bring out maximum versatility. A big band can roar, he said; Rich’s did that exceedingly well. Cunliffe loves the large sound — but he also delights in the simplicity and delicateness of a jazz trio.

For his concert in Port Townsend, the bandleader wants both. He wants the band to “whisper as well as roar.”

Cunliffe seeks this diversity with musicians all over the country. He teaches at the Vail Jazz Workshop in Colorado and at New York’s Skidmore Jazz Institute, and is a professor of music at the California State University in Fullerton.

Grammy winner

Oh, and in addition to his Grammy award from three years ago, he has three Grammy nominations. Most recently his orchestral piece, “fourth stream… La Banda,” which Cunliffe wrote for trumpeter Terell Stafford and the Temple University Orchestra, was nominated for Best Original Composition in 2011. On his blog at www.BillCunliffe.com, Cunliffe writes about the excitement he felt before and during the award ceremonies. For the first time, he writes, he prepared an acceptance speech.

“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,” Cunliffe writes.

At the end of the interview, the bandleader remembered how all of this began, back in 1971 in his home town of Andover, Mass.

“My first gig was when I was 14, at my friend’s bar mitzvah,” he said. “I got paid $50 to play the organ at the cocktail hour,” which seemed like a lot of money.

“That was so great,” he said. “I thought: That sounds like what I should be doing.”

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