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Bill Cunliffe

Bill Cunliffe is a jazz pianist, composer and Grammy Award-winning arranger. He got his start playing and arranging for drummer Buddy Rich, and touring with Frank Sinatra. In 1989 Bill won the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. Upon moving to Los Angeles, he performed with the Clayton Brothers and the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for ten years, and currently plays with the Joe La Barbera quintet (former drummer with Bill Evans) and with his trio. He has also performed with James Moody, Benny Golson, Red Rodney, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Freddie Hubbard, Bob Berg, Junior Cook, Sonny Fortune, Woody Shaw, Michael Brecker, George Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Houston Person, Hubert Laws and Art Blakey. He performs in the U.S. and around the world as a leader and sideman as well as a soloist with symphony orchestras.

His latest release, currently receiving significant airplay nationwide, is “Border Widow’s Lament” (2022, Night Is Alive Records) with Martin Wind, bass, and Tim Horner, drums. Previously released was TRIO (Le Coq, 2021), which features bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Other releases include Nostalgia in Corcovado (BCM+D, 2014), River Edge, New Jersey, featuring bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner (Azica, 2013), and Overture, Waltz and Rondo for jazz piano, trumpet and orchestra (BCM+D, 2012). Cunliffe performed the work with trumpeter Terell Stafford and the Temple University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Luis Biava. The recording won Cunliffe his fifth Grammy nomination, in the Best Instrumental Composition category.

In 2012, Cunliffe also released his Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, with tubist Jim Self and the Hollywood Ensemble, with Cunliffe conducting (Metre, 2012). That Time of Year (Metre, 2011), Cunliffe’s album of solo improvisations on Christmas carols, was described as a “tour de force” in the Los Angeles Times.

Cunliffe’s other recordings show his affinity for Latin rhythms (Bill in Brazil, Imaginación and his Grammy-nominated trumpet concerto fourth stream … La Banda) and pay tribute to some of his musical heroes, including Bud Powell, Oliver Nelson and Paul Simon.

Cunliffe wrote the score for the film On the Shoulders of Giants, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s homage to the Harlem Rens basketball team of the 1920s and ’30s. The film received an NAACP Image Award for Best Documentary. Cunliffe’s soundtrack was nominated for Best Album.

Cunliffe’s books Jazz Keyboard Toolbox and Jazz Inventions for Keyboard (Alfred Music Publishing) have become standard reference works. Uniquely Christmas (2012) was a book of arrangements inspired by his album That Time of Year, and Uniquely Familiar: Standards for Advanced Solo Piano was published in 2010.

Cunliffe was awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement for “West Side Story Medley,” on the album Resonance Big Band Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Resonance, 2009). In addition to receiving five Grammy nominations, he is a two-time Emmy nominee.

The Los Angeles Jazz Society honored Cunliffe in 2010 with its Composer/Arranger Award. That year he was also named a Distinguished Faculty Member of the College of the Arts at Cal State Fullerton, where he is a jazz studies professor. He also teaches at the Skidmore Jazz Institute and the Vail Jazz Workshop.

Cunliffe grew up in Andover, Mass. He studied jazz at Duke University with pianist Mary Lou Williams and received his master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. He is a member of the Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame.

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