Jazz Album of the Week: Aloha! Pianist Bill Cunliffe Take Us On Vacation With Sunrise Over Moloka'i

Mar 10, 2020

March 9, 2020. Grammy-winning pianist Bill Cunliffe has worked on all different types of projects, and is known for having an affinity for Latin jazz. On Sunrise Over Moloka’i, Bill deviates from the predictable, and sets his musical sights on Hawaii, even completing his trio with Bruce Hamada (bass) and Darryl Pellegrini (drums), who both call Hawaii home.

Cunliffe credits many holiday trips to Hawaii with his wife, Wanda Lau, to getting this band together. The couple composed the title track to the album together, and it's an impeccable companion to any beautiful sunrise, not to mention the one highlighted by the beautiful cover art.

The trio touches on some Hawaiian standards, including a traditional piece that was composed by Prince Leleiohoku, who was prince of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1855 – 1877. During his short life, not only did he fulfill his royal duties, but was an accomplished composer. His most famous piece, “Kaua I Ka Huahua’I" (We Two in the Spray), was adapted into a popular American song called “Hawaiian War Chant,” made famous by Don Ho.

“Little Grass Shack” is another Hawaiian favorite (with the Don Ho touch) that the trio tackles, and they do it in a highly percussive way, giving it a bit of a reggae tinge. Without the lyrics, “I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii,” it’s easy to miss the origin of the tune at first listen. To those familiar, you would get the melody after a verse of two.

A clever addition to this album is “God Only Knows.” I mean, it’s an album celebrating Hawaii – the inclusion of anything related to surfing is a perfect fit, right? Cunliffe’s handling of this tune couldn’t be more lovely. It remains as delicate and thoughtful as the Beach Boys intended, with some nice soloing in the middle that adds intensity.

Although this is an homage to Hawaii, the trio plays some jazz standards as well, with selections from Bud Powell, Jobim, the Gershwins and others. Sunrise Over Moloka’I is a refreshing blend off jazz played by high caliber musicians, with a bit of a Hawaiian punch.