Friday, November 14, 2008

Frank Cunimondo

Cover from Dusty Groove.

Frank Cunimondo was born in East Liberty in 1934. He began tickling the ivories at the age of 6, studying classical piano, and as a teenager he made the transition to jazz at where else but Homewood's George Westinghouse High School?

He attended the home school of pianists Ahmad Jamal and Errol Garner. Like them, Cunimondo was mentored by music guru Carl McVicker Sr., who turned so many of his Bulldogs into musical lions. He went on to study at Carnegie Tech, now CMU.

In his early teens, he began to play professionally at the clubs around town. At 19, he began to tour, gigging in burgs like Atlantic City and Miami. At home, he played the local jazz hot spots like The Crawford Grill, often sharing a stage with the young George Benson.

In the 1950s, Cunimondo moved to New York City and immersed himself into the jazz scene, getting down with progressive sounds of artists like Miles Davis. He landed a date on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and a local booking agent saw him on the tube and called to see if he'd like to gig at home.

He eventually took him up on the offer, returning to Pittsburgh for good, tired of the "rat race" in the Big Apple. The pianist had seen what national fame did to players - it trapped them in a box. If they wanted to sell records, they had to stick to one sound. And he was having none of that; his tastes were too eclectic, and he needed breathing room for his keyboard to wander.

Cunimondo had another point to prove, too. He thought that you should be able to make a decent living and record as a jazz artist in Pittsburgh.

And in the fifties and sixties a player could: Cunimondo worked six nights a week, sometimes leaving one job at 2AM to begin another at one of the many after-hours clubs in his East Liberty stomping grounds, such as the Bachelors’ Club and the Hunting and Fishing Club.

So he came back and formed a trio with local musicians John Heard on bass and Roger Humphries on drums. Ever since, the Frank Cunimondo Trio, in its various configurations, has played clubs and festivals throughout the region virtually non stop. He also gigs with his his salsa band, Mondo Latino.

In addition, he has shared the stage with a number of jazz stars including Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Urbie Green, Lee Konitz, Louie Bellson, Joshua Redman, Phil Woods, Frank Rosolino, Nathan Davis, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, and Dakota Staton.

In the 1980s he owned a jazz club in Pittsburgh called "Cunimondo's Keyboard Jazz Supper Club" in Verona. And he's not only mastered the Steinway, but is one of the nation's foremost electric piano virtuosos. In 1989, he was voted "Best Jazz Pianist" by In Pittsburgh Magazine. And yes, he's part of the Westinghouse Wall of Fame.

Cunimondo has a long discography, and to drive home his point, the albums have virtually all been released on his local Mondo label (not to be confused with the Brit Mondo studio, which issues trance music.) His first trio recorded an LP that was buried in a vault and never saw the light of day, and that may provided him with the final nudge for founding his own label.

Mondo's initial album was 1968’s "Communication" (M-101), and was recorded at Gateway studios. "Communication" featured the pianist accompanied by Ron Fudoli on bass and Spider Rondinelli on drums (who now plays every weekend at Martini's in Jefferson Hills on Clairton Road with his band, the Jazz Giants), and was in the modal jazz vein, ala his NY influence, Miles Davis. Its top track is Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Cunimondo’s second LP, "The Lamp Is Low" (M-102), was released in 1969. He recorded for the first time with bassist Mike Taylor and drummer Roger Humphries. The "Lamp is Low" was a mainstream record, with the tracks being mainly jazz and bossa nova standards.

The LP’s title track received a lot of local radio love, and fans began to identify the tune with Cunimondo. It was a big request number at his live shows.

Cunimondo’s next studio session, in 1971, provided the material for his next two LPs. They were "Introducing Lynn Marino" (M-103) and "Echoes" (M-104), both released the same year.

"Introducing Lynn Marino" featured Cunimondo, Taylor, and Humphries backing up Marino, a local singer with a girlie voice that he found gigging at a local Holiday Inn. The record’s quirky tracks included “Animal Crackers in My Soup” which had been popularized by Shirley Temple, as well as pop songs, show tunes and two originals by his bud R.M. DiGioia.

Cunimondo later regretted cutting such a commercial collection of tracks. But his most popular recording, the bouncy "Feelin' Good," was off the LP and became an international hit. It's still being distributed by MoviePlay Gold, Luv 'n' Haight, and Underonesun labels in Europe under the title of its big track, "Feelin' Good."

The song has also been heavily sampled and used in a number of European dance mixes, becoming a staple of the club jocks and acid jazz DJ's across the continent.

"Echoes" was a funk filled album, and the last done by the Cunimondo-Taylor-Humphries trio. But Mondo Records and Cunimondo have kept on churning out tracks on a pretty regular basis over the years.

Cunimondo, on his Mondo label, has also recorded and released "Sagittarius," "Frank Cunimondo Plays George Benson," "It's You, It's Me," with Lori Russo, the out-of-print "Choice Cuts," "Totally Frank," (he made all the music for this LP, playing piano and electronically adding drums and bass on the Latino-flavored record), and "Sound Painting," his last and perhaps most mellow recording, issued in 2003. He's working now on his latest project, "Isle de Romantica."

Cunimondo was also featured on "Top Shelf Collection," released by Sound Idea (S90175) in 1975, and backed local sax man Nathan Davis on 1976's "Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King," issued by Davis' Tomorrow International label, and re-released on CD in 2006 by the Pony Canyon label.

His recordings have been included in the top ten selling and airplay lists in England, the Benelux Union (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), and Japan.

Besides performing, Cunimondo has a long career as a piano tutor. He's taught at Duquesne University and currently teaches Jazz Piano at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as privately. He numbers actor Jeff Goldblum among his many students, and his name is prominently displayed on a lot of local artists' resumes.

The Frank Cunimondo Jazz Chord System was released in the late 1960's and published in 1970. It was considered as one of, if not the first, formally organized systems of jazz harmony and theory.

Frank Cunimondo is living proof that life as a big fish in a small pond ain't all that bad of a gig. He's one of the few artists to migrate back home, and the city's music scene is far richer and vibrant because he did choose the path less taken.

Old Mon thanks Carlos Pena for his on-line 2007 thesis on Pittsburgh Jazz Recordings for providing a great deal of info not only on Cunimondo (pages 37-43), but several local jazz greats.

Visit the Frank Cunimondo's MySpace page or Wikipedia for more on the pianist.

"Feeling Good" - Lynn Marino/Frank Cunimondo Trio

1 comment:

Sparky said...

A Classic and a Professional.