Francesco Bearzatti: Why?

With this quartet, Francesco Bearzatti has arguably reached the peak of his creativity. Still in his 30s, this fiery clarinet and tenor player has had an interesting career as a sidemen in Italy and France. He also led his own organ combo and "Sax Pistols," a loud trio with Stomu Takeishi and Dan Weiss reflecting his interest in Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. But with this consistent suite dedicated to an Italian-born adventuress who died in Mexico during the 1940s, Bearzatti finds not only a theme but also a format. Sound-wise, this quartet could be a rock band as far as power and tightness are concerned. Jazz-wise, they display a variety of attributes that goes back several decades — from early New Orleans music to now, a range that can seldom be heard nowadays — and their joy in playing and improvising is absolutely breathtaking. Could such a band come from anywhere but Italy? Why not, of course, but since Enrico Rava or Gianluigi Trovesi many musicians from the Peninsula have displayed an ability to feed on any period of jazz history not to imitate but to fuel their own creativity. Bearzatti and his mates are definitely wild improvisers with a vivid past and no fear of the future. May they spread the message as far beyond their native country as possible.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stefano Battaglia: Our Circular Song

Stefano Battaglia is exactly the opposite of a stereotypical extroverted Italian musician. In fact he says he was unsurprised when Manfred Eicher invited him to record for the ECM label, since he was already deep into the aesthetic of the German producer renowned for his so-called "Nordic sound." But in fact, though he was born in Northern Italy, Battaglia can hardly be called a Viking, and even though Jarrett was among his early influences, he now is closer to, for example, Marilyn Crispell. Battaglia is highly concerned with the interaction between his piano and the other instruments in his trio (characteristically the drummer's seat is held by a percussionist, for the sake of color rather than steady pulse). The group never resorts to the theme-solo-theme pattern, since Battaglia and his partners are more interested in building sonic miniatures in the moment than in fitting into pre-established formats. Their composing most of their tunes together relates to these options. Still, their playing is never abstract and, in the sound of each instrument as in the short melodic phrases that occur under Battaglia's fingers, one often finds the singing quality that devotees of stereotype may attribute — not without cause — to the Italian origin of these fine musicians. In their musical tradition this singing quality is called cantabile.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Paolo Fresu: Si Dolce è il Tormento

The Monteverdi madrigal that Paolo Fresu tackles here was composed more than three centuries before any member of Fresu's Angel Quartet (plus 1 on this track) was born. This may lead the listener to meditate on the fact that Italian musicians definitely have their own treasure of melodies and have no problem dealing with it in whatever idiom. Indeed, when Monteverdi was alive none of the instruments played here existed in its actual form, except for the bass. Still, the vocal quality of Fresu's trumpet fits the melody so neatly that he hardly needs to improvise on it. Lê's guitar sound is obviously far from the baroque lute, but his playing is totally relevant to the emotional quality of the music. Behind them, the support that Di Castri and Gatto bring (the latter with subtle and highly melodic brushes) is just perfect, and Salis's accordion adds its voice in a most discreet manner. If this is the sweet (dolce) torment (tormento) that Monteverdi talked about in his title, let's pray that these "angels" may inflict it on us as long as possible. By all means!

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gianluigi Trovesi: Now I Can

Gianluigi Trovesi is not only a great saxophone and clarinet player and one of the main historical figures of Italian Jazz in the last 40 years, he is also a consummate composer and arranger, and a fine humorist. This track bears witness to all the above in its dramatic construction (with a melodic theme hidden in the middle of a riff-based structure), its instrumentation (with the percussion and toys playing a high-pitched humoristic punctuation to the ensembles and solos by low-register instruments), the way it all swings in an infectious slow dancing manner, and finally the hilarious intrusion of Pino Minafra, grumbling some indescribable babble which might be the closest you can get to Southern Italian rap. Trovesi has had several midsize ensembles since '92 with rock, folk and baroque influences to them, but this one best shows the joyous side of his music. Some musicologist may trace this trend back to the old Italian musical tradition of scherzo, which literally means "joke" – a tradition that today's non-Italian musicians often seem unaware of.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gabriele Mirabassi: Madrugadero

Some will argue that Gabriele Mirabassi is not really a jazz musician, and to a certain extent they are right. His straight sound and tone still bear the mark of his breeding as a classical virtuoso, and he doesn't show any influence from such historical players as Barney Bigard or Benny Goodman. But then, his instrument has played such a small role in jazz's evolution over the past half century that it has allowed strong individuals with few strings attached to appear, at least in Europe. Indeed, Mirabassi mostly plays with Europeans, except for Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, who by the way lives in Germany. On this record Mirabassi mostly plays his own tunes with his own group, an unconventional Italian-French quartet. This track sounds like a folk tune, and some purists may again doubt its qualification as jazz. But the way the four players carry this tune from a linear melodic unison between accordion and clarinet to a free rubato exploration around the tuba's growls has definitely more to do with jazz improvisation than with any other musical genre. This bears witness to Mirabassi's open mind and to the Europeans' open vision of today's jazz.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Stefano Bollani: Giroconlon

Stefano Bollani is an atypical musician, and it would be totally irrelevant to reduce him to his Italian origins, first because the melody is rarely the primal ingredient of his music. When it is, whether he pens it or plays a Beatles song or a jazz standard, he often makes it sound like an old-fashioned song used as a basis for rhythmic and harmonic invention. Here he starts with a strong left hand and a brisk right one, and the rhythmic interplay between the two caries on until a pop-songlike harmony emerges. Bollani has studied classical music thoroughly (he often borrows from Prokofiev) and has often supported pop singers before jazz took over. He is one of the young virtuosos who, mostly on the European side of the Atlantic, have a huge classical, pop and jazz culture and feel free to draw from it to shape new forms. In a country where the bop influence is still very strong, his evolution follows a very personal and unpredictable path.

July 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Visions

In Italy, jazz musicians and connoisseurs alike call Enrico Rava "maestro," and there are reasons for that. Beside his impressive career, both inside and outside Italy, Rava has always enlisted younger musicians to form new groups and explore new grounds, as with this pianoless quartet that refers more to the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker band than to the Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry association. Of course, the presence of Argentinean-born baritone saxophonist Javier Girotto is instrumental in this comparison. Some songs even sound almost as if they could belong to the Mulligan/Baker repertoire, but the most interesting ones are those, such as this track, that both bring the cool aesthetic into the new century and decentralize it towards the Old Continent. Apart from being a great musician, Rava has always been a true lover of the jazz tradition, from Bix Beiderbecke to Don Cherry. No wonder he can help himself whenever he wants to the heap of stylistic influences he has absorbed over the years, yet always sound like today, and like himself.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pietro Tonolo & Danilo Rea: Ah, cosa non è stato sotto la luna

They are not well known beyond the borders of their native country (although Tonolo has played with the likes of Gil Evans, Paul Motian and Gil Goldstein, and Rea with Lee Konitz, Chet Baker and Aldo Romano), but Tonolo & Rea are celebrities in Italy. It doesn't take more than a few bars played by this duo to hear why. Where do you find a tenor player with a mellower yet still powerful sound? Where do you find a pianist with such touch and harmonic sensitivity? What's also fascinating is that, as with many other Italian musicians, lyricism seems to come naturally to this pair. They can pen a tune with all the characteristics of a popular Italian melody, such as this track, yet never sound corny when they tackle it, whether playing the theme or improvising countermelodies. That's what one calls good taste. And, even if it also exists in other spheres (cooking, wine, clothes, etc.), you've got a good chance to find it aplenty within a triangle that encompasses Turin, Naples and Venice.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Franco D'Andrea: Old Jazz

It's hard to find a European musician who's absorbed the history of jazz piano — and jazz at large, for that matter — as thoroughly as Franco D'Andrea. His recent renditions of Ellington's or Monk's works are top-rank recordings, and he has managed to express his own personality both within and outside the boundaries of the classic-to-bop style. One can then understand that the title of this witty tune he penned is partly ironical, as are the quotations of bop clichés that spring here and there from D'Andrea's fingers. These may in fact be the only clues, during a blindfold test, to the fact that this trio is composed entirely of Europeans, all Italian in fact. Actually they have played with so many American musicians residing in or touring through their country that they have learned to speak the standard jazz language without accent. They even often prove more inventive in that idiom than some native speakers, and don't hesitate to foray beyond its borders when they feel restricted by them. Besides, all three are top-level instrumentalists and highly creative improvisers. Who can beat that, on either side of the Atlantic?

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Maria Pia De Vito: Eucharisto Soi

Born in Naples, Southern Italy, a crucible of Mediterranean folk and classical influences, Maria Pia De Vito is one of the Peninsula's great voices and has frequently worked with such other European musicians as British pianist John Taylor, Belgian singer David Linx or Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger. Here she uses lyrics from an apocryphal gospel to build a song that sounds more Indian than Italian, polytheist than Christian. But phoné — the voice in ancient Greek — has always and universally been used to communicate with the divine, and De Vito certainly isn't one to restrict her vocal abilities to the Mediterranean orb. Supported mainly by tabla, bass and the very vocal-like sound of Trovesi's alto clarinet, she creates an utterly original mood, beyond the borders of tradition and modernity.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Italian Instabile Orchestra: Il Maestro Muratore

Italy, which is often noted for its inability to achieve political unity, has nevertheless managed to produce an 18-piece orchestra whose members are almost all leaders of their own bands. No ordinary orchestra, then. The Italian Instabile Orchestra (whose personnel, as the name suggests, is liable to swell and evolve) was from its inception one of Europe's most stimulating large modern bands. This track ("The Master Mason" in English) shows the Instabile Orchestra at its arguably best period, displaying typically Mediterranean melodic inspiration on a modal 3/4 vamp arranged in a simple, efficient way. Another of Instabile's assets was that most of its members were potentially raunchy, free improvisers, be they veterans such as Gaslini, Schiano and Trovesi or younger musicians such as Rossi or Actis Dato. Nowadays the Instabile seldom plays, but this album (whose title clearly alludes to Ornette Coleman's Skies of America) is a milestone, set by master builders not only in the history of Italian jazz, but of European jazz at large.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roberto Magris Europlane: No Sadness

Italian pianist and composer Roberto Magris is a veteran of countless European jazz festivals, has played in more than 30 countries and recorded 16 albums. He has collaborated with many of Europe's finest musicians and served as sideman to such notables as Kai Winding and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. He is a favorite of jazz critic Ira Gitler, from whose liner notes much of this information is gleaned. Magris formed the Europlane Orchestra in 1998, and in one form or another that name has been placed on some of his projects since.

According to Gitler, "No Sadness" started its life as a rock ballad and had been recorded that way on an earlier album. This version is certainly not that. This interpretation is a jazz ballad featuring a lovely melody supported by a quasi-Latin beat. Magris is a gifted player blessed with a subtle touch. He is matched in tone and purpose by guest saxophonist Herb Geller, known for his West Coast leanings developed in the vortex of the late-'50s movement. Guitarist Darko Jurcovic's playing also fits perfectly into the mix. These are professional players performing traditional jazz with taste and skill. You could do much worse than spending your time listening to them. No sadness heard here.

July 22, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gianfranco Continenza: Outside That Door

This is the first CD from Italian guitarist and educator Continenza, who has been playing guitar for a quarter century but only now thought he had something to say and wanted it documented. To declare he had something to say is an understatement. This album is full of powerful and fresh fusion played, for the most part, by some very savvy Italian musicians. On various pieces Continenza is joined by fusion stalwarts Bill Evans (sax) and keyboardist Scott Kinsey.

"Outside That Door" opens with an echoing short vocal declamation. Those are the last words you will hear. Continenza introduces a guitar riff directly from the Al Di Meola School of Guitar Riffs. Very quickly he is joined in unison by Bill Evans (sax) for a staccato-laden section that leads into a predictably excellent blowing session from Evans (sax). Continenza's solo turn comes. He uses some sort of external device to alter the sound of his guitar and just goes for it. Lessons learned from Al Di Meola are left in the locker. Continenza has his own distinct voice. This guy can play really good! All of these musicians can. This is top-notch fusion music that I would be happy to go outside, or inside, any door to hear more of.

May 01, 2008 · 2 comments

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Gianluca Petrella: Mood Indigo

After starting with a sonic jungle that Ellington may have approved, the quartet launches into a post- modern "Mood Indigo" full of playful irony and respect for the spirit of Duke's "jungle period." The vocal qualities of Petrella's trombone are a highlight, and Bearzatti's clarinet follows in the same vein, while the rhythm team briskly marks the beat. These young Italians' reinterpretation of this classic is original and highly enjoyable.

March 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rita Marcotulli: Les 400 Coups

Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli has devoted this whole record to the movies of French director François Truffaut, whom she admires. This track, like the others, is then mostly about atmosphere. Here it tackles the one conjured up by Jean Constantin's music for Les 400 Coups, a movie about a rebel child. The initial waltz sounds much like one of Nino Rota's scores for Fellini movies, and indeed Marcotulli has summoned mostly Italian musicians to render this mildly nostalgic climate. Her own piano solo, Rava's on muted trumpet and Di Battista's on soprano sax are the highlights of this song aptly adapted to a jazz treatment.

March 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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