If I had to nominate the most interesting jazz composer to emerge from the European scene in the past 60 years, the list would certainly include Krzysztof Komeda, Andre Hodeir and Mike Westbrook. But in the end I’d probably settle for a musician hardly known outside his native country, and virtually not at all in Britain: the 84-year-old Giorgio Gaslini, who was a product of the bebop era and made his first recordings in 1948 but remains in possession of a mind so open and inquisitive that his catalogue includes albums devoted to solo piano recitals of the music of Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.
In 1960 Gaslini wrote and recorded the music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece La Notte. Five years later he made a record called Nuovi Sentimenti (New Feelings), with a band including Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Gato Barbieri, two bassists and two drummers: an early example of a European musician embracing the avant garde. Since then he has written and recorded music in just about every conceivable format, from solos and duos through a regular quartet that featured the fine Italian tenorist Gianni Bedori, to quintets, sextets, septets, octets and many kinds of large ensemble; he has composed jazz pieces for his own big band and the Italian Instabile Orchestra, symphonies, choral pieces, ballet scores, and an opera called Colloquio per Malcolm X.
His most recent release, a set of solo piano pieces titled Incanti, appeared on the CamJazz label in 2011. Recorded at a concert in Messina, it featured his improvised meditations on classical pieces by Monteverdi, Faure, Tchaikovsky, Bartok and others, and it was among my favourite albums of that year, thanks not least to a magical version of Handel’s aria “Lascia ch’io piange”: four minutes and 49 seconds of magically understated beauty.
Gaslini has spent much of his time as an eminent teacher at conservatories in Rome and Milan, but he’s also made a huge number of records over the years, and it doesn’t take much effort to find quite a decent proportion of them. In 1997 the Italian label Soul Note issued a pair of two-CD sets documenting his early work, starting with a 1948 piano trio version of the bop classic “Ow!” and including the soundtrack to La Notte and the fantastic Nuovi Sentimenti. Ten years later they issued two more, devoted to his work with various ensembles between 1968 and 1974. Now another Italian label, Dischi della Quercia, has filled in a large gap in his recent output by issuing a box containing 11 albums recorded between 1976 and 1985, all remastered and packaged in card facsimiles of their original sleeves.
For your £40 you get a great deal of music, much of of it excellent and some of it a great deal more than that. To my ears, the least interesting items are the duo albums with Roswell Rudd, Eddie Gomez and Anthony Braxton. Two album-length suites for octet, Indian Suite and Monodrama, are uneven, but contain interesting passages. There is a very nice quartet album — another suite — called Murales, featuring Bedori, and a decent quintet set recorded live at New York’s Public Theatre; you can hear the influence of Monk on Gaslini’s angular, playful tunes, but there’s never a sense of imitation.
The most fully realised music, however, is contained on the two albums devoted to a sextet he led in the late ’70s, with Bedori on tenor and soprano saxes, Gianluigi Trovesi on alto and soprano sax and bass clarinet, Paolo Damiani on double bass, Gianni Cazzola on drums and Luis Agudo on percussion. The first of them, dating from 1977, is called Free Actions and sounds today as fresh and compelling as any post-Coltrane jazz that was being played anywhere in the world at the time. Better than that: anyone listening to the brilliantly imaginative solos of Bedori and Trovesi against an active, hard-swinging ostinato figure during the fifth and final movement of the suite from which the album takes its name might well find themselves thinking of the current Wayne Shorter Quartet, and concluding that the Italians are not shamed by such an exalted comparison, even though they were making their music almost three and a half decades ago.
The second sextet album, Graffiti, was recorded live in Milan the following year and is almost as good: just four and a half stars against the five of its predecessor, you might say. Again it’s a suite, and one of the movements — called “Soul Street” — brilliantly captures the spirit of the Charles Mingus of East Coasting and Jazz Portraits. It’s also in this track that Gaslini’s piano solo demonstrates how well he can blend the free with the funky. Once again Bedori and Trovesi are outstanding throughout, while Damiani’s sinewy bass lines remind me of his British contemporary, the late, lamented Jeff Clyne.
Once you enter Giorgio Gaslini’s world, there’s a lot to discover. How nice it would be if, even at this late stage, somebody gave him the chance to show British audiences what he can do.
* The photograph of Giorgio Gaslini is from the sleeve of Incanti and was taken by KDPhoto.