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Giorgio Gaslini: maestro of jazz

Giorgio Gaslini 1If 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.

Bearing witness

It was by concidence, or so I imagine, that a CD titled Cwmwl Tystion dropped through my letterbox on St David’s Day, which falls on March 1. Cwmwl Tystion — whose English title is Witness — happens to be an album of new jazz by Welsh musicians, devoted to themes of Welsh culture and nationhood.

The literal translation of “cwmwl tystion” is “cloud of witnesses”, a phrase taken from a translation (by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury) of a poem called “What is Man?” by Waldo Williams (1904-1971), a celebrated Welsh poet, nationalist and peace activist:

What is it to be a people? A gift
lodged in the heart’s deep folds.
What is love of country? Keeping house
among a cloud of witnesses.

Six of the seven pieces on the album were written by the trumpeter Tomos Williams (the exception is the traditional “Glyn Tawe”) and performed by him with Francesca Simmons (violin and saw), Rhodri Davies (harp and electronics), Huw Warren (piano), Huw V. Williams (bass), and Mark O’Connor (drums). The titles make reference to Paul Robeson’s historic performance at the miners’ eisteddfod in Porthcawl in 1957; to the Blue Books of 1847, in which the teaching of the Welsh language was officially discouraged; and to the infamous obliteration of an entire North Wales village in 1965 in order to create a reservoir to provide water for the people of Liverpool.

This would be all very well and good, but perhaps pleasing primarily to Welsh hearts, were it not that the music produced by Tomos Williams and his colleagues is of the very highest class. Supported by Ty Cerdd (Music Centre Wales), on whose label the CD was released this month, The Cwmwl Tystion Suite was given five concert performances — with live visuals by Simon Proffitt — in 2019, from which these recordings were taken.

What Tomos Williams has done is subtly infiltrate contemporary jazz practices with textures drawn from the music of his native land, but in a very non-literal way. So while the sound of Rhodri Davies’ harp is a reminder of traditional Welsh music, it also carries an echo of Alice Coltrane: the spirituality shared by both infuses the music without dominating it. Davies’s use of electronics adds different colours and dimensions to the music, as an equal voice with the acoustic instruments or as a soundwash. The unusual instrumentation is thoughtfully deployed — as in the trumpet/violin statement of the opening “Mynyddoedd Cymru (Mountains of Wales)” — and shrewdly rotated to maximise its possibilities and its freshness.

All the soloists bring character to their improvisations. Tomos Williams plays as Wadada Leo Smith might do, had he been born in Aberystwyth: a different kind of blues. Francesca Simmons finds interesting ways of applying lyricism to these often astringent textures, and her rich tone is spotlit on “Glyn Tawe”. Huw V. Williams is a powerful force on bass, taking the spotlight on the tribute to Robeson, and Huw Warren’s glistening solo on the closing track, “What is Man?”, mines the creative space between Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. Mark O’Connor’s drumming is beautifully sensitive and exquisitely detailed, radiating light and swing.

Jazz is an African American music generous enough to allow others to inhabit its spirit and to shape it to their own ends. Django Reinhardt proved that, as have Tomasz Stanko, Dudu Pukwana, Han Bennink, Don Drummond, Giorgio Gaslini, John Surman, Masabumi Kikuchi, Gato Barbieri, and many others. If the music can “belong” to Sinti, Poles, South Africans, Dutch, Jamaicans, Italians, English, Japanese and Argentinians, then it can belong to the Welsh, too.

Small country, big heart — a heart that beats firmly throughout this excellent album, a showcase for skill, imagination, soul and originality. Even without a spasm of hiraeth — the Welsh yearning for the homeland — I’d be disposed to recommend it very highly indeed.

* The photograph was taken at Aberystwyth Arts Centre by Keith Morris. Further information: or

A soundtrack of the ’60s, Italian-style


The Jazz on Film series of compilations, curated with excellent taste and scrupulous attention to detail by Selwyn Harris, might be the best reissue programme since Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles treasury. My favourites so far have been the French New Wave and Jazz in Polish Cinema boxes, but I’m very pleased to have the new vinyl single-album release titled Jazz in Italian Cinema, which collects soundtracks from 1958 to 1962 by such composers as Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Giorgio Gaslini.

As you would expect, the 11 tracks are full of atmosphere, mostly that of a smoky bar in Trastevere during the period when Italy was emerging the from the wartime ruins and making its own adaptation of the American culture disseminated by the occupying US forces. It begins with a track from Umiliani’s score for Marco Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (released in the English-speaking world as Big Deal on Madonna Street), setting the tone for most of the set with an approach based on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band and Shorty Rogers’ medium-sized units.

Chet Baker, staying in Italy during one of his periods of personal turmoil, is featured on two tracks written by Trovajoli for Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo; sounding forlorn on “Oscar Is the Back” and sprightly on the film’s theme tune, he plays with poise, concentration and inventiveness. He’s even better on “Tensione”, the first of two tracks from Umiliani’s score for Nanni Loy’s Audace Colpo dei Soliti Ignoti (Fiasco in Milan), displaying the kind of up-tempo chops that suggest why Charlie Parker was so impressed when they played together in Los Angeles in 1952. “Relaxing’ with Chet”, the second of the tracks, is a lovely West Coast-style medium swinger.

Piccioni’s theme for Elio Petri’s L’Assassino (which starred Marcello Mastroianni) sounds charmingly like the sort of stealthy thing Henry Mancini, in a jazz mood, might have written for a detective movie. Gino Marinacci on baritone saxophone, the composer on piano an unidentified vibraphonist are the excellent soloists. No musicians are identified on Piccioni’s “Finale”, from Antonio Pierangeli’s Adua e le Compagne (Adua and Her Friends), which is a shame since it features some exceptional alto saxophone work from a player whose fluency and bitter-sweet tone are somewhere between Hal McCusick and John Handy. “Blues all’Alba” from Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte is probably the best known piece here, a cigarettes-and-coffee nocturne featuring Eraldo Volonté’s eloquently world-weary tenor saxophone.

Next comes the only letdown: John Lewis’s “In a Crowd”, from Eriprando Visconti’s Una Storia Milanese (A Milanese Story), which teams good jazz players — guitarist René Thomas, flautist Bobby Jaspar and Lewis himself — with a string quartet but never emerges from behind a veil of effeteness. But Harris has saved the biggest surprise for last: two delightful tracks by by altoist Sandro Brugnoli and his Modern Jazz Gang from the soundtrack to Enzo Battaglia’s Gli Arcangeli (The Archangels), good examples of robustly swinging, bluesy post-bop jazz with modal inclinations neatly arranged for octet, in which Cicci Santucci’s bright-toned trumpet and Pucci Sboto’s vibes heard to good advantage.

All that, then, and a beautiful black and white shot of Jeanne Moreau on the front cover. A very entertaining and enlightening set, then — and, as the sleeve notes suggest, there’s potentially much more where this came from.

Pasolini’s Theorem

TheoremWhatever your opinion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem, which is showing at the BFI South Bank in London over the next few weeks as part of a season devoted to the director’s work, there’s no denying the quality of its soundtrack. Mozart and Morricone are the names on the credits, and both play significant roles in Pasolini’s 1968 drama of a family whose bourgeois lives are torn apart by the passage through their household of a mysterious stranger (played by Terence Stamp).

But the first music you hear, after the newsreel-style prologue set outside the gates of a factory and over a credit sequence shot on the dusty  slopes near the crater of a volcano, is actually “Tears for Dolphy”, a beautiful ballad written by the American trumpeter Ted Curson in 1964 to mourn the passing of his friend and sometime bandmate (in Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop), Eric Dolphy. Mystifyingly, it’s uncredited, leading the viewer to assume that it’s by Ennio Morricone, which it certainly isn’t. It was recorded by Curson with Bill Barron (tenor saxophone), Herb Bushler (bass) and Dick Berk (drums) in the year of Dolphy’s death, and initially released a year later in Dutch Fontana’s memorable series of New Thing albums before being reissued first on Arista/Freedom label 10 years later and then by Black Lion in the mid-1990s. (It’s out of print again now, but you can hear it here.) Curson died last November, aged 77; let’s hope he saw some benefit from the use of his piece in a much studied film.

It was certainly a great choice. As I listened to it while the credits rolled last night, it brought to mind the creative use of post-bop jazz in the scores for several important European art movies in the early 1960s, such as Antonioni’s La Notte (Giorgio Gaslini) and Blow Up (Herbie Hancock) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water (Krzysztof Komeda) and Repulsion (Chico Hamilton). Elsewhere in the film, excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem are used effectively to underscore the anti-clerical aspect of Pasolini’s message, while Morricone earns his fee — and reminds us that from the age of 12 he studied composition at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome — by providing jagged post-serialist pieces for string orchestra to accompany scenes of psychological turmoil. But it’s Ted Curson’s piece that carries the greatest emotional weight, its spare contours providing the perfect evocation of the discontents that accompanied Italy’s post-war reconstruction.