When it appeared in 1981, Hal Willner’s Amacord Nino Rota kick-started the phenomenon of tribute albums. The New York producer gathered a bunch of musicians — among them Carla Bley, Jaki Byard, Bill Frisell, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Steve Lacy, and the then-unknown Wynton Marsalis — to take a variety of approaches, in various combinations, to Rota’s music for the films of Federico Fellini.
Last night, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Willner presented a greatly expanded version of the project, featuring only two of the original participants — Bley and her partner, the bass guitarist Steve Swallow — but adding a bunch of new pieces arranged by and featuring the likes of Mike Gibbs, John Etheridge, Kate St John, Steve Beresford, Rita Marcotulli, Nitin Sawhney, Giancarlo Vulcano, Karen Mantler and Steven Bernstein. Now opened up to include Rota’s music from non-Fellini films, the evening contained almost too many wonderful moments to remember.
Those I carried away with me included Beresford’s use of B.J. Cole’s outrageously eloquent steel guitar on music from Il Bidone; the expansion of Bley’s brilliant arrangement of themes from 8 1/2; Mantler’s deployment of her own chromatic harmonica during her marvellous settings of the various themes from The Godfather; the emotions that surged to the surface during Gibbs’s arrangement of music from The Glass Mountain (a 1949 film directed by Henry Cass and Edoardo Anton, and starring Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray); and the very moving conclusion, which found Sawhney at the piano, meditating on melodies from La Strada, accompanied by string quartet and bass flute.
I felt a little less warm towards the brief appearances of Marc Almond and Richard Strange, delivering songs from Fellini’s Casanova films. But the arrangers were fortunate to be able to call on the services of a terrific orchestra, whose soloists included the wonderful brazen trombonist Barnaby Dickinson, the feather-tongued tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel, the deft guitarist John Etheridge, Bernstein on slide trumpet (surely the most Felliniesque of instruments), and Marcotulli, who contributed a fine piano improvisation to The Glass Mountain. Topped and tailed — with typically Willnerian hipster ingenuity — by recordings of Ken Nordine reading Shel Silverstein’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, the result was a two-and-a-half-hour triumph.