More goodies from Leonardo Pavkovic’s imprint, this time comprising not one but TWO Italian bands that I liked without second thoughts. Unbelievable but true.
D.F.A. – Fourth
Here is the first, a group from Verona (the name is an acronym for Duty Free Area) that apparently is tremendously in love with National Health, Bruford circa Feels Good To Me, and so forth. They play very well and with rare passion, a genuine devotion for their original influences clearly perceivable all along, guitarist Silvio Minella literally cloning Phil Miller’s tone in certain circumstances. The main composer, though, is drummer Alberto De Grandis, an excellent instrumentalist exactly as the remaining members, keyboardist Alberto Bonomi and bassist Luca Baldassarri. Haven’t heard D.F.A.’s previous releases but this is really pleasant, authentic, honest music whose passionate candour I welcome. The enthusiasm is contagious, the few ingenuities are forgivable (those synths à la Tony Banks, Wind And Wuthering-era must go, guys!) and the last track alone is worth of the whole CD: a poignant arrangement of the traditional song from Sardinia “La Ballata De S’Isposa ‘E Mannorri”, a jewel featuring the Italian Northettes (just kidding), namely the vocal trio Andhira. In this particular segment, Elena Nulchis, Cristina Lanzi and Egidiana Carta deliver refined nuances and complex counterpoints halfway through Bulgarian and Sardinian, touching the right strings of the heart whenever this grown-up kid listens to the tune. Also quite intriguing is the long suite “Mosoq Runa”; not a surprise that both the best tracks feature brilliant performances by cellist Zoltan Szabo and violinist Maria Vicentini. Fine stuff, give it a serious try – especially if you’re a nostalgic of late-seventies British progressive rock.
MORAINE – Manifest Density
Another ensemble with handfuls of “progressive” antecedents (Univers Zero, to quote just one of at least twenty heard in a single disc), led by guitarist Dennis Rea who – judging from his curriculum vitae – has collaborated with everyone except Igor Stravinsky and god. Other members are Ruth Davidson (cello), Alicia Allen (violin), Kevin Millard (bass and baliset) and Jay Jaskot (drums). Technically above reproach, the band crosses different settings and atmospheres without flinching, to the point of not letting us really understand where their right place is. There’s a smidgen of everything in there – composition, improvisation, jazz, rock, traditional Asian music (Rea used to live in China and Taiwan for extensive periods) – the whole expressed through typically circuitous scores whose preferred parts are the ones highlighting Davidson and Allen’s fine string textures. Still, having agreed to an approval nod to the unquestionable bravura of the group, this reporter is not overly enthusiast about the CD, exactly because of what I told a few lines above. Countless influences, not a definite personality: one could describe each piece like “it reminds of (put a name here)”. This means that after a couple of listens the “ah, OK” reaction is a given before the filing of the record in the “unmemorable” archive becomes a fact.
SOFT MACHINE – Drop
The 1971 version of Soft Machine featuring meteoric drummer Phil Howard captured live during that year’s German tour. Let’s call things with the right terms: the band – or, if so preferred, the record – smokes. If someone still needs to know why this group has been so influential over the years, a spin of Drop is all it takes. Crunchy sound quality overall, but solid improvisations upon a basis of obsessions and trippy riffs, Hugh Hopper at his very fuzzy best, Mike Ratledge generating the harmonic hyperlinks to perceptive stasis with customary sapience, Elton Dean sounding like an unlicensed shaman whose impervious lines indicate the way to real transcendence. Howard was a force of nature, an overwhelming mass of cymbals, rolling toms and omnipresent snare, not always keeping the pulse steady but terrifically effective; of course, after a while he was felt as excessively consuming in the group’s economy, therefore all that remains of him on disc is this set and the first half of Fifth. This is one of those CDs who would transform even the most self-collected cynic into a foot-tapping head-banger. Keep this playing at full steam in the Discman (…iPod? What’s that?) and it’s highly probable that your neighbouring travellers are going to look at you with a modicum of worry (“is this guy nuts or is it just Parkinson?”). Say no more. A must.
SLIVOVITZ – Hubris
How does Mr. Pavkovic uncover all these excellent groups from my own native country? Hailing from Naples, Slivovitz – named after their favourite drink – arrive at the second outing since beginning in 2001, and Hubris is indeed a particularly bright one, belonging among the best Italian albums ever heard in this house, and as a rule I’m not that tender with compatriots. A seven-piece ensemble (bassist Domenico Angarano, drummer Stefano Costanzo, guitarist Marcello Giannini, vocalist Ludovica Manzo, harmonica player Derek Di Perri, saxophonist Pietro Santangelo and violinist Riccardo Villari), these people managed to surprise your scribbler with over 70 minutes of absolutely brilliant arrangements and extraordinarily tight playing, mixing lounge jazz, Klezmer in tomato sauce, Arabian and African hues, faint echoes from the Mediterranean Sea, movie soundtrack-like evocativeness - plus an awful lot of other ingredients (take a look at the group’s MySpace to understand). This kind of fusion is extremely palatable, sunny, humorous, not reeking with the fetor of those stale jazz/rock progressions that myriads of heroin-cum-Scientology fuelled zombies have been reiterating bald-facedly for five decades now and that, listened today, make me want to puke. Nothing’s out of place here instead, the instrumental mix practically unblemished. Well - there’s actually a minor track (still acceptable, though), a funky groove called “Stress” which is also the only that features dialectal vocal parts, and – in a particular line - curiously recalls the main riff to Neapolitan singer Pino Daniele’s 1978 song “Il Mare”. Everyone sounds great throughout yet I’ll give a symbolic honourable mention to Villari, who would not be a bad substitute for Jerry Goodman in the earlier incarnations of Mahavishnu Orchestra. These guys are serious players, musicians with the capital M, very competent even on difficult composed metres (check the 7/16 of “Dammi Un Besh O”). When I recall that, for example, the former members of PFM – a historic name for Italy as far as technically advanced music was once concerned – are a significant component of the national television establishment these days (you know who rules there, don’t you?) providing horribly cheesy soundtracks for government-approved news bulletins and shows for retards, then a band such as Slivovitz - who closes the recording with a spoken conversation along the lines of “if we play good enough, then we can go touching the girls’ tits” – must be seriously considered. Given the amazing dexterity shown in this CD, the reward should be a date with Vanessa Del Rio.
ELTON DEAN & THE WRONG OBJECT – The Unbelievable Truth
Although the level of musicianship of the participants is quite high, The Unbelievable Truth represents the sheer documentation of a live meeting between two reciprocally respectful artistic sides and should only be considered as such - nothing more, nothing less. Dean was well practiced on some scores previously sent to him by guitarist (and lone TWO’s composer) Michel Delville, but when the parts finally met – in Paris, October 2005 - no actual rehearsal had been possible due to technical problems to the Belgian quintet’s van, which broke down while they were travelling. Therefore, the concert went on with a hypothetical “without-a-net” feel, the players having to perform pieces written by both composers. This notwithstanding, the large part of what’s heard sounds instead pretty much confined within a somewhat secure “riff-theme-solo” scheme that doesn’t allow too many Pindaric flights, the music often recalling an elegant jam session rather than a heartfelt effort. Listening to Dean’s inimitable style is always a pleasure, though, and thinking that he died shortly thereafter makes us a little indulgent towards a release that, in another occasion, would not adequately warm our heart, and that even in this circumstance is felt as a “neither here nor there” kind of statement, if decently rendered on an instrumental point of view. That said, if you really want to remember who this reedist was, get a copy of the above reviewed Drop – or just go back and listen to National Health’s “Portrait Of A Shrinking Man” on D.S. Al Coda.
SIMAK DIALOG – Patahan
I had moderately appreciated the previous outing Demi Masa by this Indonesian ensemble led by keyboardist Riza Arshad, but this live set from 2005 in Jakarta is a little too easy on these ears on the one side, and pretty tiresome on the other – especially, sorry to report, when singer’s Emy Tata overstretched improvised vocalizations are involved. The East/West mixture of instrumental nuances (also definable as “gamelan meets soft fusion”) works only in rare occasions this time, and frequently we dangerously approach territories bordering with a Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays all-smiles comfortableness that just doesn’t do justice to the technical and spiritual quality of musicians who are surely capable of going much deeper than this. Compared with the finest among the recordings analyzed in this batch, Patahan stops its ascension at least a couple of floors below.
DELTA SAXOPHONE QUARTET – Dedicated To You… But You Weren’t Listening
The splendid versions of “Facelift” (Gilbert Artman should like it), “Everything Is You” and “The Floating World” - the latter one of my all-time Soft Machine favourites – are enough to let your reviewer declare that this CD must be played often and loud. On the other hand, “Outrageous Moon” – featuring Morgan Fisher’s incorporeal electronic-enhanced vocals – would have been better left out of an otherwise nearly immaculate program. Still, there’s no question that this earnest homage to the Machine Molle by DSQ is chock full of hard-to-forget moments: the magnificent “Epilogue”, closing the record, leaves us wanting for more following over a hour of adroit performance. And not simply well-executed renditions, also variations and additions on celebrated pieces, impeccably designed and delivered by Graeme Blevins (soprano), Chris Caldwell (baritone), Tim Holmes (tenor) and Pete Whyman (alto). In “Mousetrap” they boldly quote both Reich’s “Eight Lines” (aka “Octet”) and Zappa’s “King Kong”; in “Noisette” I even found myself catching a Duran Duran similarity – precisely with “Save A Prayer” – but I’m almost convinced that it is a coincidence (keep me posted, though: that song is not bad after all). The late Hugh Hopper directly contributes bass guitar and loops in the above mentioned “Facelift”. Mainly gorgeous stuff.