Trois Éclats de Temps
Splasc(h) Records CDH 740.2

As unheralded as it is highly impressive, this 77-minute CD of original compositions is yet another reminder that memorable musical talents are likely to be found in the back, behind the drum set as front-and-centre leading the band.

This is certainly true for percussionist Antonio Moncada, who has been a constant collaborator in Sicilian composer/multi-instrumentalist Stefano Maltese’s various combo and big band projects since 1982. Writing, arranging and playing on this session is so accomplished that you start to wonder if the 46-year-old, Lentini, Italy-based, self-taught drummer may actually have been playing Billy Strayhorn, as well as Sonny Greer to Maltese’s Duke Ellington.

Thinking along those same lines, and considering that all the musicians here also play in Maltese’s As Sikilli Ensemble, perhaps this session could also be compared to the numerous small group sessions Ellington sidemen did under their own names in the 1930s and 1940s. Memorably, they loosened the star soloists from their Ducal duties, but still maintained the high standards associated with the band. Of course, the main difference here, is that Maltese, as a sideman, is along for the ride as well.

Suggesting that Italy contains a nearly bottomless well of undiscovered (in North America, at least) players, young — 22-year-old — trombonist Tony Cattano and violinist Michele Conti, both natives of Lentini, who could be As Sikilli Ensemble’s Lawrence Brown and Ray Nance, turn out admirable work as well. Siracusa-based bassist Fred Casadei is unobtrusive most of the time, but steps forward when the occasion warrants it.

Written in a mixed idiom that takes in jazz, tarantella, classical and banda influences, Moncada’s music can be likened to that of Holland’s Misha Mengelberg or fellow countryman Pino Minafra and Gianluigi Trovesi. Using jaunty rhythms that usually blend the trombone’s fat, burping tones with thin strips of delicate violin notes, he has created six tunes that are definitely compositions, not mere heads on which to blow.

With the shortest clocking in at about 9½ minutes and the longest two tracks nearly 15½ minutes each, there’s still plenty of improvisational space for everyone. On “La danseuse folle”, for instance, which seems to be as light and flighty as the crazy woman dancer it describes, Conti seems to be playing in an idiom which is half hillbilly and half Hungarian gypsy. Maltese sticks to the lowest range of his bass clarinet, until he lets out a few squeaks and rooster crows for amusement, while Cattano, who also works with an itinerant wind band, screws in a conical mute to further soften his legato lines. Meanwhile Moncada keeps the beat going in a way that is as much felt as heard.

In contrast, “Les jardins de délire” balances on blended, nearly static horn lines of restrained passion that recall the beginning of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. Later as the drummer moves from tinkling tiny percussion instruments like bells, the glockenspiel and wind chimes to mining valleys with his tympani, Maltese explores the piano’s innards, alternating sounds produced by preparations and heavy, neo-Impressionist chords. The trombonist gets to show off his corpulent bebop style slide, as Conti showcases string experimentation, scratching out one line after another after creating the lowest notes.

Casadei and Moncada’s understated, nearly invisible strength are showcased once again on the title tune, another impressive orchestral-sounding piece. Moving from high-pitched and speedy to bottom heavy and melancholy, the percussionists snare-drumming paradiddles and the bassist’s rock-solid manipulation only come to the fore when no one else is soling — which isn’t very often. The piece is directed by a vocalized line from low, muted-trombone, with a steady continuo from the violin forming its background. Later, Maltese constructs a straightforward tenor showcase just before the ending, after someone — probably him — has sounded what appears to be an alp horn.

Moncada, together and in concert with the saxophonist has already played with the best French, Russian, American, British and, of course Italian improvisers, although even this doesn’t indicate while all the song titles on this CD are in French. It doesn’t really matter however, just remember Antonio Moncada’s name. For with TROIS ÉCLATS DE TEMPS, the percussionist has produced an exceptional disc that, no matter how he plays, will guarantee that in the future he’s known as much more than Stefano Maltese’s drummer.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Anannesi 2. La danseuse folle 3. Les jardins de délire 4. De nativitate (Le chant de l’inquiétude) 5. Magie du lexique 6. Trois éclats de temps

Personnel: Tony Cattano (trombone); Stefano Maltese (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, bass clarinets, flute, piano, percussion); Michele Conti (violin); Fred Casadei (bass); Antonio Moncada (drums, tympani, percussion)