Splasc(h) CDH 831.2

From his picture in the booklet, drummer Zeno de Rossi looks to be young enough to still be deciding exactly which personal vision of jazz he’s going to adopt. From the evidence of this CD he’s still trying many roles on for size.

Someone with varied experience, which encompasses membership in groups as seemingly irreconcilable as Bachelor’s Dream with a Hammond organist; the Meshuge Klezmer Band; and Django’s Jungle, with a violinist, accordionist and American Chris Speed on clarinet; his choice of musical costumes appears to be pretty broad. That’s probably why this session under his leadership is pleasing, but not momentous. It doesn’t seem to offer a clear diagram of who Zeno de Rossi jazzman, is.

A basic conflict between the title and some of the tunes offers some clues to the situation. SULTRY suggests a torrid explosion of molten sensuality, but few of the tunes — all of which have the drummer’s compositional input — attempt to reflect this. Yet at the same time, the de Rossi combo — mostly a trio with Speed and bassist Stefano Senni, augmented to quartet size with additional bassist Giovani Maier on five tunes — attempts to honor seven American jazz giants by playing their compositions.

In what reads like false humility, in the booklet de Rossi offers “apologies” to Don Cherry, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Eric Dolphy, Max Roach, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. New versions of jazz masters’ works don’t call for apologies — and indeed the band’s performances are lightly pulsating and workman-like if nothing else — if they do, they shouldn’t be recorded in the first place.

The other overriding weakness here is the length and number of the CD selections. Of the 14 tracks, 12 are in three to four minute range. While brevity might be the soul of wit, that last word isn’t improvisation. Surely de Rossi should have had enough faith in himself and his musicians’ talents to let them play on past the not quite 6½ minute mark, at which the longest tune — by Ellington no less — clocks in. The jazz giants he honors would have done no less.

Despite all this, there are still plenty of good things here.

Dividing his time about 50-50 between clarinet and tenor saxophone, Speed, best known for his work with the likes of saxophonist Tim Berne and pianist Myra Melford, acquits himself admirably on both horns. His so-called downtown orientation doesn’t appear to have prevented him from coming up with a sturdy Swing-to-Bop sax style on many tunes that’s more reminiscent of the likes of Ike Quebec or John Hardee than reedists who congregate below New York’s 14th Street. He even manages to sustain an a cappella coda on one tune without bringing the wrath of the reed gods down upon himself. At times biting his reed to create vibrations and overtones, on clarinet Speed can birth a light, floating Jimmy Giuffre-style tone without often getting into uncomfortable cockatoo territory and use echoing multiphonics elsewhere for some woody, lower register extravagance.

A powerful take-charge drummer, de Rossi appears to know instinctively when to stick to the cymbals with bass drum boots for accents and when to rely on nothing more than rims shots to get his ideas across. Each of his originals is built on quasi-Latin beats, usually resembling slow-burning hand clappers. Featured bassist Senni, who appears to have played with nearly every Italian jazzer as well as Americans like trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor man Steve Grossman, contributes his own well-modulated, romping line and acquits himself competently in the Mingus role on a couple of tunes. When both bull fiddlers are on board they take turns playing acro and pizzicato, with one mountain- climbing up the peak of the bass’s neck, and the other applying weightlifter’s pressure to keep the rhythm, going.

Notwithstanding its title, the weather here isn’t too hot. In fact there’s nothing here will scorch you or cause discomfort. At the same time, though, the music isn’t burning hot or blazing like the sun the way the best jazz created by de Rossi’s heroes was. It’s certainly nothing to apologize for, but next time out, with a little more thought, perhaps de Rossi will reveal his own personality.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Railway Junction 2. Mob Job 3. Sultry 4. Elephantasy 5. Hot* 6. Driva Man* 7. Souther 8. Torrid 9. Fleuette Africaine [African Flower] 10. [Justice] Evidence 11. Weird Nightmare* 12. Miss Ann 13. Sergio* 14. Humid*

Personnel: Chris Speed (tenor saxophone clarinet); Stefano Senni (bass)[all tracks except 8]; Giovanni Maier (bass)*; Zeno De Rossi (drums)