CARLO ACTIS DATO

USA Tour/April 2001/Live Splasc (H) CDH 520.2

Someone once said that Benny Goodman didn’t smile that much; it was just his embouchure. In Carlos Actis Dato’s case it’s not his embouchure. As a matter of fact, if all woodwind players had as much fun improvising as he seems to have, then most sitcoms would have wacky saxophonists as next door neighbors.

Although he brings a goofy sense of fun to the proceedings, be aware that Actis Dato is no Louis Prima or Jack Sheldon who treats the music as secondary to his singing and comedy routine. He may get high spirited enough to sing at certain points of these 13 live performances, but he never debases the music in any way. Like Charles Mingus or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, vocalizing is just his way of showing how well things are going.

In reality, USA TOUR is diary of some of the highlights of his American visit in 2001. Recorded at approximately half of his U.S. appearance that year, the tracks find him partnered with jazz-rockers, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and bassist Rueben Radding in Seattle; freebopers, bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs in Portland, Ore.; and free players, bassist Damon Smith and drummer Gino Robair in Oakland, Calif. Ken Vandermark showed up with his tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet to duet in Chicago, while three outings are solo performances.

Usually wielding his largest horn — the baritone sax — Actis Dato excels at these match ups. Think of the colorfully costumed Italian as a lion tamer and his instrument as his feline, and you can hear how he easily puts the king of the reed family through its paces. Making it leap from its highest range down, down to its lowest, then putting it through the hoops of speedy pulsations, pseudo-nursery rhymes and jagged asides, like the best circus performer he does all this without abusing the animal and while communicating his sense of accomplishment.

Double your pleasure — and fun — when Vandermark shows up. Sticking to his bottom range and using tongue slaps to cement the rhythmic function, the visitor lets the homie use his higher-pitched axes to slip and slide around these instant compositions. Of course, Actis Dato is a credit to his bass (runs) when he shows that he can still come up with unexpected ways of leading from below. Sometimes, in fact. his tones push Vandermark’s to the side so that the American’s sound begins to dances to his reed ruminations.

Robair and Smith, who have experience interacting with adventurous reedists like Anthony Braxton, John Butcher and Wolfgang Fuchs, embroil Actis Dato’s bass clarinet in pure, non-stop improv. The reedist’s lower register lines are perfectly matched with Smith’s powerful strokes and Robair’s percussion. And the two are quick off the mark. When the reedman leads them into high-pitched, nonsense sounds, the drummer responds in kind — vocally, with slide whistles, toys, shakers and miscellaneous percussion — while Smith’s arco work keeps things on an even keel. Actis Dato is even inspired to bring out his tenor sax for a few pseudo Neapolitan operatic swells leading to several minutes of out and out swing.

Portland’s gig is just as interesting. Storrs and Reed are a seasoned bass and drums duo — check out their trio work with fellow Northwesterner, tenor saxophonist Rich Halley — and their exuberance clearly inspires Actis Dato. With all three of their numbers given a South American lilt, Actis Dato, on tenor producers a hearty tone midway between playful Sonny Rollins in his West Indian mode and early Gato Barbieri. Vancouver, B.C.-based Reed has played with his share of European explorers and keeps his sound powerful and unvarying, while Storrs shows that a bongo’s martillo torque and hard bop press rolls can equally be adapted to outside sounds.

Probably the weakest meeting is in Seattle, though. Horvitz’s shimmering dance- electronic synthesizer tones sounds more like Manchester (England) pop than committed improv. With Radding far in the background, it’s up to Actis Dato to inject the fortitude and soul into the proceedings, which he does. Imagine a few overdressed New Romantics being swept out of their wine bar as an R&B sax shouter clomps all over their table and you’ll get an idea of what the saxist does here. Sometimes, in fact, it appears as if he’s in a New Thing space all his own and his angry-sounding vocal interjects make be more than japes.

Although these live excursions suffer a bit from dodgy recording, too many fades in Portland and audible (!) audience cross talk on one Seattle piece, they’re a fine showcase of Actis Dato in full flight. In some cases you could say they’re the next best thing to being there.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Blue 2. Green 3. Brown 4. Poulet Fumé 5. Movin’ 6. Marina De Caribe 7. Old Time 8. Wonderful World 9. Clarbas 10. Bariten 11. Clabar 12. Witches 13. The Bay

Personnel: Carlo Actis Dato (tenor and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet); plus Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet) [tracks 9-11]; Wayne Horvitz (keyboards) and Rueben Radding (bass) [tracks 1-3]; Clyde Reed (bass) and Dave Storrs (drums) [tracks 5-7]; Damon Smith (bass) and Gino Robair (drums) [track 13]