Merry Melodies
Unit UTR 4136

Don Quijote
Splasc (H) Records CDH 769.2

The main points of congruence and contrast between these two Continental combos are ones of inference. Young Swiss quartet Nadelöhr has created a CD designed to reproduce and subvert music composed to accompany cartoons. Meanwhile the five members of the Italian Actis’Band want to cavort like cartoon characters.

Northern Europe wins out over Southern Europe this time out because the quartet’s four composers add a variety of rhythms, tone and concepts to the simple melodies. Not without flaws, the end product is very promising. On the other hand, veteran Turin-based saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato, who wrote all of the tunes here, seems to have unexpectedly come up with a blot on his otherwise exemplary musical copybook. Seemingly dumbing down his music to the excessively undemanding standards of a blues-rock audience, the result is practically an inversion of the instrumental virtuosity and sense of fun that makes his more so-called avant-garde sounds so appealing. To be honest, what could be expected from a CD whose last track is entitled “Teenagers Taste” and mostly consists of the phrases “funky, funky” and “sexy” repeated over and over?

Dato who has produced exemplary work since the 1970s on his own, with the all-star Italian Instabile Orchestra and in various combos, may have stumbled when he conceived of this band as “the Italian answer to the New York downtown scene, combining avant-garde solos and upbeat funky rock”. So distinctive on his own, why should the reedist try to match what bands like the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob are already doing? As well, his hometown sidemen, who all are part of the Arigret group, seem to have too much of a pop and rock orientation. It’s not that they haven’t studied improvisation academically (!) and played jazz professionally, it’s that they seem to lack Dato’s the dues-paying seasoning that would allow them to play with the tradition as they play it.

“Luna di Lampedusa”’, for example, with its galloping drum beats and protracted, echoing fuzz tones from bass guitar, seems to be a gentle subversion of a tarantella, mixed with rollicking Klezmer rhythms. But Massimo Rossi is so concerned with maintaining his hip, clean Return To Forever cadenzas on soprano saxophone, and guitarist Antonio Fontana, who has worked with rock bands, is so intent in showing off his speedy Beck/Clapton/Page note-squeezing-and-bending techniques, that the innocence of the tune is lost.

Or consider “East Mambo”, which mixes bird calls and a foot-tapping timbales-driven Latin beat from Dario Bruna, who has spent more than 15 years working with jazz and rock groups in northern Italy. Once the drummer asserts himself, however, the herky-jerky rhythm varies from Uptown Country to simple British Invasion big beat and Rossi on alto seems to consider David Sanborn-like smoothness preferable to harder R&B-type styling.

While Lindy-Hopping riffs, this-side-of-Ayler screaming tenor sax solos, glee-club-style unison vocals and fat-bottomed electric bass licks make their appearance elsewhere, nowhere is the time elastic enough to make you think the tunes are anything more than pastiche. Even “Los Tiburones”, which wants to take the band to a Tijuana road house, may have its share of sax honks and screams, chicken-plucking rhythm guitar licks and bass finger pops, but no one is ever going to confuse the Actis’Band with the JBs or the MGs.

Likewise “Fuck Mac”, though if we’re talking fast food, it may be commendable for its anti-globalization sentiment. Yet the thumpy, lumpy bass solo from Federico Marchesano, who has played jazz, worked with symphonies and the RAI Orchestra, isn’t going to convince anyone that this isn’t just another low-level attempt at jazz-rock. The guitarist is stuck in the 1970s, with his prolonged tremolos, the drumming is ersatz-Kiss and only Dacto’s frantic reed blowing seems at all memorable.

Heading north we find four musicians with jazz backgrounds constructing — at times with remixes — their own music and tweaking soundtracks originally designed to accompany European, American and Israeli cartoons. Taking John Zorn and Don Byron as exemplars, Nadelöhr is probably linked to the “New York downtown scene” as well, but doesn’t trumpet it. Many of the tunes come across as a combination of pubic service announcement music, silent movie accompaniment, mainstream jazz riffs and serious European inducements — with some vibes rattles, synthesizer burps and gypsy violin tones thrown in for good measure.

“Dirdy Birdy”, for instance shows off the versatility of keyboardist Mathias Gloor, who plays in a jazz-rock group with drummer Lucas Niggli. Mixing vocal actualities from the real cartoon, along with some crackle and static, Gloor creates 1950s-style mood music organ, death metal guitar riffs — is that “Satisfaction” being played? — a synthesized version of M-O-R favorites the 101 Strings, electronic swiggles and jiggles and TV cop show riffs. Meanwhile alto saxophonist Christoph Grab, turns from roadhouse sax honks to smooth slurps, while drummer Dominik Burger throws in some heavy metal drumming in appropriate spots.

Between the faux organ chords and outer space sounds, you begin to wonder if “Für Vision” is a homage to those Sputnik-era rock bands like the Astronauts or the Tornados rather than filmmaker Killan Dellers’ “vision”, especially when a straight bebop sax lines and some miscellaneous voices appear. Repetitive string rhythms from violinist Christian Strässle, who also plays in tango bands and string quartets, then begins to suggests the music from the film 2001.

Even more ear-catching is “Cowconut”, the final number which morphs from a waltz played pretty conventionally by violin and accordion keyboard, to a stop-and-start wilder square dance, to end as a cacophony of shrill violin sweeps and lonely clarinet laments. The morose, Eastern-European saxophone dirge then threatens to turn into a tone that could only be created by Toots Thielemans’ harmonica before it dissolves into a faster, jolly ending.

Throughout, Strässle’s so-called “monster viola” can suggest cello parts, while alternately, his violin can leave its standard European tone to play as sharp as a Chinese erhu. Furthermore, use of the synthesizer to replicate instruments as varied as a cheesy roller rink organ, mood music vibes, a rubbed washboard and even a button accordion playing German beer drinking songs, shows that versatility is no problem. Eschewing freak effects but not irregular rhythms and varied time signatures, the other players contribute to this all together edifying session of program music in the literal sense of the term. Dissatisfaction only arrives, when, like the one tune that ends with what sounds like tape flapping off a reel, interesting tracks finish without proper resolution.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Don: 1. Takayama Rap 2. Los Tiburones 3. Sanchopanza 4. Rojo 5. Nairobi Night 6. East Mambo 7. Luna di Lampedusa 8. Fuck Mac 9. Boris Teenagers 10.Taste

Personnel: Don: Massimo Rossi (soprano and alto saxophones); Carlo Actis Dato (tenor and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet); Antonio Fontana (guitar, Marranzano, bird call, sexy voice); Federico Marchesano (bass, electric bass, loops); Dario Bruna (drums, interview etc.)

Track Listing: Merry: 1. Of All the Birds that I do know this One is the Most Complicated Character 2. Fräulein Schön und Das Tier 3. Ooh... 4. Dirdy Birdy 5. Changeant 6. Blue Velvet 7. Für Vision 8. Ayurveda 9. Cowconut

Personnel: Merry: Christoph Grab (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet); Christian Strässle (violin, monster-viola) Mathias Gloor (piano, synthesizer); Dominik Burger, (drums, vibraphone)