G.R.F.J. 1966

Free Jazz at the Philharmonic
Splasc (H) CDH 526.2

Supposing That…
Splasc (H) CDH 838

Should anyone be designated as the father of avant-garde jazz in Italy then it’s soprano and alto saxophonist Mario Schiano.

Born in Naples in 1933 and a resident of Rome since 1960, Schiano can be heard as Italy’s John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. Like Trane he abandoned a career in mainstream jazz to pursue the sort of experimental improvisational forms expatriate Americans such as soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pocket trumpeter Don Cherry brought to Roman jam sessions with him in the early 1960s.

At the same time, like Coleman, Schiano had been experimenting with free playing and tonal variations as far back as in his early Neapolitan professional gigs. Finally in Rome, and again like Coleman, he put together a trio of like-minded players — trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini and bassist Marcello Melis (later replaced by bassist Bruno Tommaso) — as the Gruppo Romano Free Jazz (G.R.F.J.). G.R.F.J.’s equivalent to Coleman’s combo debut at the Five Spot was at Rome’s Folkstudio and the band’s THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME LP was a session called IF NOT ESCTATIC, WE REFUND, a title which also encapsulated the saxophonist’s sense of humor.

Since then Schiaffini has gone off to become a respected soloist in both jazz and New music and Tommaso has concentrated on composing and arranging. Meanwhile, Schiano has encouraged and worked with nearly every important experimental Italian improviser and many from other countries as well. Organizer of Controindicazioni, the Italian capital’s most noteworthy avant-jazz festival, the reedman continues to play with his own band and is also a member of the all-star Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO).

Most noteworthy, Schiano has never heard free music as the only source of inspiration and his own playing — and that of his bands — continues to be informed by standards, the blues and folk tunes plus traditional sounds from his native Naples. By taking this pro-Italian, yet not anti-American stand, his example has encouraged others in the country’s experimental community to adapt and develop their own traditions without adopting the sort of musical xenophobia that embarrass more nationalistic free jazzers elsewhere in Europe. Each of these live CDs demonstrates Schiano’s skill a different way and each is exceptional on its own.

FREE JAZZ AT THE PHILHARMONIC captures the G.R.F.J.’s 36th anniversary concert recorded in 2002 before an audience of 1,400 at Rome’s Teatro Olimpico. SUPPOSING THAT..., recorded at the 15th edition of Controindicazioni the year before featuring Schiano with a trio of young musicians.

No excuse for nostalgia, the Olimpico CD shows that the G.R.F.J.’s chops are still in fine shape. With Tommaso’s solid bass work both arco and pizzicato holding down the bottom — interacting with the soloists when necessary — the trombonist and saxophonist have the freedom to trill, smear and tongue their way through the pieces. Schiano’s tart tone moves through fragments of honks and blues when it isn’t insinuating Mingus’ rooted rhythms and a half-remembered movie and show tunes. Meanwhile Schiaffini’s jungle-style plunger showcases works itself into some call-and-response honking with the saxman’s lines.

Upping the ante, on Part Two, Sebi Tramontana, a younger Neapolitan trombonist and IIO member who now lives in Munich joins the group. A student of Schiaffini and part of many Schiano combos, Tramontana has worked extensively with French bassist Joëlle Léandre and German pianist Georg Graewe in these sort of small improv situations and know what to bring to them. He and his former teacher toss snorts, shouts, gurgles and wah wahs back and forth, sometimes combining to become one giant double slide bone. Behind them, the bassist both maintains the beat and plays his own lines, some of which sound as if they had escaped from a James Bond movie. As always the saxophonist is his own man, subtly extending and altering the tempo and advancing lines that take in the old-timey blues, dog whistles, plus variations on his signature version of “Lover Man” and what in this instance sounds suspiciously like “That’s Amore”.

Recording with Schiano for the first time, pianist-accordionist Luca Vennitucci bassist Giovanni Maier and drummer G.T. Gandhi show that at 68 the saxophonist is still ready to meet any challenge. This is brought home most clearly on the two middle sections of SUPPOSING THAT …, a subdivided CD-length piece.

Seemingly designed to showcase the skills of Maier, an occasional IIO member, who has also worked with American altoist Tim Berne plus percussionist Tiziano Tononi and trumpeter Enrico Rava, “…part two” finds his buzzing, bowed bass tones all over the more than 16-minute track. Able to switch from the deepest Mingus-style blues to extended arco technique that suggests he’s playing cello as well as bull fiddle, Maier’s strong accents propel the entire piece. Vennitucci, whose experience includes membership in the electroacoustic Ossatura trio and forays into the deepest reaches of the minimalist avant garde in Zeitkratzer with the likes of saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, and cellist Michael Moser, counters with near-inaudible folklore suggestions on his accordion and some speedy tremolos on piano. In contrast, Schiano jumps right into the fray, producing undulating musette-like tones from his soprano saxophone, then articulating an unvarying four-note mode until the bassman joins him for some unison work. If Maier can approximate a cello, then Schiano can call up violin intonation, which he does until he finally introduces to split tones and high-pitched smears and chirps.

Completely the opposite, “…part three” is rolling roadhouse funky blues with Vennitucci coming across like a Latinsque Ray Bryant and skittering all over the piano, while Maier sticks to a steady 4/4 beat and Gandhi — real name Umberto Trombetta — a self-taught drummer known for his membership in Rava’s Electric Five, pounds out a steady shuffle rhythm. Somehow creating what appears to be plunger-saxophone, Schiano’s alto honks out bar walking lines as the bassist plucks like a reborn Paul Chambers. Building to a climax with sharp, pointed notes, the altoist, who certainly remembers vaudeville ends the whole schmear with an echoing “Good Morning Friends” coda.

Obviously even though he’s heading for 70, Schiano is still swinging, innovating and teaching by example.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Free: 1. Part one (trio) 2. Part two (quartet)

Personnel: Giancarolo Schiafinni, Sebi Tramontana (trombones); Mario Schiano (alto and soprano saxophones); Bruno Tommaso (bass)

Track Listing: Supposing: 1. Supposing that ... part one 2. Supposing that ... part two 3. Supposing that ... part three 4. Supposing that... part four

Personnel: Supposing: Mario Schiano (alto and soprano saxophones); Luca Vennitucci (piano, accordion); Giovanni Maier (bass); G.T. Gandhi (drums)