RON MILES QUARTET

Laughing Barrel
Sterling Circle SC 1219

LUIGI MARTINALE
Urka
DDQ 128053-2

Trumpet, a chordal instrument, bass and drums: what could be a simpler configuration for improvised music? Very little, in fact, but it’s a testimony to the imagination and talents of the two quartets represented on these discs that they sound so distinct.

By the same token, while both revolve around the song form, it appears that Italian pianist Luigi Martinale’s disc, featuring trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, comes across with more vitality than American trumpeter Ron Miles’ CD, which features guitarist Brandon Ross.

Unpretentious, Martinale’s session frankly sets out to be an individual take on post-bop jazz and succeeds admirably at that lesser goal. Miles, on the other hand, tries to blend POMO touches with Americana in his all-original program. His ambitions are admirable, but the program ends up being too folksy and overly tasteful to not drag in places.

Denver-based Miles apprenticed with Mercer Ellington’s orchestra and local tenor man Fred Hess’s bands. Teaching music at the college level, he’s also widely recognized for his playing, composing and arranging skills utilized by, among others, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, clarinetist Don Byron and guitarist Bill Frisell. Earlier discs with the likes of Frisell have been quiet and intimate, and it seems that he tried to beef up his vitality with this quartet. Comparisons with flugelhornist Art Farmer’s 1960s combo with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Walter Perkins have been made, but his associates here are less attached to hard-core jazz than Farmer’s crew was.

Ross, who plays with Miles in his own Harriet Tubman band, is best known as singer Cassandra Wilson’s musical director. He also works in bands headed by pianist Myra Melford, reedist Henry Threadgill and conduction pioneer Butch Morris. Anthony Coleman, arguably the hippest bassist to come out of Minneapolis, has worked with saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dewey Redman and Steve Lacy. Another Denverite, drummer Rudy Royston, has been playing with Miles since college, has experience with Hess and Frisell, is a music teacher and director of Denver’s Citywide Marching Band.

Ross’s near-country-style finger-picking used to such effect by singer Wilson on her sessions, also gets a workout on the mostly slow-moving Miles originals that make up this set. Trouble is, most of the time his restrained chording and comping sounds not so much like Hall’s inventiveness, but like the more restrained, cautious Swing Era beat of say, George Barnes or Carl Kress. Similarly, the trumpeter who seems happiest when he’s muted or using half-valve effects, appears to be measuring every note he plays. If Farmer was tasteful in his soloing, then Miles is positively decorous, often sounding more toned down than such mellifluous stylists as Barnes’ old partner Ruby Braff, Charlie Shavers or Bobby Hackett. He doesn’t alter this stance even for a piece that purports to honor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

On “Jesus Loves Me”, which he also performed with Baker, the vamp sounds as bossa novaish as it does bluesy, especially when Miles plays backing arpeggios to Ross’s slightly accented, finger-picking fret work. As measured as Cox’s bass solo may be, it does stir the trumpet to produce half-valve glisses, short shakes and mouthpiece squeals and smears. But this doesn’t disrupt the carefully measured proceedings as much as Royston’s extended, near psychedelic percussion feints do.

“Psychedelic Black Man”, on the other hand, with near-Hawaiian vibrato and wah-wah effects from Ross, shows that he can almost make his guitar “talk” when given half a chance. Royston is plays powerfully here as well, but the theme is practically nursery rhyme-like. Like the final number “Fairy Court” [!!], that involves counterpoint from the guitar and gritty-sounding echoing trumpet overtones, the overall musical definition appears to be more adult-album-radio-oriented than anything funkier.

If there’s a way of being too refined, Miles and his men seem to have found it.

Turin-based Martinale is a melodist as well, as benefits someone who studied with Italian jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, who get a “hidden dedication” on one track here. But he’s also a member of the Trane’s Memory Quartet and has recorded other inside/outside discs, like last year’s SWEET MARTA (DDQ 128043-2), a trio session with American bassist Drew Gress.

Brassman Bosso, who teaches and leads his own quintet, has also been a member of Pieranunzi’s quintet as well as other small groups, big bands and broadcast orchestras. Out-and-out swinger, bassist Nicola Muresu, who is a member of American saxophonist Steve Grossman’s European Quartet, actually played with Art Farmer [!], while drummer Alessandro Minetto is a young veteran of a clutch of combos.

This combination gives a much harder cast to URKA than Miles’s disc. Not that the Italian trumpeter isn’t tasteful and refined as well. But his constant cadenza of notes coupled with the pianist’s two-handed style brings brio to tunes like the melodic and finger-snapping “Unexpected News” and produce a whole different feel. If we’re still making comparisons with Farmer, then this CD can be heard as Farmer sitting in with Hank Jones or Cedar Walton; he recorded in a quartet setting with both.

Martinale’s originals include a bouncy blues in 7/4, a balladic dedication to the mountainous region of his native Piedmont, and one tune that seems to subtly shift in and out of waltz time. Influenced by bossa nova, “Changing Pictures” shows that this band is somewhat like the combos lead by altoist Paul Desmond — usually featuring guitarist Hall, incidentally — that managed to be airy and relaxing, but not saccharine — and that showed you could swing at muted mid-tempos.

There’s “We Need a Medium” a medium — no surprise — tempo bounce number, which, though lighter than air, does feature the pianist building his solo from block chords and creating sympathetic fills behind Bosso’s measured, allegro lines. Eventually the trumpeter reprises the theme in different registers before the fade out.

Two versions of “Yes I Have”, based on Rogers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones”, highlight the band’s teamwork. On the first, Muresu’s bass solo is clearly heard despite Bosso’s biting, controlled vibrato that suggests the go-for-broke excitement of Roy Eldridge. The second, taken at a faster tempo is soufflé light, probably because of Minetto’s brushwork. It combines Dixieland-style breaks from Bosso — after he’s begun his solo with a quote from Denzil Best’s “Move” — with pregnant POMO pauses in Martinale’s accompaniment.

“Back To The Roots” also shows that the pianist knows his Americana — at least in the jazz sense — as well as Denver trumpeter Miles does. Offering a bit of playful stride piano, Martinale triple times with his left hand in the manner of James P. Johnson, while Bosso’s syncopated, triple tonguing with plunger and cup mute resemble the tone of Johnson associate Frankie Newton. Minetto contributes some Charleston-style brushwork and the whole piece ends precisely not on a present day dime, but on a pre-Second World War penny. A long pause is then followed by a three-second quadruple time reprise of the theme.

Good fun and fine playing, URKA gets the nod because it manages to achieve everything it sets out to do. LAUGHING BARREL may be more of a contemplative statement, but the overlong tunes and overly muted delivery sabotaged its intentions.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Laughing: 1. Parade 2. New Breed Leader 3. Psychedelic Black Man 4. Still Small Voice 5. Jesus Loves Me 6. Sunday Best 7. Fairy Court

Personnel: Laughing: Ron Miles (trumpet); Brandon Ross (guitar) Anthony Cox (bass); Rudy Royston (drums)

Track Listing: Urka: 1. Urka 2. Unexpected News 3. Yes I Have 4. New From The Pier 5. Crooked Blues 6. Open Space 7. The Ring 8. We Need A Medium 9. Changing Pictures 10. Yes I Have (Take 2) 11. Nothing Is Wrong 12. Back To The Roots

Personnel: Urka: Fabrizio Bosso (trumpet); Luigi Martinale (piano); Nicola Muresu (bass); Alessandro Minetto (drums)