A Night in Palermo
Rastascan Records BRD 041/Curva Minore CM04

Distinctive and unique sounds from a variety of real and invented instruments dominate this session recorded in Palermo, Italy in 1998. Often, though, over the course of the 19 selections, it appears that the strangest instrument is also the most common: the human voice.

That voice belongs to Sicilian Miriam Palma. Initially trained to sing the folk music of Sicily’s central area, starting in the 1990s she intermingled that traditional style with the diplophonies, triplephonies, overtones, shouts and low bass that characterize improvisation. Her lyrics mix inferences from dialect poetry, religious texts, Sicilian Futurism, traditional lullabies and contemporary writing, including her own.

More than a vocal showcase, however, A NIGHT IN PALERMO is also notable in showing how four musicians from California’s Bay area and two Sicilian instrumentalists could connect and reconnect in various combinations — with Palma — to create a form of international improvisation that is as exceptional as it is experimental.

This didn’t take place without prior planning though. All the musicians had just participated in the three-day Dreamin’ California festival in Palermo, which itself was an outgrowth of the connections Sicilian alto saxophonist Gianni Gebbia had established with the Bay area’s fertile improv community. Gebbia, who has played with the likes of German bassist Peter Kowald and British guitarist Fred Frith had also recorded a CD six months previously with a young American rhythm section.

Both bassist Damon Smith, who has recorded with Kowald and German reedman Wolfgang Fuchs, and percussionist Garth Powell, made the trip to Italy. They arrived with percussionist Gino Robair, who has played with everyone from American reedist Anthony Braxton to British saxist John Butcher; and Tom Nunn, who has designed, built and performed with original musical instruments since 1975. Nunn, who has worked with kotoist Miya Masaoko, brought along his “bug”, an electro-acoustic percussion board that is played with plastic-tubing tipped aluminum knitting needles, and sounds like a combination of marimba and thumb piano.

Palma and Gebbia had already collaborated as two thirds of the Terra Arsa band, which had toured North America. Another local added to this throng was bassist Lelio Giannetto, who is part of a group with the vocalist and other experimental Sicilian musicians like pianist Giorgio Occhipinti and cellist Domenico Sciajno.

Performing in duos, trios and quartets, these Californian-Sicilian meetings are so wholly original that it’s hard to identify a common thread outside of fine musicianship.

Take Palma’s utterances for example. Featured on eight different selections, her contributions run from undulating cries and pouts that she twists in pitch along with Smith’s bass on “Nina in Dogma”, to a chorus of lip-blown raspberries that begin “Squeeze”, matching Robair’s styrofoam manipulation and bicycle horn honks. She also vocally reenacts a panoply of women’s ages. Starting with an infant cries, she turns to a child’s singing and nursery rhyme recitation as the percussionist is replaced by Smith and Nunn on the following track, “Renatzu Riga”, and her run-on vocal reconstitutes itself into what appears to be Sicilian curses. Expostulating rhymed sounds close to synagogue davening, the bassist responds to her vocal flights with thumps, and the bug creates rolling tones.

“Aryl” mates Powell’s squeaking waterphone with mountain top yodels from the peak of Palma’s vocal range, which is further extended on “Mirgarjanni” as her clenched- throat delivery meets freak notes from old partner Gebbia’s alto and insect-like trills from the crunching saw.

Trilling a tarantella-inflected folkloric chant “Mortal Plan” she pants and coughs out the lyrics aided and abetted by piercing quacks from the bug. Finally, on “Zing Aria”, Robair’s buzzing styrofoam manipulations and Smith steel string slices take turns being abrasive, with the bass man appearing to scratch inside his instrument and the percussionist chipping out unheard of tones. Unreflective of the title, Palma’s output jumps with gymnastic moves from stuttering pigeon cooing and what could be a rhymed Sicilian hex, to the aural reflection of a warbling medieval story song.

Italo-American instrumental meetings are as fruitful. Robair’s toy reed and bicycle horn face off with the smears, chirps and multiphonics of Gebbia, while the saxman’s undulating sax lines turns claxon-like to overcome Nunn’s driving mallets. A duet between bassists in high and low pitches, pizzicato and arco, leads Nunn, as accompanist, to manipulate his self-constructed instrument so that it appears he’s sounding Minstrel show bones.

“Tngnt” [sic], a bug-bass rendezvous finds the Italian shaking Kowald-like tones from his bull fiddle, hitting the top part of his strings near the pegs, scratching below the bridge and triple stopping for more volume. All the while, Nunn is clinking his metal bars and double timing in a four-mallet exposition, as if he was Gunter Hampel playing vibes on a 1960s experimental session.

Creations like that make those tracks where Gebbia’s soaring alto lines interact with Smith’s modulated arco and pizz bass appear to be traditional avant-garde music, if that isn’t an oxymoron. And dig “Earl Ghetto” where the entire septet struts its stuff in a cacophonous display of rhythmic inventiveness.

Notwithstanding its vocals, this CD is not one to give to a Diana Krall or Norah Jones fan, or to someone who thinks improvised music got too complex when John Coltrane broke up his classic quartet. But if you have a taste for how music is evolving, this prolix disc will fascinate and enlighten.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Dossier*$@~ 2. Earl Ghetto 3. Nina in Dogma&+ 4. Hilt o Vento 5. Gabbio$&~ 6. Tngnt$@ 7. Olga Hitler (the gorilla)$~ 8. Mortal Plan@& 9. Godmania Inn*+ 10. Assai Bout$+@ 11. Squeeze&# 12. Renatzu Riga+@& 13. Goo Line$# 14. Aryl~& 15. Bangui Eng*$@ 16. Gauge$+ 17. Mirgarjanni*&~ 18. The Mint Geisha investigates a Moth*@ 19. Zing Aria&#+

Personnel: Gianni Gebbia* (alto saxophone); Lelio Giannetto$ or Damon Smith+ (bass); Garth Powell~ (percussion, saw, waterphone); Gino Robair# (styrofoam, cymbal, bike horn, toy reed); Tom Nunn@ (the bug); Miriam Palma& (voice)