Free Air Sextet
Splasc(H) Records CDH 768.2

Firmly in the school of Crescent City joy makers like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or the Treme Brass Band, the Italian Free Air Sextet led by tuba player Beppe Caruso, invests the 12 tracks on its debut CD with a sense of good-timey fun.

At the same time, the breath of material handled here, mostly written by Caruso encompasses Dixieland, funk, bop, Latin and the traditional tarantella and includes tunes by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Which is to say that while the tubaist, who has brought his talents to bands led by pianist Giorgio Gaslini and percussionist Tiziano Tononi is no dour tuba experimenter like Leo Bachmann of Switzerland or his countryman Gincarlo Schiaffini, everything is at a high musical standard here. If anything the CD is reminiscent of improvisational bands led by American tubaists Howard Johnson and Bob Stewart that didn’t fall into the simple schtick of New Orleans brass bands, yet were still festive enough to offer a good time.

Here Caruso brews all his influences into “The Crazy Composition” a more-than-17-minute track, that at almost three times the length of any of the 11 other tunes, is obviously the centrepiece of the CD. Beginning with a wispy muted trumpet lead, sad, lumbering tuba lines and what sounds like percussionist Ferdinando Faraò pensively hitting a Dominican tambora, it soon turns into a dual trumpet Dixieland showcase complete with hand claps and clip-clop rhythms from Faraò’s woodblocks.

Reconstituting the tune as a Charleston, the drummer’s rhythm turns two-beat, complete with crash cymbal work as wah-wah plunger tones appear from the trombones. As soon as you’ve acclimatized yourself to that, Caruso’s blues motif turns to a brassy pedal point as a polished salsa beat arises from the flugelhorns, only to disappear under the tuba man’s R&B-style blasts and a trumpet peal straight from a rural banda. As the whoosh of air being forced through brass valves is succeeded by Gil Evans-style unison arrangement, one trumpet stretches out with some light Tijuana Brass-like fanfares.

Caruso, a cappella, is then on his own, rhythmically growling like a bass-baritone blues singer then sinking even lower in the clef to squeeze out some snorts. A modernistic cymbal slap introduces a march rhythm from all the horns, which is half-monotone John Philip Sousa and half-rubato Anthony Braxton. Finally, as one trumpet plays some Cool jazz blues, the drummer jiggles his bell tree, press rolls the snares, hits the hi-hat and sums up the piece with a rim shot. Whew. In the end “The Crazy Composition” more appropriately could be titled the “crazy-like-a-fox” composition.

Meanwhile, “La Danza Siculo-Balcanica/All The Things You Are” is a pastiche of Afro-Cuban rhythms, with the drummer playing rumbas and boleros, the screechy trumpets seemingly involved in a Mexican hat dance routine, and Faraò’s congas, bongos and tambourine reconfiguring a tango into a cha-cha-cha once Jerome Kern’s theme makes its appearance. Going Steve Turre one better, Roberto Rossi produces some muted plunger tones from his shell.

Gentle double-tongued, shell sounds make their appearance on “Impression”, with Caruso’s tuba taking the walking bass part, Faraò subtly playing with brushes and the front line chromatically sounding the melody in different pitches. Additionally the trap man’s own “Brio” showcases enthusiastic vigor, fleet footed and quick of hands on wood blocks, cowbell and bass drum pedal. By his side one of the trumpeter plays a flutter tongues Mariachi beat. In contrast, “Snare-Scacco Matto”, written by Caruso isn’t a drum showcase, but with interruptions from what sounds like car brakes screeching to a halt — the shell again? — one of the ‘bone men builds up a slurry, growly solo accompanied by pedal point tuba. Marching feet in tandem, some tap dance-like drumming and cymbal work, and a heraldic coda from the combined brass brings things to a close.

“Tarantella” does the same for the CD, where the pumping 6/8 rhythm in alternating major and minor keys is goosed up with tambourine whacks and repetitive hand clapping. As the improvised lines are passed from one brassman to the next, the sextet proves that it can country dance as well as Second Line —, not to mention keep the beat and improvise.

Who knows what else colorful Caruso will create next time out?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.Funkaruso 2. The Crazy Composition 3. Round Midnight 4. Snare - Scacco Matto 5. Intro Doom Godini 6. Brio 7. Doom Godini 8. La Danza Siculo- Balcanica/All The Things You Are 9. Calcolo 10. Impression 11. Blues for DDB 12. Tarantella

Personnel: Mario Cavallaro, Luca Calabrese (trumpets and flugelhorns); Danilo Moccia (trombone); Roberto Rossi (trombone and shell); Beppe Caruso (tuba); Ferdinando Faraò (drums and percussion)