Leave it to the Italians — with some help from the French — to come up a new take on the standard sax/organ/drums trio.

That’s because this 11-track session is about as far away from the sort of blues- drenched funk that made the reputations of among others, Jimmy Smith, “Big” John Patton and Richard “Groove” Holmes as ham hocks and greens are from pasta et fagiole. As a matter of fact, this session led by saxophonist and clarinetist Francesco Bearzatti manages to touch on a variety of other sounds from outer space improv to near smooth jazz while steering far away from soul music.

Udine, Italy-educated Bearzatti, who has played with musicians as different as Russian-American trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, American drummer Charles Persip and Italian drummer Roberto Gatto, brings all these influences to this session and in the main uses them in the right way. His across-the-border secret weapon here is Caen, France-born organist Emmanuel Bex, who has worked with French bop saxist Barney Wilen, gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene and even led a band featuring the steel drums. Rounding out the trio is veteran Italian drummer Aldo Romano, who over a career of 30 years plus has employed or been employed by unique stylists ranging from American saxist Charlie Mariano, Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine, French pianist Michel Petrucciani and Italian bassist Furio Di Castri. Let’s just say he’s versatile.

Unfortunately, Bearzatti and Bex are also inheritors of the graceless rock music tradition as well as jazz, and Romano was an early advocate of jazz-rock. All of which means that the album reaches its lowest ebb when the expected funk influences are replaced not with improvised jazz flights but with standard pop rock licks. Luckily this only happens about one-third of the time.

“Bear’s Mood” is one bad example, where something — Bex’s vocoder or electronics perhaps — creates the pseudo-sound of female backing vocals, the double keyboard work turns syrupy and the saxophonist appears to boomerang from breathy Grover Washington Jr. to screechy David Sanborn territory. “Inner Smile” sounds like a New Age Jan Garbarek outtake; while the weaving organ lines and portly rock beats almost create seasickness on “Buk’s Blues”.

Even the title track is built on a simple soprano sax vamp, overdone rock organ emphasis and bass line, plus heavy metallic, fuzz-tone, lead guitar from guest Enrico Terragnoli. He’s no Eric Clapton, and besides that Clapton doesn’t play jazz.

More welcome are the contributions of the other guests, especially trombonist Mauro Ottolini, who has been part of the Jazz Project Orchestra led by American clarinetist Tony Scott. On “Cattivik” he has a fine, blowsy solo full of plunger tones that spurs Bearzatti to double tongue, using small squeals for emphasis. It’s almost perfect hard bop. Ottolini’s growls also turn “Casbah” into a real foot tapper. Here he’s aided by the clarinetist’s Balkan-style runs, but two have to face an errant ProgRock undercurrent from organ and guitar. Bex supplies the bass line himself on “H.C.”, another tune featuring Ottolini. When he’s not hogging all the studio air for himself, the organist combines with some melodic tones from the saxophonist, each man playing a couple of octaves apart.

Not that different ideas can’t be expressed in trio formation. On “Going to the …” for instance, it appears as if Bearzatti is playing two horns at once — à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Romano produces intensely metallic rim sounds, and Bex creates half-menacing/ half extraterrestrial Sun Ra-like runs.

All and all, considering he wrote all the compositions but two and acquits himself well on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Bearzatti has certainly established a persona for himself here. But it would seem that rock intimations and the soprano saxophone weaken his talents. Like SARS he should avoid those type of viruses in future.

His next CD should be even more interesting. As for this one, despite some unpalatable side effects, certain listeners may finds it a VIRUS they don’t mind experiencing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Zouzou 2. Hey! 3. Going to the … 4. Casbah 5. Bear’s Mood 6. Friuli Friula 7. H.C. 8. Cattivik 9. Buk’s Blues 10.Virus 11. Inner Smile

Personnel: Mauro Ottolini (trombone)*; Francesco Bearzatti (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet); Emmanuel Bex (organ, vocoder and electronics); Enrico Terragnoli (guitar)+; Stefano Senni (bass)@; Aldo Romano (drums); U.T. Gandhi (percussion)%