Instants: Live at Teatro Olimpico
Velut Luna CVLD 07600

Not content to be mere time keepers, some drummers on the Italian scene are part of the international redefinition of the percussionist’s role and excel in improvising, band leading and composition.

Primo uno example of this is Tiziano Tononi, with his work with both the Italian Instabile Orchestra and Nexus. Yet this two CDs by younger percussionists unquestionably demonstrate that he’s not alone in his inventiveness.

Verona-born Zeno de Rossi is one. On PLATEAU PHASE he leads an out-and-out, spur-of-the-moment jam recorded in Manhattan with local players. Someone whose experience encompasses his own CD which deconstructed the music of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman among others, plus membership in the Meshuge Klezmer Band and Full Metal Klezmer, it seems he can easily adapt a New York state of mind.

Vincenza-born Roberto Dani’s INSTANTS on the contrary, is elevated festival fare. Recorded live, as was de Rossi’s CD, the distinctive piece combines notated and instant compositions, and debuted as part of the New Conversations program at Vincenza Jazz. Dani, whose associations include roles in pianist Giorgio Gaslini’s varied ensembles and with saxophonist Alberto Pinton’s Clear Now quartet, as well as less jazz-centric bands with British vocalist Norma Winston and French tubaist Michel Godard.

INSTANTS synthesizes these jazz and non-jazz influences in four lengthy, inter-related tracks, and Dani’s accompanists coalesce these influences as well. French clarinetist Louis Sclavis has brought his folk-classical imagination to collaborations with musicians as different as Free Jazz pioneer pianist Cecil Taylor and mainstreamer bop drummer Daniel Humair. French cellist Vincent Courtois has recorded with Sclavis, Godard and the late jazz pianist Michel Petrucianni. American trumpeter Kyle Gregory, who now lives in Verona, works with Dani in Clear Now and in the drummer’s own bands.

Flirting with the pretensions that sometimes arise in specially created festival fare, Dani’s CD is still a major accomplishment, saved from academe by the performers’ inventiveness. Recorded in such a manner that de Rossi is hardly heard, PLATEAU PHASE is more problematic. Low-energy, it’s almost just a souvenir of the drummer interacting with sympathetic musicians: Sex Mob’s saxophonist Briggan Krauss; jazz-New music-Eastern European accordionist Ted Reichman; and analog synthesizer player Jaime Saft, who plays with saxist John Zorn.

Recorded at Vincenza’s prestigious Teatro Olimpico, INSTANTS’s introductory and longest composition, “Last Minute Urgency”, appears to begin through composed in the medieval-style voicing of the other instruments that face skittering snare and cymbal crunching. As alto clarinet timbres meld with mellow trumpet and limited rhythm beyond the shaking of Dani’s bell tree, the fear exists that the composition will dissolve into a quaint motet pastiche. Luckily, Courtois soon sounds out a walking bass part and Gregory’s Bubber Miley-like plunger work loosens the near-ecclesiastical setting. The piece is further resuscitated by the drummer’s flams and tambourine whacks.

Soon the four are outputting a pan-European line that owes as much to local ethnic dances as Duke Ellington’s Jungle band. Sclavis trills grace notes at great speed, while Gregory holds elevated note for many bars. Finally a cymbal crash leads to the clarinetist fashioning variations on the theme in chirping resonation, as Dani appears to be both smacking a cowbell and scraping a guiro. Gregory’s triplets advance the initial theme still further as Sclavis moves to his bottom register. A touch of march tempo via the percussionist and speedy slides from the cellist conclude the piece.

Part II, “Le Città Invisibli”, seems to consist of a notated run-through of the theme, followed by its resetting as an instant composition. Vocalized buzzing bee vibrations at the beginning soon join Courtois sounding all four string simultaneously. Dani’s nearly weightless paradiddles introduce a solo from Sclavis that seems half-circular breathing and half bouncy Klezmer homage. When his ideas turns overtly Impressionistic though, Gregory acts as if he’s sounding the orchestral underscore from one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Euro-Russified works. Again it’s the drummer’s rim shots, claves and wood block manipulating that rescue the line from Euro ostentation. Gregory’s muted, hunting-horn-like obbligatos and Sclavis’ slurred reed lines counter this, but the consonant ending, does appear to leave the space for concert hall applause — which the composition receives.

Screechy overblowing from the clarinet and short tremolo puffs from the trumpet undermine this classicism with dissonance that appears in the second half of the piece. Dani’s simple beat is bisected first by astringent bowed cello swipes, then plucks, while the clarinetist’s laughing tones join with Gregory’s piccolo trumpet to emulate fire engine sirens. Courtois replicates a rock-playing electric guitar as Sclavis loosens sibilant honks. Once Gregory keeps his Maynard Ferguson-style note spearing in check, the piece’s resolution comes in double stopping, double tonguing and double timing.

More than a composition that only lived at its one festival appearance, Dani and company have created fine European improvised music that easily stands up to repeated listening,

It would be commendable if PLATEAU PHASE, recorded in two New York venues, was to live club sessions what INSTANTS is to concert presentations. But for all the assembled talent and good intentions, the CD sounds like just another night’s work.

Saft’s synthesizer wiggle and Reichman’s reedy accordion timbres merely seem to slowly unfold around diffuse saxophone lines, especially on the overly long “This happened at eight o’clock on Wednesday night” — how’s that for truth in packaging? Although later on there’s an outer-space-like electronic bustle from the synth and some high-pitched calliope tones from the squeezebox, de Rossi’s own contributions are largely muffled. Krauss’s subsequent mewling whinny doesn’t help the track much either; though he does add some needed excitement later on when he buzzes maximum vibrations from his reed. By the end you can even hear the drummer’s ruffs in march tempo as well as a Sun Ra-like oscillating squirm from Saft.

“Experimental Funeral” so resemble a soothing E. Power Briggs organ recital at first that the saxman’s metallic slurring and triple tonguing is needed to wake up the purported mortuary’s customers. However it turns out to be the liveliest of the four tracks as Krauss’s spetrofluctuation and split tones coupled with suggestions of a spry Balkan melody from the accordionist and some thunderous chording from Saft raise the excitement level — if not the dead. But even with de Rossi later thundering out some press rolls and bass drum rumbles, the energy leeches out as the keyboard instruments hold onto notes for longer and longer periods.

The same thing happens with the title tune when a standard jazz beat from the drummer, Middle eastern-style riffs from alto sax and weaving squeeze box tones weave in and out and around one another. Unfortunately the tune then takes on a vaguely sacerdotal air and simply fades away.

Put out in a limited pressing, this session shouldn’t be taken as the be-all and end-all of de Rossi’s work. Coupled with his other CDs though, it shows that he’s willing to risk failure when expanding his skills with different types of improvisation and different playing partners. Hopefully next time out, he’ll score as well as Dani has with his disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Instants: 1. Part I: Last Minute Urgency 2. Part II: Le Città Invisibli 3. Part III 4. Part IV: Cambiamento

Personnel: Instants: Kyle Gregory (trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet); Louis Sclavis (clarinets); Vincent Courtois (cello); Roberto Dani (drums)

Track Listing: Plateau: 1. This happened at eight o’clock on Wednesday night 2. Experimental Funeral 3. Handsome Sacrifice 4. Plateau Phase

Personnel: Plateau: Briggan Krauss (alto saxophone); Ted Reichman (accordion); Jaime Saft (analog synthesizer); Zeno de Rossi (drums)