NEXUS ORCHESTRA

Seize the time!
Splasc(h) CDH 841/842

During the years since its founding in December of 1980, the Milanese band Nexus has always stood at a little distance from many of the other Italian aggregations.

Although its leaders, saxophonist Daniele Cavallanti and percussionist Tiziano Tononi, were so a much part of the flowering of original local improv scene that both have been part of the Italian Instabile Orchestra from its beginnings, they never had the overriding commitment to Mediterranean folklore that galvanized many other musicians. At the same time they didn’t fit in with the old bebopers or Young Lions who took their cues from American jazz.

Cavallanti and Tononi — and by extension Nexus — took inspiration from the socio-political ferment that mulched together to make up international experimental music in the 1960s and 1970s in groups like the Jazz Composers Orchestra (JCO) and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Yet added to this was their own interests in sounds ranging from the musics of Java, Bali, West Africa and the Caribbean, to rock, country blues, contemporary classical and New music, not to mention the local political situation. Together the ingredients were mixed together to create Nexus’s own brand of musical espresso.

Now, two decades on, Cavallanti and Tononi have gathered together many of their former sidemen and others to honor the band’s 20th anniversary with more than 2½ hours of distinctive Nexus music on two CDs. Memorable as more than a commemorative celebration, the first disc includes new compositions with its centrepiece Tonzoni’s almost 52½-minute “The Bloodrumspirit Suite”. The other CD expands the group to 23 pieces for some improvisations and a more than 56-minute updating of trombonist Roswell Rudd’s “Numatik Swing Band” suite, recorded by the JCO in 1971. Not only is the composer in attendance — and soloing — on his own piece, but he adds his ebullient presence and avant-gutbucket horn to the first CD as well.

It’s obvious from both suites that, like many of their fellow countrymen, Nexus’s padrones feel brevity is no virtue. But when you have a band chock full of expressive soloists, and first-class material on which they can play, why not give them their collective head?

Consider “The Bloodrumspirit Suite”, for instance. The music is high intensity almost from its first note. Understandably the composer gives himself leeway and the piece is awash in the rumble of snares, sizzle of cymbals, shaking of bell trees and scrape of a guiro — all without losing the impeccable rhythmic structure that drives the band. Meanwhile, longtime Tononi associate, pianist Alberto Tacchini is creating insistent rolling arpeggios, and trumpeter Herb Robertson is mixing Cat Anderson-like treetop notes with Bubber Miley-style growls. Add to this constant ascending riffs from the horns and a baritone sax lead — courtesy of Cavallanti — that goes from thundering snarls to mid-range honks, trills and pops.

There’s a Mingusian trope in the transitional section, but while the drummer pounds and the reeds vamp, Rudd’s contribution is powerful, but more conventionally comely than his usual rough-and-rowdy ways with a slide. It exposes his infrequently heard Lawrence Brown side, rather than his usual Kid Ory persona. Later, on the last section of the piece Riccardo Luppi showcases a breathy, goat-like piccolo counterline to the riffing saxophone section, as Tacchini’s fills range from vaguely symphonic rubato chords to tougher, hard bop swing. Cavallanti playing a Getzian tenor sax, while Luppi on alto and Robertson combine for a legato run-through of the balladic potential of the music. Later the trumpeter sounds a set of triplets, explores the insides of his horn, and then brassily reprises the theme. Scads of notes spew from the two bassists, then all the horns and guitarist Roberto Cecchetto make up a extended final crescendo.

All the while, Cecchetto and other extroverts ensure that these tunes merely serve as the outer target circles of the suite’s absolute bull’s eye — the 20-minute plus “New Shades of Babalù (Ayé)”. Beginning anthemic and tutti, its primary theme is intersected with percussion rumbles, plunger trombone work, some atonal soprano work from Renato Geremia and an ascending chromatic trumpet solo from Luca Calabrese. Then the guitarist takes over, showcasing a simple blues-rock progression that gets more distorted and more psychedelically embellished as it unrolls. With the horns riffing in the background he mutates the line from Woodstock to West Coast Jump blues, recalling T-Bone Walker as well as Canned Heat.

Tononi’s idiosyncratic clip clops sound throughout as Lauro Rossi takes a near-Trad Jazz plunger solo and Geremia reappears scratching away harshly on violin in the best Billy Bang-Stuff Smith tradition. With most of the horsehair action taking place on the narrowest parts of the strings near the pegs, he doublestops and mutates his solo into a Northern Italian hoe-down. Finally the extravaganza runs down, but not before Robertson shakes a series of triplets over the other sounds; Tito Mangialajo and Giovanni Maier rappel over the string in unison pizzicato; and Tononi shows off the timbres from his log drum, talking drum and bata.

With one exception, Rudd’s “Numatik Swing Band” suite is pretty spectacular as well. The misstep occurs on “Lullaby for Greg”, where vocalist Roberta Parsi proves conclusively that she isn’t Sheila Jordan. As heartfelt as her reading of the lyrics may be, it sounds as if the mewling vocal was recorded phonetically, with Riccardo Pittau’s half-valve, split-tone trumpet plunger work easily outclassing it.

On other tracks band members show off their close coordination, which allow them to pass parts to one another with split-second timing and no lessening of inspiration. This is especially apparent on “Breath’A Howard (the flat-foot version)”, “Circulation” and “Aerosphere”. Raucous quasi-Dixieland, the first features tubaist Beppe Caruso, clarinetist Piero Ponzo, Tacchini playing honky-tonk piano and the dual percussionists laying down a shuffle beat. Like New York’s Bob Stewart, Caruso has a coarse timbre that he uses to toughen up his awkward horn’s clownish reputation. Polymetric and polyrhythmic, the clarinet and tuba tones bounce every which way, then combine for a shouting climax. A cappella tuba snorts make up the coda.

Rudd’s inner Tricky Sam Nanton gets a workout on “Circulation” as his plunger-muted horn first trades licks with Luca Bonvini until Michele Bienvenuti makes it a trombone choir. Then a heavily swinging Rudd elbows both of them to the side with some colorful slide work, exposing both his Ory and Brown sides as the band riffs behind him. Expanding to a Swing Era hand clapper, the tune gains a piano-driven boogie-woogie undercurrent as Rudd’s chromatic solo gives way to a steady sax-led vamp. Finally the basses and percussionists slacken the beat so the trombonist can exit with a smooth legato flourish.

So-called World music, sophisticated studio sounds and atonal jazz join together on “Aerosphere”, where Jungle band horn shakes meet Afro-Cuban percussion and kettle drum whacks. Reprising their partnership from Disc 1 are trumpeter Calabrese — slurring out Eurobop triplets high in the air — and guitarist Cecchetto — exercising his effects pedal to such an extent that he starts to sound as if he’s wielding a penny whistle. Following a modulated, Pepper Adams-like baritone interjection from Cavallanti, altoist Sandro Satta triple tongues the theme after masticating it to squeeze out all its flavor. Hullabaloo soon gives way to precision as the band members regroup, reconstituting themselves into a polished swinging machine — part Count Basie and part Billy May — within seconds. Both bassists trade fours and the piece fades out with the entire band undulating atonally while playing what Sun Ra used to call a space chord.

In the same unclassifiable genre the bandsmen — without Rudd — reveal yet another set of interests on “Vanhu Vatema”, written by Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe and arranged by Tononi. Imagine an Italian banda marching through the Townships and you may get an idea of the result. Advancing the theme with brushes — and aided by chunky rhythm guitar licks — the percussionist encourages call and response sections from the horns, with the laughing trombone of Caruso, who leads his own Free Air (brass) Sextet, taking the raucous lead. Eventually with everyone allowed to honk, toot, hit or strum, the good times end.

Those good times are what you too will experience playing this set through from the beginning to end or in sections. As they have before, Cavallanti and Tononi have proven with these two CDs that Nexus is one of the most exciting and unique aggregations going — in any country.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1. 1. The Nexus The Bloodrumspirit Suite: 2. Continuous Performance+ 3. Transitional Mood/Meter+ 4. New Shades of Babalù (Ayé)+ 5. Nu Dance for Old Saints 6. Minutes* Disc 2.% Numatik Swing Band: 1. Vent 2. Breath’A Hoard (the flat-foot version) 3. Circulation 4. Lullaby for Greg^ 5. Aerosphere 6. Improvisation for Orchestra #2 7. Improvisation for Orchestra #3 8. Vanhu Vatema

Personnel: Herb Robertson [Disc 1](trumpet, pocket trumpet); Luca Calabrese, Riccardo Pittau [Disc 2], Mario Cavallaro [Disc 2] (trumpet) Beppe Caruso (trombone-Disc 1; tuba, shells - Disc 2); Gianluigi Paganelli (tuba, shells - Disc 2); Lauro Rossi [Disc 1], Giancarlo Schiffini [Disc 1], Michele Bienvenuti [Disc 2] (trombone); Luca Bonvini [Disc 2] (trombone, slide trumpet); Roswell Rudd [except*] (trombone, euphonium); Brunello Gorla, Cristina Pini, Claudia Lissoni (French horn)%; Piero Ponzo [Disc 2] (clarinet); Roberto Ottaviano [Disc 1] (soprano saxophone); Renato Geremia (soprano and alto saxophones, flute); Achille Succi [Disc 1] (alto saxophone, bass clarinet); Sandro Satta [Disc 2] (alto saxophone); Riccardo Luppi (alto, soprano and tenor saxophones, flute, alto flute and piccolo); Daniele Cavallanti (tenor and baritone saxophones); Alberto Tacchini (piano); Roberto Cecchetto (guitar); Tito Mangialajo, Piero Leveratto [Disc 1], Paolino DellaPorta [Disc 2] Giovanni Maier+ (bass); Tiziano Tononi (drums, congas, percussion, log drum talking drum, bata, gongs); Jonathan Scully [Disc 2] (tympani percussion); Roberta Parsi (vocals^)