Rotella Variations
Splasc (h) WS CDH 2504.2

Directly related to that mixture of seriousness and playfulness that characterizes such art movements as Pop and Happenings, this singular CD is an almost wholly-successful attempt to recreate in improvised music the visual art of Mimmo Rotella, born in Catanzaro, Italy in 1918, and based in Rome since the mid-1950s.

Like such jazz musicians as Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, Rotella developed his unique “torn poster” decollages, rubbed frottages, ravished effaçages and phonetic poems without knowledge of or reference to similar abstract expressionism or color harmony experiments taking place elsewhere. Now accepted as a major Nouveaux Réalistes painter, he’s still interested enough in experimentation to participate vocally with some of the country’s major improvisers in using his Dadesque sound poems and collage style to create the 19 tracks on this disc.

Chief movers and shakers here — and responsible for most of the music — are Italy’s preeminent jazz vocalist Tiziana Ghiglioni and violinist Emanuele Parrini. Pisa-born Parrini, who has been part of the singer’s Meta-Music Band has also been in Bruno Tommaso’s Jazz Chamber Organic and played with visiting musicians such as soprano saxist Steve Lacy.

Savona-born, Milan-based Ghiglioni has recorded standards and Duke Ellington material, put words to the music of pianist Giorgio Gaslini, an early mentor, and recorded with Lacy. That’s not to mention her other playing partners like locals trumpeter Enrico Rava, woodwind player Gianluigi Trovesi and brassman Giancarlo Schiaffini, all of whom make appearances on this CD.

Rotella’s collage technique is put to its most distinctive use on “Marilyn (The Song Is You)”, the longest track, which mixes Hammerstein and Kern’s familiar lyrics with music from Ghiglioni and Parrini. Beginning at a slow and stately pace, advanced by Rava’s chromatic trumpet lines and Trovesi’s chalumeau clarinet, Ghiglioni starts enunciating the words as Parrini appears to be playing unrelated society dance music and guitarist Jacopo Martini distorted finger picking accompaniment at a speedier tempo than the rest of the song. As pre-recorded examples of a big band cuts through the other sounds, the vocalist continues with her dramatic saloon singer recitation, with guitar accompaniment. That is until her voice is submerged underneath rock guitar chording and discordant asides from bassist Franco Nesti and drummer Tizano Tononi. Soon it’s the clarinetist who is playing at an even more leisurely pace, joined for a time by the guitarist and drummer until spiky rock guitar lines, tangential cymbal snaps and the big band record blare, until the song fades away.

Elsewhere Tononi, who has organized projects honoring Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Albert Ayler, showcases his emulation of an Afro-Cuban hand drumming to accompany Rotella’s half-English, half-nonsense syllable recitation on “Per Shango” and approximates a tabla player on “Omgaggio a Ravi Shankar”. On the later, however, Rotella’s “digga digga do” sound as if they’re reflecting jivey scat rather than a sitar sound.

Both versions of “Cosa Nostra” find the composer (poet? artist?) deconstructing sentences into irregular nonsense syllables, words and onomatopoeia, as Ghiglioni alternately scats and sings and the band creations some traditional banda music.

Other onomatopoeic exercises find Rotella going Dada founder Kurt Schwitters one better by spending entire tracks taking apart phrases like “D’accord” and “Son of a Bitch” with Trovesi’s shaking clarinet tone in one spot and a face off between the poet and Parrini supply the context for the other. Then there’s “Hallò” which weaves Rottela’s vocalized recreation of the sounds one hears in a telephone conversation in France abetted by emphasized bent note trumpeting, violin glisses, guitar flat picking and drum flams.

On her own, Ghiglioni goes from places where her voice is processed electronically to those where her basso tones sound like they’re emanating from the Wicked Witch of the West and her soprano range from Tweety Bird. She dramatically recites Rotella’s “Notepamosi” in turn girlishly and womanly sultry, backed only by the steady rhythm of Tononi’s miniature cymbals and snare drum pulse plus dedicated guitar chords — but the meaning is lost on non-Italian speakers.

Meanwhile songs like “Theme for Jessica Tatum”, with music written by Rava, demonstrate why she’s so respected as a traditional jazz singer. As exalted chromatic runs from the trumpeter caress the melody, Parrini and Martini provide accompaniment as conventional as you would expect from Stéphan Grappelli and Charlie Byrd. Yet Ghiglioni not only produces a gentle bossa nova-like lilt, but also scats in unison with the trumpet and creates obbligatos to other instrumental work.

Just as a close examination of Rotella’s visual work will yield more richness in the composition, so more surprises can be gleaned from listening to this example of music based on his vocal work. Seek it out in a CD store or art gallery near you.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A. Asya Agnese#+%$^ 2.Antrroiama#+^~=@ 3. Son of a Bitch+@ 4. Theme for Jessica Tatum*^~= 5. D’Accoro*^~=@ 6. Cosa Nostra No 1 #+$^~=@ 7. Tizicano Picanò*%^~= 8. Cosa Nostra No 2#+^=@ 9. Isdudu%^~= 10. Ornette*$= 11. Per Shango=@ 12. Suddenly Last Summer 1960 $=@ 13. Duel $= 14. Marilyn (The Song Is You)*+^~= 15. Omgaggio a Ravi Shankar%=@ 16. Notepamosi^~= 17. Strappi 18. Hallò*^~=@ 19. Thank You^~=@

Personnel: Tiziana Ghiglioni (vocals [except tracks 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18], piano [track 17]); Enrico Rava (trumpet)*; Giancarlo Schiaffini (baritone horn)#; Gianluigi Trovesi (clarinet)+; Claudio Fasoli (soprano saxophone)%; Dimitri Grechi Espinoza (alto saxophone)$; Emanuele Parrini (violin [all tracks but 11, 12, 13, 16]; Jacopo Martini (guitar)^; Franco Nesti (bass)~; Tizano Tononi (drums, percussion)=; Mimmo Rotella (voice)@