Carlo Actis Dato

American Tour

By Ken Waxman

August 2, 2004

With his ebullient personality and colorful outfits that often suggest one of the Seven Dwarfs inbred with the Three Stooges, Turin’s Carlo Actis Dato is perhaps the prototypical Italian free improviser.

Valued member of a clutch of local bands under his own name or led by others — not to mention his part in the all-star Italian Instabile Orchestra — Actis Dato is up for any kind of improvisation, in varied situations with all types of musicians.

Imprecisely named for xenophobic Yanks, the 16 aural souvenirs on this CD find the Italian on tenor and baritone saxophones plus bass clarinet matching wits with his peers in three American and two Canadian cities. If truth be told, the seven tracks recorded in Toronto and Vancouver, B.C. are as zestful as those done south of the 49th parallel and may even have a slight edge.

Actis Dato appears to be perfectly matched with fellow baritone saxist David Mott, who teaches at Toronto’s York University and has recorded with drummer Gerry Hemingway. Almost from the first note on the fittingly entitled “Two Brothers” the reedists take up individual spots in the improvisations.

Encompassing a frisky Balkan-style dance, a blues-based romp and what could be the soundtrack for two terpsichorean hippos, the buffo pieces have one player in the balladic top range of the sax for a portion of the time, while the other provides portamento snorts and tongue slaps. Then they switch roles. With two men able to create bicycle horn tremolos and squeals, flutter-tongued sideslipping and glottal punctuation with the same facility, twin commingling is easily achieved.

Boston trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum provides an comparable foil for Actis Dato on their four selections named for the elements. The brassman can hold his own with any reedman having also recorded duets with Anthony Braxton. Most memorable number is “Water” where Actis Dato’s trilling of a freylach-style melody on clarinet is decorated with grace notes and growling pedal point by the brassman. Eventually the two reach a rapprochement with Ho Bynum following Actis Dato’s triple-tongued slides and slurs at an accelerated pitch so that the two sound as if they’re playing “Salt Peanuts” in a Dixieland setting.

Other compositions encompass foot-tapping Latin rhythms, old country dances — Actis Dato’s old country not Ho Bynum’s — and military style timbres sounded with quivering percussiveness. Throughout, the reedman shows off his serpentine bass clarinet work, embellished with tongue stops and tongue slaps, while the trumpeter speedily fingers triplets, single line mouthpiece trills and ornamental slides.

Elsewhere, Actis Dato’s two trio gigs are as different as the weather in Vancouver, B.C. and Chicago. His match up with guitarist Ron Samworth of Vancouver’s NOW orchestra, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, who has worked with British saxist John Butcher among others, encompasses POMO electronic suggestions. His partnership with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who seems to be on every second CD recorded in the Windy City and Wilco percussionist Glenn Kochi is harder and heavier.

Playing in British Columbia, the visitor gives the other musicians plenty of scope for inventiveness. Creating choruses of tongue slaps while overblowing, his tones fly over, around and through the drummer’s stick-on-stick nerve beats, ratamacues, wood block ratcheting and miniature cymbal strokes. From his corner, the guitarist introduces distorted reverb and electronic echoes.

Before the final notes are sounded however, Samworth has squealed out polyphonic chords, van der Schyff has created rugged rhythms with his bass drum, and Actis Dato uses the timbres flowing through his baritone’s body tube and bow to suggest some low-pitched Middle Eastern instrument. What would do you call an Italo-Arabic didjeridoo anyway?

Illinois brings out an entirely new side to the Italian reedist with the three selections rebounding from New music pointillism to out-and-out Free Jazz skronk.

“Alien Peace” is an example of the former with Actis Dato surrounding a middle section of chicken clucking arpeggios with tenor saxophone forays into mellow mid-range. Around him the cellist cascades chord patterns alive with spicatto, slurring bowing and, latterly, guitar-like strums. The drummer confines himself to cymbal clacks and press rolls. “Lost Melodies”, which follows, features New Thing-like smacks and lengthened trills from the reedist mixed with harsh flattement, side slipping and near whistles — all from the saxman. Lonberg-Holm contributes double-stopping arco moments and Kotche wood block smacks.

Climax is reached with “Dawn” which begins with what appears to be Actis Dato bird calling through his detached mouthpiece, creating timbres that unexpectedly moderate into balladic trills. Lonberg-Holm’s ponticello slides turn louder and more staccato, first creating a miasmic cushion of pitches to contrast with the saxman’s riffs, then joining him to suggest a bouncing tarantella. Kotche is there with ruffs and rebounds. A crescendo is reached as Actis Dato tongue slaps a pogoing melody that the drummer extends with wood blocks thwacks.

Actis Dato’s three solo tracks here merely confirm the reed mastery that has he has. Shouting through his horn as he manipulates the keys, he appears able to sift timbres in such a way that they can be tough or tender depending on necessity and mood. As adapt at strained screaming textures which come from the gooseneck as exposing a sonorous tone situated deep in the bell, the reedist can split themes as well as tones, with the ability to produce two separate timbres from any of his horns.

Adept at his horns as well as amusing, Actis Dato’s antics never distract from his performance or his craftsmanship.