STEFANO MALTESE OPEN SKY ORCHESTRA

Hanging In The Sky
Splasc (H) CDH 139.2

Touted as the progenitor of the Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO), Sicilian reedist Stefano Maltese’s Open Music Orchestra (OMO) was so only the way the Washingtonians begat Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra or the Cro Magnon was an ancestor to the Homo Spain.

As this reissue from 1987 shows, rather than being a slimmed down version of the 19-member IIO, the 10-piece OMO came from an entirely different and more singular place. Vehicles to express the ideas of Maltese, OMO compositions were less overtly Italian than those played by the IIO. Instead they reflected his personal amalgamation of languid Cool predilections and the stop-time blusiness that characterized some of Ellington’s work. Also, while several later IIO musicians — including trumpeter Pino Minafra, reedist Carlo Actis Dato and trombonist Sebi Tramontana — were in the OMO, it’s overriding voice — literally — was that of vocalist Giocondo Clio.

Clio, who has been part of all the groups Maltese has organized since then, adds to or detracts from the instrumental performances many places here. On the title tune, for instance, the gorgeous horn arrangement advanced on top of uneven arpeggios from pianist Martin Joseph, almost ground to a halt when she starts singing in a little girl’s voice with strangely accented English. As she versifies “Travelin’ Light” cushioned by reed tones, you wonder if this oddity has redirected the tune into a homage to Jimmy Giuffre’s big band arrangements of “Travelin’ Light” for Anita O’Day.

In the same way “Open Windows” and “Dans Le Ciels” — which run into one another — take on a different complexion at the conclusion when Clio’s singsongy vocal make it sound as if she’s rendering a kiddy ditty in Italian-accented French. The martial drumbeats and vamping horns behind her are a mere echo of the screaming Kentonian brass and reeds, that begin the piece. More impressively though, earlier on, short chords and silences make way for plunger trombone lines from Tramontana, buoyant hummingbird-light flute solos from Eugenio Colombo — another future IIOer — and romantic, muted grace notes from Minafra as Antonio Moncada works out on triangle and güiro.

On the other hand, the nearly 10-minute “Elephants Waltz”, and “Mirror Oblique”, the most abstract composition on the disc, both show the OMO in its best instrumental light. With Maltese and Dato’s twittering bass clarinets facing ponticello swipes from bassist Enrico Fazio, the later tune builds up with whinnying chromatic runs from Minafra. The former composition is a showcase for trombonist Luca Bonvini, who uses a steadying ostinato from the double bass as ballast on which to construct a slurred, chromatic line. Tension is accelerated by Maltese on serpentine soprano and split tones from Colombo on alto, until sustained horn vamps propel the piece from this side of freebop to quasi-R&B.

Clio’s role as Ivie Anderson to Maltese’s Ellington is brought into sharpest focus on the 16½-minute version of “Mood Indigo” that closes this set. Part of a 1999 OMO reunion gig, the arrangement puts the Ducal classic in POMO garb, especially when trombonist Lauro Rossi — an IIO ringer — begins breathing and buzzing and talking through his horn, one slide position at a time. Earlier, trumpeter Alberto Mandarini — another IIO guest — squeezes out plunger choruses in a call-and-response sequence over the well-modulated reed section.

Maltese’s own alto solo— more Eric Dolphy than Johnny Hodges — and a bit of slap bass from Giovanni Maier, augments the excitement that’s then taken to a whole new level by the vocalist in an unexpected Red Hot Mama persona. Clio, whose English seems to have improved during the band’s 11-year hiatus, started her career in blues bands with Maltese. This time out she shouts and holds notes for several measure at a time as the band riffs power chords behind her.

Valuable in its own right, HANGING IN THE SKY is also worth hearing for its all-star soloists and for what it reveals about the stirrings of Italian-oriented improv. But, after hearing the CD, the question of why Maltese, with his talent and connections, has never done a project with the IIO remains a question.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Open Window 2. Dans Le Ciels 3. Shadow of Yesterday 4. Hanging In The Sky 5. Something In the Air 6. Mirror Oblique 7. Elephants Waltz 8. At End of Day 9. Mood Indigo*

Personnel: Pino Minafra (trumpet and flugelhorn) or Alberto Mandarini (trumpet)*; Luca Bonvini, Sebi Tramontana, Lauro Rossi* (trombones); Stefano Maltese (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones); Eugenio Colombo (soprano and alto saxophone, flute, piccolo); Renato Germania (soprano and alto saxophone, flute); Carlo Actis Dato (baritone saxophone and bass clarinet); Martin Joseph or Umberto Petrin* (piano); Enrico Fazio or Giovanni Maier*(bass); Antonio Moncada (drums and percussion); Giocondo Clio (vocals)