STÉPHAN OLIVA

Itineraire Imaginaire
Sketch SKE 333042

GAETANO LIGUORI
L’Anima Di Un Uomo
Splasc (H) CDH 858.2

Program music that could be the soundtracks for journeys, real and fanciful, characterize the music on these CDs composed by vastly different European pianists.

Leading a sextet, Paris-based Stéphan Oliva’s ITINERAIRE IMAGINAIRE vaults between the sounds of his two greatest influences, Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano. With 13 tracks that offer up his version of escapist romanticism, this imaginary itinerary takes in the filmic territory inhabited by movies like Claude LeLouche’s “A Man and a Woman” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Imagine a post-modern Gallic twist on Cool Jazz.

Milan-based Gaetano Liguori only has two associates — local saxist Roberto Ottaviano and Chicago drummer Hamid Drake — to Oliva’s five, and the trio has plenty of room to stretch on four selections that range from almost 9½ minutes to almost 25. More committed to neo-realism — which musically means recasting Freebop and The New Thing — cinematically L’ANIMA DI UN UOMO or the Soul of a Man, is more involved in the committed experimental mode of left-wing filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo, known for “Burn” and “The Battle of Algiers”.

A Free Jazzer from the get-go, the pianist has been associated with local saxist Carlo Actis Dato and BritImprov’s Evan Parker. Bari-born Ottaviano has worked with Swiss drummer Pierre Favre, while Drake fits in with visionaries ranging from Chicago saxist Fred Anderson to New York bassist William Parker.

The cohesion of the Italian/American trio is most apparent on the nearly 25 minute title tune. With Ottaviano blasting away on alto, Liguori contributing tough cadenzas and Drake reverberating most parts of his kit, the comparison would be to the Jimmy Lyons/Cecil Taylor/Sunny Murray trio — if the saxist wasn’t so committed a Coltranite. Liguori, who formerly composed more elaborate thematic pieces, is paradoxically more traditional and less free in his playing than Taylor, while Drake is nothing but his own man.

Liguori may use contrasting dynamics — sliding from very highest pitched tones of the piano to low down ones — but he also likes extended tremolos. Light fingered, and with a swinging pulse, he resonates notes on the keyboard, and uses the sustain pedal to increase the tension and fervor of the arpeggios popping from the keys — and he never loses sight of the basic beat.

Meanwhile Ottaviano overblows into the deepest crevices of his horn’s body tube, producing distinct split tones with flutter tonguing and intense vibrations. His lines are abstract but pure at same time. When the pianist halves the tempo for a legato passage that’s practically an intermezzo, for instance, the reedist begins quoting Trane’s showpiece “My Favorite Things”, while Drake hardens the tempo.

For a finale, Liguori extricates protracted chords with his left hand, as his right hand keeps the rhythmic impetus at a slower tempo. Coda is 30 seconds of helter-skelter piano runs and small animal squeaks from the saxophone.

Vibrated, aviary-sounding motifs alternate with more exotic musette-like tones from the reed, as Ottaviano works his way through the other tracks. Flutter tongued obbligatos that build up to marathon racer speeds are as common as more Trane emulation from both his saxophones. Yet that doesn’t stop him from occasionally interjecting warbling tarantella-like themes where appropriate.

Liguori’s inventiveness takes on different forms. On “La nube della non conoscenza”, for instance, he spends time scraping and strumming the piano’s internal strings and percussively stopping the action. But “Il monte analogo” finds him in full Italo romantic mode, strumming chords with one hand and producing a modal overlay with the other. To meet Drake’s solid timekeeping, he creates splayed dynamic resonation; to keep up with Ottaviano’s snaking riffs, he crafts curlicue melodies elsewhere. And could it be that those rumbling octaves constitute themselves into a rocking salute to “Honky Tonk Train” in the first tune, the better to join with Drake’s ride cymbal pressure and cow bell thwacks?

Steady explosions of rolls and flams from Drake’s kit, plus slipping and sliding over the keys to contrasting dynamic clusters confirm the Freebop orientation of pieces like “Il monte analogo”. Yet no matter how staccato the saxman’s obbligatos or how fleet the pile-driver chords and a high frequency attack from the pianist, all three players manage to keep compositional strands together.

Meanwhile, Oliva and his four associates are reading from the same score all right, but would that some of the Liguori three’s animation and energy had made its way north to France.

Not that anything on this imaginary trip is second rate. The musicians — especially the pianist who has worked with American drummer Paul Motian and his longtime bassist Bruno Chevillon, who does double duty with guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Daniel Humair — are technically impressive. It’s just that cohesiveness seems to dissipate over 11 tunes ranging from a tich over one minute to slightly less than eight. Especially at risk are soprano saxophonist Matthieu Donarier — who has also worked with Humair — and clarinetist Jean-Marc Foltz, whose respective tones are often so thick and legit that they move beyond cool to symmetry.

“Marche Antique”, for instance, the longest track, sounds like an attempt to mix Tristanto’s time sense with the coloration of 1970s modal jazz. Donarier’s sour-sounding timbre appears to be waiting for a (non-existent) airy electric piano riff to complement his flutter tonguing, while Oliva’s low-frequency, two-handed attack resembles a double-timed waltz. Eventually the piece concludes with irregular drumbeats and the distinctive coloratura trill from Foltz that makes its appearances frequently on the CD.

“Cecile Seule”, which conjures up a picture of a distressed heroine contemplating her next melancholy move, is impressionistic and traditional at the same time. With the theme carried by airy drumbeats and sprightly clarinet tones, it could fit in with the imaginary folklore created by other reedists like France’s Louis Sclavis and Italy’s Gianluigi Trovesi. Low frequency piano cadenzas playing a chromatic progressions add to this faux romanticism.

With other brief expositions either pastoral intermezzos for the pianist, or jocular free counterpoint from the two horns, one high pitched, the other darker and lower, there’s isn’t much sense of movement, let alone autonomy here.

Before the final number echoes the sound of the first to complete the compositional circle, the penultimate three tracks exhibit as much musical elasticity as Oliva is prepared to allow on this journey.

“Tango Indigo” features snaky, twittering lines from both horns over a pumping tango rhythm created from the piano and ends with an uncharacteristic reed squeak. “Passage En Marge” features the pianist alternating Tristano-like adagio tremolos in one hand and low-pitched, irregular offbeats with the other. But the energy and passion drummer Nicolas Larmignat brings to one of his infrequent solos contrasts with the low-key role Tristano envisioned for the traps set.

Rattling drum beats characterize “Ellipse” as well, as Larmignat punctuates treble horn trills and some flat picking from Chevillon. With Foltz finally exhibiting split tone color and slurred tones as he glides down the octaves, he’s met by speedy tremolo piano notes and concentrated percussion sound busts. Faster and more raucous, the tune ends with a sibilant, veloce finale from the horns.

Purported soundtracks to two musical journeys, the Southern Europeans appear to provide a better road map then their Gallic brethren.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Itineraire: 1. Preface 2. Marche Antique 3. Resonance d’Un Silence 4. Spirales 5. Cercle Ouvert 6. Partance Immobile 7. Cecile Seule 8. Mouvement Interrompu 9. Paradoxe 10. Tango Indigo 11. Passage En Marge 12. Ellipse 13. Postface

Personnel: Itineraire: Jean-Marc Foltz (clarinets); Matthieu Donarier (soprano saxophone); Stéphan Oliva (piano); Bruno Chevillon (bass); Nicolas Larmignat (drums)

Track Listing: Uomo: 1. L’anima di un uomo 2. La nube della non conoscenza 3. Come sopra, così sotto 4. Il monte analogo

Personnel: Uomo: Roberto Ottaviano (alto and soprano saxophones); Gaetano Liguori (piano); Hamid Drake (drums)