Less of Five

Acrobati Folli E Innamorati
Nine Winds

By Ken Waxman
March 28, 2005

Quiet a departure for Sicilian pianist Giorgio Occhipinti, usually known for his precise duets with the likes of French bassist Joëlle Léandre, or carefully notated, string- concentrated chamber-improv work. Instead, this CD and the quartet – hence the name Less of Five — come across as a New Thing throwback, mixed with more contemporary extended techniques.

Fervor, speed and atonality are manifested throughout the 15 compositions that make up the nearly 69½-minute disc. Considering bassist Giuseppe Guarrella was co-founder with the pianist of the seminal December Thirty Jazz Trio in 1989, and percussionist Antonio Moncada has worked on large-scale arranged projects with Occhipinti and multi-instrumentalist Stefano Maltese, the freeform impetus is likely instigated and encouraged by the quartet’s remaining member.

Olivia Bignardi, who plays alto saxophone, soprano clarinet and nacchere —Italian castanets — is a native of Bologna. Her playing experience encompasses Butch Morris conductions, projects lead by Anglo-Australian violinist Jon Rose, duos with Occhipinti and a stint as clarinetist with a Klezmer ensemble.

Hints of Klezmer’s Eastern European Ashkenazi and less prevalent Arabic Sephardic roots come through on tunes like “Word’s Shadow” and “A Frog’s Rain”—Sicily is far enough south to be at the cross roads of both those cultures. Most of the other compositions — written mostly by the pianist, but with contributions from all band members — are uncompromising free playing mixed with southern Italian inflections.

This experimentation moves into the more ethnic numbers as well. On “Word’s Shadow” for instance, extended bowing bass lines, scraped portamento piano motions and unvarying and gradually louder snare ratchets back-up multiphonic soprano wisps that could come from a ney. “A Frog’s Rain” is filled with double-timed piano arpeggios that circle back into themselves, discursive drum kit rattled patterns and a concentrated spiccato bass line that frames Bignardi’s rustic Balkan-style clarinet slurs and glisses. Eventually the piece is wrapped up with abrasive echoes from internal piano strings and aggressive, pinpointed shuffle bowing from Guarrella.

One Bignardi piece, “Cus Cus”, is completely given over to an exploration of Iberian ratcheting hand percussion such as claves, maracas and nacchere, with the theme extended with a steady bass line and frayed arpeggios from the prepared piano. Yet from the first notes of CD’s first tune, “Acrobati Folli”— written by the bassist — paint-peeling reed tones, expertly paced drum beats and clipped piano cadenzas set the stage for the players to cycle through theme fragment recapitulations and variations as well as out-and-out free sounds.

Chief among them are “Témoignane de Proximité” and the subsequent “Evolution”, both written by Occhipinti. Beginning with a sparse outline, not unlike a late 1950s Sonny Rollins’ composition, the altoist is soon writhing flutter-tongued smears in response to Moncada’s spare regimen of hi-hat slaps made tougher by using his brushes’ metal handles. In polyphonic contrast, the pianist uses his left hand to sound out a ballad so delicate with so that it’s almost an étude. That respite is dispensed with quickly enough, however, as the others enter at full speed — especially the alto saxist, honking and smearing notes.

Following a wood-reverberating bass solo backed by rolls and flams from the drummer, Occhipinti create a high frequency intermezzo, only to have that trumped by Bignardi’s unexpectedly hard-toned tongue flutters, growls and pitch variations. Theme recapitulation turns into a tumbrel climax as the reedist madly circles the initial line, eventually pressuring the others to silence.

“Evolution” is based on a repetitious, low-pitched bass line, slappy percussion and prestissimo, cascading chords from the piano. Curt, mini-phrases from the horn soon build up the intensity following shattering cymbal spanks. When the saxophonist begins spraying tone clusters, squeaks and multiphonics on top of rhythmic rim shots and intentionally primitive drumbeats, the pianist counters with harp-like arpeggios from the internal strings forcing Bignardi’s circus-like phrasing to come in-and-out of oral focus. Pure power beats from Moncada push the others to an emotional finale.

References to military tattoos, bandas, and a dance-like tarantella make their appearance on Occhipinti’s “Uma Onda de Mùsica Continua”, but the round robin of short phrases from everyone, resembles an “anything you can do...” challenge more than a consistent composition.

Individually each person’s contributions here and elsewhere can be spectacular. Moncada shows off cross-sticking concentration that suggests orchestral kettledrums at one junction, and bebop on the sock cymbal at another. Guarrella slithers from spiccato bass lines at full and half tempo to triple stops and walking. Bignardi sounds almost Neapolitan at points where her rich phraseology could result from half-forgotten gondolier ballads or RAI pop songs. Yet in the time it takes to depress a key she can switch to split tone squeaks and reed bites.

As for Occhipinti, overtone-rich cadenzas which meld easily and briskly, morph into two-handed, walking bass piano displays, with as many chiming notes as you would hear in ragtime or boogie-woogie showcases. Elsewhere he offers diffuse, energy music reminiscent keyboard attacks.

An expected and unique dividend for those who only know Occhipinti’s more formal work, Acrobati Folli E Innamorati also provides more exposure for a hitherto locally confined, exceptional reed voice.