Giorgio Gaslini

Gaslini Legend

By Ken Waxman
June 6, 2005

Since the early 1960s, the history of hard core improvised music in Italy has revolved around two godfathers, if you’ll pardon the joking cliché. One, saxophonist Mario Schiano, originally from Naples, is a grass roots player and organizer, host to many visiting improvisers, nurturer of younger players and someone eventually helped to form and is a member of the massive Italian Instablie Orchestra (IIO).

Another member of the IIO at its beginnings, but who parted company with it shortly afterwards, is the other padrone, pianist Giorgio Gaslini, whose accomplishments are as academically oriented as Schiano’s are streetwise. Milian-born, he’s prodigiously musically educated and has written symphonies, operas, ballets, film and theatre scores, taught the country’s first jazz conservatory courses, written jazz textbooks and lead a variety of ensembles. He’s also never been shackled by tradition. He may have composed its first jazz opera for a Verona theatre, but he also recorded solo piano transcriptions of Albert Ayler charts.

This two-CD set merely confirms his talents and versatility. Recorded live at the Parma Jazz Festival, the first disc is all solo piano. For almost 59 minutes Gaslini ranges over a series of themes that include standards, jazz standards, classical cops and his own tunes. Considering stops along the way include “Lover Man”, Roland Kirk’s The Black & Crazy Blues” Stan Kenton’s “Artistry in Rhythm” and Anton Dvôrak’s “Humoresque”, gives you an idea of what he can accomplish. Recorded in a studio six months later, the second CD is even more wide-ranging. Encompassing Italian, English, Vietnamese and Medieval material, Gaslini’s piano is matched with a jazz bassist, a traditional harpist, a vocal recitalist and the French Troubadours Art Ensemble, which includes period instrumentalists such as rebec and lute plus vocalists.

Unfortunately it’s on this second disc that Gaslini’s reach exceeds his grasp. Most disappointingly is lyric soprano Rosana Brandi. She may be excellent in her field of period music, and granted the pianist does bring some improv sensibility to their recital, but more than 24 minutes [!] of vocalizing on nursery rhymes like “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May” is a bit much for the average English speaker to stomach.

Much more palatable among these canti dal mondo (chants from the world) is the pianist’s collaboration with the Troubadours Art Ensemble. Led by Gérárd Zuchetto, the vocal and instrumental group specializes in interpretations of Occitan troubadour ballads from 12th and 13th centuries. Considering the avowed aim of the troupe is to link Occitan poetry to modern minimalism, Gaslini’s desire to not merely reproduce ethnic sounds when he ventures into that field perfectly extends this concept.

On the 17-minute run-through of the traditional “Trovadorica (Francia)”there are points at which it seems as if a modern concert piano has been smuggled into a Renaissance court recitation. As Gaslini lets loose with bluesy asides and swirling, double-timed glissandos that would do Ahmad Jamal proud, you hear the buzzing continuum from period string instruments as well as contrapuntal chants from the male and female vocalists. With instrumental textures replicating what we identify today as rattling tambourines, buzzing bagpipes and pressured tympani, Gaslini’s neo-bebop pianism melds as naturally into the program as if was playing a traditional fiddle line.

Duetting adagio with harpist Donata Matteri on his own “Vietnam Suite”, however, Gaslini produces an interface that rings with gentle cadences. But the faux Orientalisms in it tip the piece towards undemanding exoticism.

On the other hand, the real meat of the disc comes in the four numbers where the pianist is accompanied by Parma-born double bassist Roberto Bonati. Someone who has worked with improvisers ranging from American pianist Ritchie Beirach to local pianist Stefano Battaglia, Bonati helps assay these tunes so that it’s almost impossible to isolate the originals from the folk songs. Buoyant, the two improvise in such a way as to make traditional airs resemble the standards from Van Heusen and Gershwin on disc one. Gaslini rolls out arpeggios and amasses tremolo clusters, while the bassist counters with lilting arco accompaniment or standard walking. Then on “Nana de Sevilla” the Bonati’s chromatic near-flamenco strums and the pianist’s bent notes link the traditional air to jazz lines like Chick Corea’s “Spain”.

These sorts of linkages are even more prominent on the almost-59-minute solo piano recital that makes up CD1. Heck, on the first tune that combines Keith Jarrett’s “In Front”, the jazz standard “Lover Man” and five of his own compositions, Gaslini manages to add some high frequency coloration and pounding offbeats without indulging in any Jarretian grunts and groans. His well-shaded and modulated phrases highlight the contrasting themes, tagging on a bit of rent-party walking bass lines, and lagging slightly behind the beat, when quotes from “Lover Man” – a Schiano favorite by the way – signal a change of pace. Following portamento sweeps and feints, he uses splayed fingering to move the 13 minute tour-de-force first into Latinesque than Africanized territory without abandoning the original theme.

Dealing with the pretensions of the Jarrett of the 1950s – Stan Kenton – Gaslini’s solo version of “Artistry in Rhythm” is as wide ranging and cinematic as the Kenton orchestra rendition, and is alive with pumping, high frequency chording. Sliding into swifter variations of “Darn That Dream”, his flowery arpeggios give way to a right-handed, almost ragtimey version of Gershwin’s “Bidin’ My Time”, with cross accents that presage “The Black & Crazy Blues”. Alternating inside and outside the soundboard, he quotes “CC Rider”, uses a guitar-like strumming to accent single notes and their variations and finishes with a showy glissando.

As well, his version of “Over the Rainbow” is properly vigorous and dynamic and filled with bass clef variations, while – of all things – his mine-minute Elgar/Bartok/Dvôrak/Bach medley evokes a vague honky-tonk lilt. Hearing it, Floyd Cramer’s slip- note style comes to mind long before Glenn Gould references, yet slipping treble notes allow him to jazz the classics with near harpsichord tones.

Gaslini Legend will convince anyone of the versatility and technique of the Italian veteran pianist and will be sought after by those who know of his exceptional talent. However the second volume’s oddities and missteps may prevent it from being the best introduction to this Italian stylist for the uninitiated.