Alessio Riccio/Stefano Battaglia/Dominique Pifarély

Unsubstantial for Sonorous Sculptures, Piano and Violin
Unorthodox Recordings

Alessio Riccio/David Shea/Ellery Eskelin
Drawing - Opus 2: Paul Klee
Unorthodox Recordings

By Ken Waxman
July 4, 2005

A musician who seems as wedded his percussion implements as the rest of us are to our muscles and bones, Florence, Italy’s Alessio Riccio is a drum obsessive. A percussion clinician and master class instructor who frequently writes about rhythm instruments for specialized American and Italian publications, he scrutinized every aspect of the instrument in Europe and the United States and has since won numerous prizes for his work that encompasses jazz and free music as well as forays into prose, poetry, theatre and dance.

Someone whose musical associates have ranged from British saxophonist Evan Parker and French pianist Sophia Domancich to Americans, saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Elliott Sharp, his instrumentation has evolved from using the standard kit and so-called miscellaneous percussion, to what he calls the Metalanguage Unit. A sonorous sculpture, its creation involved research in timbre, matter, ergonomics and language. Designed Steve by Hubback, a Welsh free percussionist of note, it can take on orchestral characteristics and now encompasses manipulated tapes, live loops, several drums, chimes and shakers, metal claves, randomized darabukkas, grouped and altered samples, processed metals and processed vocals. If he chooses, he can be a one-man rhythm orchestra.

Unsubstantial and Drawing–Opus 2, two trio sessions, are high definition exhibitions of his skills which can power ensembles raging from duos to big bands. With its tongue-in-cheek title, the first CD is more-or-less acoustic, linking the percussionist with French violinist Dominique Pifarély – best known for his work with clarinetist Louis Sclavis – and fellow Italian, pianist/teacher Stefano Battaglia from Siena, whose 16-piece Theatrum ensemble includes Riccio.

Conversely, inhabiting a space where electronics are de rigueur, Riccio’s partners on Drawing–Opus are two Americans. A longtime John Zorn associate who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, composer/performer David Shea has had as wide a circle of collaborators as the Italian traps man and adds his samples, digital piano and keyboards to the 12 tracks here. Third participant is tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, usually known for his jazz work with people like bassist Mark Helias and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Recorded in 2003, Drawing–Opus musically interprets aspects of Swiss painter Paul Klee’s oeuvre, while Unsubstantial’s 14 tracks expand with varied percussion the chamber music sonic of violin and piano tones. Although two tracks are merely string and keyboard duos, crucial selections build on these timbres with parts of Riccio’s Metalanguage Unit, either in trio or with the percussionist partnering one or the other player.

“Estrangement”, for example, the longest and most dramatic piece, features carefully voiced overtones from Battaglia’s piano intermingling with picturesque glissandi from Pifarély. Although tempo and intensity crescendo with violin spiccato and the piano’s ringing cadences, Riccio’s tam-tam and wooden sticks create mountain-top resonation alongside other tones. As the strings double stop so that harmonies are stretched and scratched, the percussionist adds decorative friezes that extend and mix up the dynamics.

Extended percussion also allows Riccio to create appropriate textures for individual outings. On “Idolatry”, where Battaglia’s speedy bop-like arpeggios recalls the pianist’s work with more mainstream types like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and altoist Lee Konitz, Riccio uses menhir or wood sticks to loudly redirect the rhythm. “Nightcrawler”, on the other hand, which includes interface is as barren and frosty as the most academic contemporary classical composition, Riccio lightens the understated glissandi from Pifarély and Battaglia’s sparse accompaniment with the menhir’s concussive power. Suggesting an enervated sonata from the moderato, linear work of the pianist and fiddler, “Witchcraft” only becomes enchanted when Riccio’s hands, hard mallets and plastic sticks append rolling thunder tones and what sound like reverb from tapping filled water bottles to the initial theme.

Piano-percussion duets balance on high frequency, cascading runs from Battaglia and steady rim shots, rebounds and bounces from Riccio. As for Pifarély-Riccio collaborations, the beat master repeatedly matches the violinist’s impressionistic harmonies with manipulated tapes featuring mezzo Diana Torto’s soprano voice singing what could be liturgical melodies.

These tape manipulations link Unsubstantial to Drawing–Opus 2, although during the more than 68½ minutes of the later CD, the percussionist’s loop and tape prowess meld flawlessly with the electronic adroitness of Shea’s samples and keyboard tricks.

From the very first, nearly-14-minute track, titled after Klee’s “Luna of the Barbarians”, New World and Old World samples coexist along with live interjections from the percussionist and the tenor saxophonist. Moving from straight bounces and paradiddles on his regular kit to penetrating metallic clinks from water drums, Riccio manages to keep up a polyphonic, almost hypnotic Afro-Cuban-like beat. Shea counters with sampled vocal cries, mumbles and shouts which quickens obtrusively after one voice begins speaking in tongues and initiates witch doctor-like chants.

In contrast, Eskelin goes his separate way, improvising as if he was playing in front of a conventional rhythm section. With side-slipping slurs and honks, the reedist digs deep into his horn and almost blows the collective chorus expressions out of the way. His saxophone strength is such that in numbers such as “The Gary One and the Coast”, “Outbreak of Fear” and “Warning of the Ships” he almost manages to force the other two into using the musical language of jazz..

On the first tune, his vocalized, light tones swell to meet metronomic note patterning from Shea’s grand piano approximations plus Riccio’s bumps and flams on randomized drums. Eventually, contributing a steadier rhythm, the percussionist provides appropriate backing for Eskelin’s irregular reed-biting vibrations.

Bellowed slurs and circular breathing from the saxophonist are intensified with looped, unvarying percussion patterns on “Outbreak of Fear”, while Shea’s samples replicate an electric piano extensively chording as well as showcasing a walking bass line. Meantime, Riccio’s manipulated tapes turn flams and press rolls into multi- percussion outings and – judging from the pitch-vibrated arpeggios turning into themselves – do the same for the saxist’s output. When Eskelin’s tones deepen and become more sonorous, all sound sources bond, until a final coda of singular piano notes

As for “Warning of the Ships”, here and elsewhere Shea’s samples somehow manage to suggest the manipulation of an acoustic double bass’s strings. In response, Eskelin emphasizes rubato, but connected smears and Riccio situates rhythmic patterns from his kit. As the reedist spins out split tones, the master percussionist mirrors the actions with his booming drum. When Eskelin turns to glottal punctuation, Shea counters with pinging sideband sequences, then Riccio trumps the others with delicate swizzle stick beats – perhaps tape directed.

Elsewhere, samples from both keyboardist and percussionist meld, mulch and mix textures that include string-driven loops, wooden pops and smacks plus blends of a pre-recorded soprano voice, tugboat whistles, a heavenly church choir, snaky violin lines and ethnic flute parts from other Riccio project.

One track only is titled “Le Jardin Magique”, in homage to Klee, but considering the breath of the pitches often available, it could serve as a subtitle for several others as well. Meanwhile, ghostly, diffuse tenor tones or tongue-stopping smears and growls on Eskelin’s part confirm that acoustic instruments can be manipulated so that they produce almost as many timbres as plug-in sound sources.

Interface and manipulation among samples, loops, sculpture and so-called real instruments provide the leitmotif for this session, which is as memorable in its fashion as the almost 13-minute briefer Unsubstantial is in its way. Furthermore, these discs are only a thin slice of Riccio’s distinctive creations, some of which involve somewhat off-putting vocal and narration. Nonetheless, freethinking seekers after new sounds owe it to themselves to seek out the percussionist’s creations.