Tiziano Tononi & the Ornettians

Peace Warriors Vol. 1
Black Saint

Playing with Eric
Splasc (H)

By Ken Waxman
October 16, 2005

Yin and yang of Free Jazz’s first generation of alto saxophonists, the authority and innovation Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman both brought to the music makes them often celebrated figures, despite Dolphy’s untimely death 41 years ago, and Coleman’s quirky and infrequent public appearances.

Because of fusion and neo-con indifference, though, many jazzers haven’t really noticed just how different Coleman and Dolphy are and were. On these CDs however, an Italian trio of a pianist, a violinist and a double bassist confirm Dolphy’s innate progressive conservatism with Playing with Eric; while percussionist Tiziano Tononi’s sextet substantiates the ongoing challenge of Coleman’s compositions on its Peace Warriors, Vol. 1.

Although the two saxophonists recorded together on Coleman’s epoch Free Jazz LP of 1960, Dolphy ultimately, was a brilliant player content to operate in a post-bop or free-bop atmosphere. An in-demand sideman for a variety of groups, both in California and during his New York breakthrough, had he lived beyond 1964, Dolphy likely would have become someone like Archie Shepp – producing unique variations on the classic jazz tradition.

Jazz’s most cerebral primitive, Coleman on the other hand, invented his version of Free Music in isolation then spread it with Messianic commitment, first in Los Angeles than New York. Restlessly innovative, by the time Dolphy died in 1964, Coleman was already playing violin and trumpet as well as saxophone; and within the next few years he would formulate his harmolodic concept and work with the back-up of electric instruments.

During his short time in the international spotlight, Dolphy recorded only once with pianist Bill Evans on Blues and the Abstract Truth and never with a Swing violinist like Stéphane Grapelli. But during the course of the three originals and eight Dolphy lines that make up Playing with Eric, violinist Rino Adamo, bassist Giovanni Maier and Sergio Corbini on piano, accordion and electronics, recast his tunes as a combination of mainstream and gypsy jazz. Even when Stefano Franceschini adds his alto clarinet for Corbini’s “17a Ouest”, a variant of the American saxophonist’s “Seventeen West”, the piece never takes on a freer coloration. After all, Dolphy’s second axe was bass, not alto, clarinet.

Leveling the American reedist’s rough edge isn’t surprising when you examine the players’ backgrounds. Corbini, who teaches piano and ensemble improvisation in Siena, is a pan-European, who has recorded themes based on the works of Kurt Weil, Steve Swallow and Italian and French compositions from the 14th century. Adamo, conservatory trained, has played so-called gypsy violin and has been first violinist of the Orchestra Utopia and the Italian String Trio. He and Franceschini together are part of a Thelonious Monk project.

This history suggests men most comfortable with a less pointed jazz tradition, often reflected here in the pianist’s impressionistic Evans-like styling. For instance, “Seventeen West” – also performed on the CD – is the only time Corbini turns away from languid romanticism. But his model then appears to be the low-key swing of Ahmad Jamal, rather than the angular set up of Dolphy’s pianists of choice, Jaki Byard and Mal Waldron.

Similarly, Adamo, who is capable of skittering vamps as on “Mister Eric”, not to mention double-stopping and spiccato interface as on “Mandrake”, prefers to mostly play languendo and zart. His resolutely tonal harmonics and portamento lines metaphorically push nearly every one of Dolphy’s themes out from the night club and into the recital hall.

Adding electronics and accordion, as Corbini does for counterpoint with Adamo on a variation-then-theme, low-frequency version of “GW” doesn’t do much either. This is novelty not interpretation. The question of why the three chose to cast Dolphy’s oeuvre as manouche remains a puzzle. It’s different all right, but so would be playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on kazoos.

Another puzzle is the involvement of Maier. From Trieste, his usual recording is with musical explorers such as American altoist Tim Berne and drummer Zeno de Rossi as well as a membership in the Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO). His association with Milanese percussionist Tononi also goes back a decade, and he’s one of the two bassists on Peace Warriors, with most of the other players fellow IIOers.

However walking bass lines and unobtrusive patterns are his contribution to Playing with Eric, except for the anomaly that is its final track. Arranged by Adamo, it suddenly seems to move the three into the realm of Arnold Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie. Dense electronic-based pulses from Corbini and swelling sul tasto variations from Maier mutate into irregularly spaced textures and silences as the fiddle’s menacing postlude includes strings that scream with the shrillness of V-8 bombs.

Ironically enough, the first sound on Peace Warriors is that of a screechy spiccato fiddle tone sharply sliding down the strings. But what Emanuele Parrini brings to this tune is the style he exhibits during all nine compositions: a personal melding of the advances of Coleman – as a violinist – and Billy Bang.

Both Parrini and alto saxophonist Achille Succi, who plays exaggerated, irregularly pitched solos here, have gigged with jazz manouche combos, the later as a clarinetist, but the idea of turning Coleman into Jimmy Dorsey doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

Of course the reorientation of the American multi-instrumentalist’s compositions relates mostly to Milan-born Tononi, who plays drums, percussion and gong, and contributes his own “Ode to the Master Drummers of Harmolidia” to the 11 Coleman compositions covered on the other eight tracks. A conceptualizer as well as a thoroughly schooled percussionist, this homage to the Texas-born alto man is the latest in an ongoing series of salutes. Earlier discs honored Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Albert Ayler.

On board for those outpourings, and another player whose slurred overblowing and pummeling reed shattering makes an impression here, is tenor saxophonist Daniele Cavallanti. Also a Milan native, he and Tononi have also co-lead the Nexus combo for about 20 years. No Grapelli or Evans replication appears on this CD. But tunes like “The Empty Foxhole” and “Sadness” welcome Ayler inflections in the former and Charles Mingus suggestions in the later.

That too is no surprise, considering two basses – Piero Leveratto is the other – are involved. Featuring abrasive sul ponticello runs from the dual bull fiddlers that evolve into bowed harmony, the appropriately poignant theme is moved along by the saxes’ serpentine slurred tones, as the percussionist contributes ratcheting rhythms and rattling bell tree and tam tam clangor. Rumbling ruffs and rebounds then pilot the head through bugling and shrilling horns and tearing catgut fiddle slices.

Ayler’s “Ghosts” haunts this recreation of “The Empty Foxhole” as a contrapuntal theme, but most of the action takes place in the string section. Harmonized and sonorous, the basses harden arco pitches, while pizzicato they sound harsh banjo-like clangs. Final variation involves the horns limning the melody at half-speed as the drummer decorates it with rattling paradiddles.

“Feet Music” takes on the character of military bands as Tononi batters a martial beat. With the fiddle repeating the theme over and over, using broken chording and double stopping, the percussionist once again puts things on even footing by muting the violinist’s splayed and yelping counter rhythms with a marching band tattoo.

If Parrini relates to Bang and Cavallanti, Ayler, then the drummer sometimes surprises with his time-keeping allusions. Charles Moffett, Billy Higgins, Denardo Coleman and Ed Blackwell – the Texas altoist’s favored drummers – are all there, but when he solos on “Peace Warriors/Africa is the Mirror of all Colours”, the cross patterning and curved rhythms that emerge reference Max Roach’s polyrhythms more than any Coleman drummer. Power percussion is called for here since Maier and Leveratto are pummeling their strings lockstep as if they were operating a single eight-string monster bass, and the tenorist is pumping out one of his beefy, blubbering and slurring solos.

Perhaps the main difference between the Tononi treatment of Coleman and Adamo/Corbini/Maier’s of Dolphy comes on “A Girls Named Rainbow/School Work”. Featuring the familiar strain which most know as “Dancing In Your Head”, the sextet takes this blues-ballad through sudden tempo changes and turnarounds. As Succi’s altissimo wails and vibrato slurs coat the melody, both basses scurry up and down their strings like busy squirrels. Lead by the drummer’s double press rolls, the horns then reprise the initial theme languidly, then super-fast, breaking it into components. Meanwhile Parrini is outputting a Billy-Bang-as-country-fiddler variant, expanding the composition and making it more diffuse. Finally everyone slows to adagio and a single violin lick completes the thematic circle.

Unlike neo-cons, these Italian improvisers know that the jazz canon can be interpreted in a variety of fashions and still be legitimate. Not every idea works however, as Adamo, Corbini and Maier show. On the brighter side, Peace Warriors’ subtitle is Vol. 1, so Tononi and crew will undoubtedly turn out another reworking of Coleman material. If the Adamo, Corbini and Maier trio did the same with all the Dolphy tunes recast as they did “Red Plant”, a second CD of Playing with Eric could be worthwhile as well.