Actis Furioso

Avanti Popolo!
Splasc(H) Records CDH 966.2

What was that old ad? “The next best thing to being there?” Well, Avanti Popolo! is probably the closest modern technology has come to capturing a performance by madman Italian saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato. That’s because the CD is not only filled out with nine live performances by his 10-piece Actis Furioso band, but includes a five-minute concert video of one track, playable on any multimedia device.

Of course nothing can really replicate the joy and exuberance Actis Dato and company bring to a concert. Still, the visual images supplied by the five-minute video and booklet photos of the band members in multi-colored Sun-Ra-Arkestra-meets-Japanese robes-and-Nehru-caps outfits gives you a multi-dimensional view of the band.

A member of the Italian Instablile Orchestra, and someone who has been in the forefront of Italian improv since the early 1970s, Mazzé-based Actis Dato has recruited the personnel of Furioso from the members of his quartets and quintets. Lacking only a keyboard instrument – but how can you march around carrying a piano? – the group appears to be perfectly constituted to play the pieces Actis Dato has composed for it.

There’s a brass section of two trumpeters and recent-Actis Dato sideman Gianpiero Malfatto on trombone and tuba. There are four reed players, including the leader on tenor and baritone saxophones plus bass clarinet, and his quartet partner, Piero Ponzo on alto saxophone and clarinet. Finally there’s a three-man rhythm team of veteran bassist Enrico Fazio, a traps drummer, and general-utility-man Ferdinando Despaigne using a variety of percussion instruments to contribute ratcheting licks that are as rhythmically African as they are Latin.

Individualistic costumes or not, there are points on the CD that Furioso resembles a Mariachi marching band, others where it sounds like a Klezmer aggregation newly liberated from the shtel. You can also imagine the 10 players dressed in pantaloons and turbans appearing in a Hollywood Arabian Nights fantasy; in ruffled shirts playing Afro-Cuban dance music for a cinematic Latin dance team; or resplendent in tuxedos as a society orchestra serenading the principals in an Italian White Telephone flick of the 1930s.

“Hotel Balima”, for instanced, is almost 10 minutes of both drummers playing Latin percussion, bouncing riffs and vamps off one another. Meanwhile the horns work their way through a Swing Era fantasia. As the trumpeters impersonate Ziggy Elman-style leads, trombonist Malfatto slurps and curves plunger tones until a reprise of the pseudo-Arabic head gives way to J.J. Johnson-like boppish flutter-tonguing. Encouraged verbally by Actis Dato and others, the sliding polyphonic ending includes Ponzo’s recapitulation of the glissando from “Rhapsody inn Blue”.

Luca Calabrese introduces “Djolibà” with a dramatic “Perfidia”-like flourish as the reeds vibrate the contrapuntal line with hi-de-hi flourishes, until a coloratura clarinet in close harmony with the huffing tuba introduces a tempo acceleration leading to a split-tone vibrated alto saxophone solo. As the brass spurt stratospheric bent note triplets and Ponzo’s clarinet plays staccato, but not atonal, lines, rural Italian village ring-shouts and hand clapping help swell the sounds to a crescendo. With space thus cleared, regular drummer Fiorenzo Sordini and percussionist Despaigne explode into a double counterpoint duet. Sordini’s ruffs and rebounds and Despaigne’s conga-like pumps, finally bringing the pumping riffs to a climatic end.

Elsewhere, the band sound is just as unclassifiable. At one point it mixes Klezmer variants from a plunger trumpet with a pseudo-Xavier Cugat-style vocal – in Italian of course – plus slurping bras and shrilled reeds playing a cha cha. Tuba pumping, cymbal pops and call-and-response falsetto chirping from the reeds enliven another Arabic-style melody. This one sounds as if it’s designed to accompany camels stealthily gliding across the desert until they meet a brass band playing what could be the Israeli national anthem [!]. A baroque motet and Bolero rhythm vie for primacy on another track.

Additionally, while “Haiti Serenade” may seem descriptive, the sounds that result somehow combine simian chittering, inchoate instrumental honks and farts, a marching band beat, braying barnyard grace notes, from the brass section, clave percussion and bird-whistling reed vibrations. The entire layered performance goes beyond parlando to song.

Colorful and vocal, as only Italians can be, the particular triumph of Furioso is that Actis Dato has managed to expand the excitement of his small group performances to a larger aggregation without any loss of energy or intelligence.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: 1. Perdasdefogu 2. Mar Tirreno 3. Oltremare 4. Djolibà 5. Haiti Serenade 6. Le Poulet Télévisé 7. Hotel Balima 8. Portorico Smog 9. Melanconico cha-cha

Personnel: Luca Calabrese and Marco Rigoletti (trumpets); Gianpiero Malfatto (trombone ); Piero Ponzo (alto saxophone and clarinet ); Beppe Di Filippo (soprano and alto saxophones); Carlo Actis Dato (tenor and baritone saxophones and bass clarinet); Pino Romeo (baritone and bass saxophones); Enrico Fazio (bass); Fiorenzo Sordini (drums) and Ferdinando Despaigne (percussion)