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Like many American jazz fans, I learned about the Italian jazz scene initially through releases on ECM, which has the resources to distribute CDs in record stores, garner reviews from reputable publications, and promote artist appearances at American venues and festivals. In more recent years, as I've been collecting SACDs, I discovered the Italian label fonè Jazz, whose productions are also available as DSD downloads.
Giulio Cesare Ricci, the producer, engineer and label chief of fonè, has a singular goal: to recreate the sound of distinctive historical acoustic spaces. The photographs included in the booklet for Songs We Like show the recording location, a low-ceilinged, stone-walled, flagstone-floored room in the Palazzo di Scoto di Semifonte, a historic building now used as a fine hotel, restaurant, and jazz room. Signor Ricci set out to capture the special qualities of the room sound with a unique recording package: restored Neumann valve microphones, his own proprietary mic preamps, and a Pyramix DSD recorder with dCS converters.
The sonic results are breathtakingly vivid and detailed; you have a sense of being in the room in the immediate "now", while at the same time hearing the musicians through the classic "historical" lens of the warm Neumann microphones. Each time I play a fonè DSD recording, I experience a dual sense of present and past.
Songs We Like is a showcase for the saxophonist and flutist Pietro Tonolo and guitarist Giancarlo Bianchetti. Tonolo plays tenor and soprano saxes, flute, and a hybrid instrument called a flutax, which appears to be an alto flute with an adapted head joint and saxophone mouthpiece. Bianchetti is shown with a single-cutaway Gibson semi-hollow body electric guitar. The duo present a well-conceived set of songs, including the Cole Porter standard "Get out of Town" and Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye", interspersed with a composition by saxophonist Steve Lacy ("Utah") and two pieces written by the great pianist and underappreciated composer Bill Evans, "Show-Type Tune" and "Comrade Conrad".
Pietro Tonolo's tenor style falls within the mainstream of post-bebop jazz, yet he never fails to bring out unusual details and unexpected turns in his interpretations. Early studies in classical violin led him to a crossroads: he chose the path of the jazz musician. Participation in the large Gil Evans ensemble gave him an opportunity to work with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who was influential on younger European saxophone and clarinet players. From 1999-2004, Tonolo was a member of drummer Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band. Motian was a direct connection to Bill Evans, with whom Motian played and recorded in the period 1960-1962.
These lineages of modern jazz can be heard in Tonolo's thoughtful tenor solos; he plays closely-cropped phrases with unsentimental lyricism. In keeping with the intimacy of the venue and the duo instrumentation, Tonolo sustains the saxophone's dynamics at a voice-like level, and rarely takes his solos very far "out". It's a credit to an experienced musician that he brings such an inventive and creative slant to well-known compositions.
The flutax is heard on the 1944 Axel Stordahl-Sammy Cahn song "I Should Care". An unusual hybrid instrument which has the breathy quality of the flute coupled with the bite of the saxophone, the flutax demands a careful attack, but rewards with a haunting vibrato. Each time I listen to this piece, I find the sound of the instrument a perfect fit with the melancholy character of the song, a favorite of pianist Bill Evans and a long list of notable jazz interpreters and singers.
Video of the duo performing "I Should Care" can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaCxGc1H6Qo
Guitarist Giancarlo Bianchetti assumes the sole responsibility of a rhythm section with skill and ease. He's equally comfortable comping behind the saxophone and playing unaccompanied passages. An accomplished melodic improviser, he solos with facility and finesse. Signor Ricci captures the sound of his amplifier with admirable warmth and detail.
Interlocking rhythms and flute key tapping on the Antonio Carlos Jobim piece "Chovendo Na Roseira" evoke a Brazilian rhythm section with just the dual forces. Towards the end of the tune, Bianchetti uses a looping device to create a piano ostinato effect, then an octave pedal to lower his bass strings into the bass guitar register.
The Steve Lacy piece, "Utah", opens in a more modernistic vein, with guitar distortion for a stronger, strident impact. The guitar and tenor sax counterpart each other, leaving space for the room between the notes. The final track, Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye", ends with sustained tones from the tenor saxophone that blur into swelled guitar chords, gradually fading away into silence.
Giulio Cesare Ricci's impeccable engineering, the skill and subtlety of the saxophone and guitar performances, the inclusion of lesser-known compositions by Bill Evans and Steve Lacy, and a fresh approach to the arrangement of classic jazz standard songs, make this album a first choice for audiophile jazz listeners.
Sonics: 5 out of 5 Stars
Performance: 5 out of 5 Stars