Jazz Continuities: Review of Exotica Domestica, Daniele D’Agaro’s Adriatics Orchestra

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The creative leaps representing the discontinuities in jazz are rare, and perhaps too much ado is made of them. Popularized in bursts of enterprising media coverage, these breakpoints seemingly appear out of nowhere. In reality the discontinuities have their own underground developments, and can take years to reach a critical mass that stretches beyond a handful of creators and their aficionados. Just a few examples are the innovations of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, the melodic inventions of Thelonious Monk, the renovation of the large ensemble by Alexander von Schlippenbach and the Globe Unity Orchestra, and the astonishingly soulful approach of Benoît Delbecq to the piano. Each these break points, as radical as they seemed, came from musicians deeply schooled in what came before them. Schlippenbach articulated the dynamic well with his insistence “I play jazz” even as he constructed the double CD “Twelve Tone Tales.”

The turning points that mark the discontinuities are typically recognized only in retrospective, for the creators are busy working out the sounds they hear internally and looking for the gigs where they can play it. The knowledgeable writers spend their time assiduously grinding out short-form essays, and like the musicians, they have few venues to explore new trends. (Anyone interested in the short-form side of the writers’ equation should visit the works of Whitney Balliett, who could would cover Roy Eldridge one da, and Cecil Taylor the next). Parallel to this valid journalism, there always seems to be some kind of silliness-quota in which dull-witted journalists annoyingly apple-polish the muddle-headed and illiterate question, “Is jazz dead?”

These minor philosophical ramblings came to my attention during back-to-back listening to a wonderfully recorded concert of a 1975 “Count Basie Jam Session at Montreux” (a Pablo CD/DVD) and to Daniele D’Agaro’s “Exotica Domestica.” The Basie session is most formidable with long solos by each of the veterans, Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Johnny Griffin, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Louis Bellson. They ride the war-horses of Billie’s Bounce and Lester Leaps In with aplomb, creating a hoof-pounding, earthshaking field of excitement. The core to the elation is the unity of opposites between Ørsted-Pederson and Basie. Ørsted-Pederson is a wizard at impelling a precise and melodic music with a muscular and relentless drive. He is a kind of Roger Bannister who brushes aside the tedium that no one could run a mile faster than four minutes. Basie barely looks at the keyboard; the camera angles show him smiling sagaciously at the players, no motion in his shoulders as his hands ballroom-dance way through the horn and vibes solos with trademark punctuations (the curious sort of which can also be heard on Thelonious Monk’s backing of Johnny Griffin’s solos on their five Spot recordings).

The Basie Jam session says one thing quite plainly: the continuities in jazz music are perhaps as important and galvanizing as the discontinuities. The music in the Basie Jam can be dated to a period of development, but it is supreme, catching the imagination and the pulse of a corpus in motion. Is it not reasonable to conclude that the tendency to always be looking for the new thing invariably underestimates how jazz or any creative and scientific process germinates?

Daniele D’Agaro’s “Exotica Domestica” provokes similar elation to the Basie set, one difference being that the Adriatics Orchestra presents the catholic version of contemporary jazz. The band does not stick to one dialect, but rather speaks in many tongues with compositions from three continents and a broad range of styles. A second difference is that while the Adriatics come together only rarely, they don’t rely on the static pattern of head-improvisation-head. In his notes on this CD, Art Lange calls the band “nomadic minstrels,” a Jovial description of this gang of supreme players who coalesce once a year in the municipality of Comeglians in the northeast corner of Italy. There they play (“play is the correct word) for the roguish joy of it, with all the passion of musicians who know the Book of Music: no structure, coalescence, de-amalgamation, emotion, or outrageous humor is alien to the experience. This must work a magic on the audiences, for such secular music is played even in their churches, and the Adriatics are invited back to the ancient Comeglians terrain regularly.

The Adriatics Orchestra frequently uses the even most traditional jazz combination of concurrent group and individual improvisation between and around the melody. More than one modern writer (think Mark Miller and Art Lange) has called this approach “a joyful noise”, a sound that goes back to the beginnings of the jazz form. The opening song “Tiny Pyramids” demonstrates this concoction quite nicely. Because “Tiny Pyramids” comes Sun Ra’s formidable approach to music, it could be termed a composition that is more intergalactic than intercontinental. Well-differentiated swirls and growls suggestive of pions and muons emitting minuscule resonances in a vacuum lead rapidly to a seductive bass line enhanced in the 1920’s Ellington tradition by a Bubber Miley/Tricky Sam Nanton plunger sound as played by Mauro Ottolini’s trombone. Particularly attractive in this rendition are the contrasts among Sean Bergin’s flute, Davide Ghidoni’s trumpet, the chalemeau pitch of D’Agaro’s clarinet, and the deep pocket of Bruno Marini’s Hammond organ. The improvisations, if put in color terms, are reminiscent of full spectrum three dimensional renditions of distant galaxies flaring and subsiding with low-key intensity.

“Tiny Pyramids” is followed by another Sun Ra composition, this time the earthly “Transition.” The composition is played in the style of the Basie Jam: a blowing session, up-tempo, forthright, and “swinging ‘til the girls come home.” The soloists are Tobias Delius on tenor sax, Saverio Tasca vibraphone, and Sean Bergin on alto trading licks with drummer Ham Bennink (who happily provides the shouting encouragements from his chair). Then, in one of the funnest recordings in recent memory comes a Begin composition, “Oh!”. The song is based on a kind nonsense vocalese pattern which can only provoke a silly grin. It’s unforgettable amusement at its best, because along with the almost-circus goofiness comes profound musicianship. Witness the deep-wood groove of Stefano Senni’s double bass and the emphatic shuffle of that drum wizard Han Bennink. The shuffle eventually results in a solo that swings as good as anything you’ve every heard (remember that Bennink’s favorite drummer was “Big Sid” Catlett).

Then there is “Tibbar,” the kind of timeless jazz piece that could have appeared any time in the last 50 years. “Tibbar” is a Daniele D’Agaro composition with a marvelous solo on his tenor saxophone. Multi-instrumentalist D’Agaro welcomes himself into any creative music scene (even such ancient forms as Dixie jazz) and his vast experience shows throughout Exotica Domestica. “Tibbar” is. The composition has a danceful grace to it due to D’Agaro’s tremolo antecedents, his muscularity, and pacing. It’s short, the instruments pitched low for the sake of emotional depth and I found myself wishing it could go on for much longer. Perhaps its brevity strengthens it and prolongs the memory of the sound.

There’s another continuity that this band projects. Most histories of jazz concentrate on the development of jazz as the result of chanties in the slave fields of the old American south, preceded by the rhythm-making of central Africa from whence those burdened souls came. Enlightened histories might bring forth the Dizzy Gillespie introductions of the Cuban sound into jazz, and the northern and central African ancient influences that Randy Weston to this day plays.

However, one thing that is often forgotten is the Black South African influence on contemporary music. A shock wave passed through American pop music when with concentrated courage Paul Simon in 1986 recorded Soweto musicians such as bassist Bakithi Kumalo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland; that album amplified the rising international storm that led to the end of that pathetic and decrepit thing called apartheid. A full 24 years before the Graceland recording, the South African “Blue Notes” from Soweto came to London and other parts of Europe where they changed the shape of jazz. Their infectious rhythms and unrestrained improvisations quickly found a home in the hearts of Europe’s jazz musicians who were then themselves moving into the freedom zone and creating a differentiating themselves from American jazz forms. Careful study of societal changes will typically reveal that the jazz musicians are far ahead the actual turning points in contemporary history.

Two compositions reveal the South African influence. “You Don’t Know Me Because You Think You Know Me” by Mongezi Feza is perhaps the best known composition of the Blue Notes. Mauro Costantini’s church organ rings true, but the overall effect of the rendition is lessened due to a rather hollow sound of the horn, probably due to the recording being made in the less than perfect acoustics of a church. Sean Bergin’s composition “Mixin’ It” has a quintessential South African feel that blends jubilantly and succinctly with the jazz mode. His vocal and ukelele plus Saverio Tasca’s marimba open the tune. The words are incomprehensible to my ears, but they are of a chant and spiritual nature, a deep country-south vocalese with a contrast between the bass and a shout mode. The country feel quickly develops into a swinger, a riff-based music that builds and builds with trombone exuberance, organ punctuations, mahogany-solid bass line, and a solo by a six handed and footed drummer named Han Bennink.

Daniele D’Agaro’s Adriatics Orchestra represents a jazz continuity but more. The band has a compleat approach to music-making that sticks in the head, and that is nothing less than charming. Such charms don’t disappear easily and as a listener, I found myself returning repeatedly to the compositions. Like love, you can wake up to their rhythms. The chops of the musicians are as solid and intense as those bon-vivant veterans of the “Count Basie Jam Session at Montreux”. The only discontinuity might be the novelty that will be brought to listeners who are not familiar with the European jazz scene.

Label: Arte Suono 077

For more on Daniele D’Agaro, see the Misterioso review of Daniele D’Agaro’s CD “Strandjutters”

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