25 April 2009

La cultura vecchia

I was thinking that only an old culture could produce the music and performance of Carlo Actis Dato’s Quartet. They played an amusing, oddball, diverse performance at the Jazz School last night on their way to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Oddball because of the chatter and zany performance that accompanied the music: chuckling introductions variously in English and Italian; animal sounds on alto on request; a dismantled bass clarinet as performance art; saxers disappearing into the audience or unexpectedly reappearing at the back of the space; dancing with the local ladies. All performed good-naturedly, with uproar and whimsy. The Italians in the audience caught the banter better, and so went along for the ride, even if the English monolinguals missed the point. Some jazz students I talked to seemed dumbfounded, but they recognised it as “fun”.

The musical references were also evidence of an old culture. References were taken from across the north of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and local sources: a melange of Mediterranean musical traditions, rich in history and folk customs, in varied scales and tempos. We heard simple melodies over marches or odd times, but played with the release and ecstasy of peasants around an open fire: rabid solos displaying instrumental expertise, frequent interaction of the horns out front, squeals and pops and flourishes. And voices. The band started and ended the shows with chants; there were humourous shouts and admonishments throughout: calls to the stars; demands for animal sounds; a mock battle over the drum kit. All “strano” (Italian “strano” is more apt than English “strange”; more eccentric than grotesque) and entertaining.

And neither were these musical slouches, despite the humour and unusual tunes. Carlo leads on baritone sax and bass clarinet. His list of jazzers he’s played with includes the like of D. Murray, L. Bowie, C. Taylor, E. Rava, D. Sanborn. So no slouch, and quite demanding and out there. Beppe, on alto and soprano saxes, was of a similar era, and seemed a good match in musical and individual personality. Matteo and Daniele were of a younger generation, but fitted well enough with the mature mania. The playing was eminently capable, especially from the horns in the front line, but I didn’t notice till I listened back to a recording. On the night, the performance was the thing, and the music was just one element. But the furious melodies were played with accuracy and intonation, and the solos clear and articulated and responsive when they often dropped into paired horns. But this was not a night for Coltrane virtuosity (despite the ability of horns up front), but rather of musical geography, and they carried it off with aplomb. And that maturity of the cultura vecchia.

I saw Sun Ra in Rome many years ago. Sun Ra fits this story. The informed zaniness of the cultura vecchia goes with the territory. So it was intriguing and a blast to hear Torino’s and Italia’s renowned Actis Dato here in Canberra. It was not just musicianship, but musical geography and entertainment to boot. Thanks to the Italian Embassy for bringing this explosive entertainment to Canberra.

The Actis Dato Quartet was led by Carlo Actis Dato (baritone sax, bass clarinet) with Beppe di Filippo (alto & soprano sax), Matteo Ravizza (electric bass) and Daniele Bertone (drums, percussion).

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