Festival Review: My Jazz Islands Part 1 (Cagliari, Sardinia)

My Jazz Islands Stage, Cagliari


My Jazz Islands Part 1
(Cagliari, Sardinia. 20, 21, 22 June 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)


A jazz festival next to the beach, under the setting sun and rising moon. Each night in the Lazzaretto di Cagliari Arts Centre, a film of strangely beautiful images was projected on to the courtyard wall next to the stage, flickering to the music. The kind of thing you might see in The Tanks at Tate Modern, but outside- imagine!

The first night featured the UK's Orphy Robinson on vibes and Sardinia's Antonello Salis on piano and accordion. They were billed as 'versus' each other, but this was a remarkable collaboration between two improvising musicians who had never worked together before. ‘We rehearsed getting on and off the stage,’ joked Robinson.

Salis, a wiry, spry figure in headscarf, looked as though he could have been out all day on the sea. Robinson, tall and urbane in cream suit and hat, took care of the technology. He collects sound samples- everything from big bands to electronic sounds, to inspire improvisation. Salis began with his grand piano prepared, using pieces of metal and plastic on the strings, and at one point a rustling plastic bag. Robinson’s vibes were looped and distorted over a sampled happy choir. The distorted sounds subverted the recording, but at the same time the ‘choir’ gave us a way in to understand how the improvisation was developing. Then the piano was sweetened, like an Aeolian harp over funky electronic beats, then nervy against the luscious vibes. A little orientalism, a little MJQ drifted across the ears, as suddenly and unexpectedly as the flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Robinson hit the sides of the chimes, looping rhythms like voodoo beats, while Salis seemed to be climbing inside the concert grand, holding down the string with one hand and playing the keyboard with the other.

Antonio Sallis and Orphy Robinson


The mood changed as Salis moved to accordion, an instrument whose traditional associations can sound comforting. Salis played spooky tritones alongside Robinson’s hypnotic Steve Reichian grooves, moving into 7/4 as Robinson played some deliciously discordant chords. Then what sounded like Ligeti over a recorded Lucky Thompson monologue: 'Until you are sure that the idols that you worship are of your own choosing, you are indirectly supporting those who are exploiting the artists.' The vibes resonated eerily round the courtyard, with its De Chirico shadows. As the piano strings shimmered, surely it wasn't just the Mistral wind that made me shiver? But then these two artists tap-danced together to showing their respect for each other, playfully.

The two were given several unexpected tasks to fulfill. This was fascinating for the audience, giving insight into the improvising process. Robinson played in the style of Louis Armstrong, his ‘favourite musician.’ Improvisation can have a wonderfully random element: as Salis played romantic accordion (to ‘make an audience member fall in love with him’), the film projected images of bullocks walking backwards. But in a piece based on a ‘weather conversation’ the notes of the piano and vibes ran together like raindrops.

 Martin France, Filomena Campus


The second night was given to Sardinian singer Filomena Campus and her excellent UK band, joined by Salis. Most of the songs had been created by pianist Steve Lodder and bassist Dudley Phillips, with lyrics written or adapted by Campus- recorded on her Jester of Jazz CD (SAM 9032). Campus thinks of improvisation as springing from her acting as well as singing work. 'I want to play with jazz. It makes me free when I improvise.' They opened with Monk's Dance, its tricky intervals reminiscent of Monk's own writing, Lodder's sparkling piano interleaving with Campus' delicate vocals.

Some songs had a direct Sardinian reference. In Sabbia e Mirto, the dark, deep piano and bass chords invoked ancient Sardinian rituals, where the wind is '...carrying notes from the island.’ No Potho Reposare is a well-loved Sardinian song, beautifully-arranged by Phillips, undulating like the flying birds projected behind them. Bass and piano lines were delicately counterpointed as Salis played accordion phrases that sounded like a flageolet- and the moon rose behind the stage. Lodder's Summer Lights took inspiration from a poem by Sardinian Maria Carta, with perhaps some Abdullah Ibrahim, and Jarrett influences. The bass and drums (Martin France) followed the contours of the vocal line: ‘...sound of joy/In my voice, in my soul.' Phillips' Hoos Foos was based on a Stefano Benni poem.

The bass solo was a tour de force, with its expressive double-stopped sliding. France's drums were delicate, while keeping the strong Latin groove. Campus used vocalised sounds as well as singing. She drew on a nonsense language based on the Italian Commedia Dell'Arte, developed by Italian playwright (and Nobel Prize winner) Dario Fo. It was intriguing to hear the variation from the usual Ella-style scat syllables- noises that were funny, childlike and downright scary.

Campus was Flora Purim to Salis' Hermeto Pascoal- growls and ululating to the moon, like a wild jazz version of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Campus' theatrical background informed a number of songs. Queen of Clowns was based on Benni poem for the late Franca Rame, Fo's wife. Campus sang with poise and charm, her voice high and and clear, with an affecting flutter in the lower registers. 'Harlequins are dancing for the revolution '. Salis' accordion fluttered between the lines of Lodder 's expressive solo. Boal (for Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal) was a beautiful samba written by Lodder, sung gently by Campus in an Elis Regina style. Lodder's sparkling solo had a Bill Evans-like transparency.

Campus’ scat solo recalled her mentor Maria Pia de Vito in its agility. She had a warm stage presence, winning the audience over to her refreshingly experimental style: '...the freedom to dampen, tonight, to change, to live, to be happy.’ Day three juxtaposed Italian and British culture more broadly, from satire to Shakespeare. Renowned Italian novelist and poet Stefano Benni was there in person. Lodder and Philips had written music in an amazing range of jazz styles to accompany his poems and dialogues. God Save the Queen opened, a comic cavalcade of names and phrases suggesting British culture: '...To be or not to be... Beckham, Beckham, Molly Bloom, the Yellow Submarine. Imagine a jazz version of Walton's Façade. I Gatti, another Benni poem in Italian, had Campus and Benni yowling to the leaping music. Benni read his Queen of Clowns to a funky groove, with an astounding vibes solo from Orphy Robinson, skittish and virtuosic.

Benni recited his translation of Romeo and Juliet's Queen Mab speech, with the vibes accompaniment creating their own magic. Lodder's music, mysterious and modal, captured the mercurial quality of the original, with its alliterative language. Benni recited part of his translation of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. The shifting music had no obvious tonal centre, expressing the ambiguities of the poem, with its unsettling mixture of high art and comic bathos. Filomena Campus sang Philomel’s part of the poem with music by Sardinian Paolo Carrus, with 'inviolable voice.’

One Hand Jack was a very funny piece of satirical theatre by Benni, and the music told the story. ‘Jack’ wandered round the imaginary streets as funky grooves drifted out of imaginary bars. He wanted a new hand, but was given a bass instead. Phillips’ double bass brilliantly followed the intonation of Benni's speech. The band played some swinging blues and rhythm changes, sounding with Robinson's vibes very like the MJQ. Robinson literally played God (with great panache). The piece asked: was there anyone who couldn’t believe that God could be black?

The final song was a poignant Phillips arrangement of a much-loved Italian song by de Andre, Creuza de Ma. Lodder's spacey piano moved back and forth from major to minor, in a rocking motion expressing the sea. Benni joined on the chorus, the bass underpinning the lines beautifully, before the band burst into a final dancey rock groove.

To quote a character from one of Benni's novels: ‘ I never want that which ends well to end at all.’ But it hasn't ended, because Sardinia, with its atmosphere of warmth and vivacity, is coming to London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club in November. Hats off to Nicola Spiga of ‘Forma e Poesia nel Jazz’ and Ross Dines of Pizza Express, for bringing together this mélange of the two cultures: romance, fun, satire, fine music, powerful performers, jazz from island to island.

My Jazz Islands Part 2: Nov. 11-13, Pizza Express, Dean Street, London, with Giorgio Serci, Adriano Adewale, Filomena Campus Qt., Paolo Fresu, Cleveland Watkiss, Stefano Benni.

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