Review: Hal Willner: Nino Rota Amarcord (LJF)

Hal Willner: Nino Rota Amarcord
(The Barbican, November 22nd 2013- LJF. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Hal Willner is a music producer and impresario who has presided over some of the most fascinating musical projects of the last three decades. He specialises in albums celebrating the work of great musicians — Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill — or key cultural figures, from Walt Disney to William Burroughs. These albums characteristically feature a magnificent diversity of musical talent paying tribute in often off-the-wall ways.

One of the most successful of these was the very first, Amarcord, a celebration of the music of Nino Rota. The title means 'I remember' in the dialect of Emilia Romagna. Rota was a distinguished Italian composer, notably of film music, perhaps most famous for his work with Fellini. The album, recorded in 1981, offered interpretations of the Fellini scores and on it Willner drew remarkable arrangements and performances from a marvellous group of jazz (and indeed pop) musicians. Now the Barbican has imaginatively revived and supplemented the original project, live on stage for this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

The big ensemble — orchestra, really — was a star studded collective of such virtuosity that even their tune-up sounded good. A full list of players will conclude this piece, but any band boasting Steve Swallow on electric bass and Alec Dankworth on double bass and Nitin Sawhney, Carla Bley and Rita Marcotulli on piano should get the hairs on the back of your neck stirring.

O Venezia, Venaga, Venusia (from Fellini’s Casanova) was arranged by Giancarlo Vulcano and conjured a wistful swaying with delicate reeds, pensive brass and sighing strings. Interjections from the muted trumpets — Steven Bernstein in particular embarking on what was to be an outstanding evening of playing — and Emma Black’s expert plucking on the cello added to the mesmerising mood, all underpinned by the dreamy menace of Alec Dankworth’s upright bass.

Amarcord was arranged by Italian jazz pianist Rita Marcotulli, based on the arrangement and performance on the original album by Jaki Byard. The piano intro was discursive and searching, darkly jaunty, before the trombones came in providing a noir-ish crime wave, played by Barnaby Dickinson and Andy Wood. On drums Ian Thomas cut loose, unleashing the rest of the ensemble with an easy, driving beat. Rowland Sutherland’s gorgeous, piercing flute rode over the rhapsodic, abstract piano, followed by Kate St John’s gentle yet forceful statement on the oboe. The mood was of a sad funhouse, a haunted circus, with dappled, falling notes before the ensemble gathered together the varied strands for a strong ending.

John Etheridge came decisively to the fore in I Vitelloni, arranged by Kate St John, another one of the Rota pieces added to the repertoire for tonight’s performance. Etheridge’s guitar offered giant, chunky, plangent chords, echoed by Steven Bernstein on melancholy muted trumpet. With Ian Thomas playing shuffle drums and Kate St John’s sinuous, sweet cor anglais they began to get the audience going like a futuristic Hot Club of Paris. Steven Bernstein and Kate St John were both superb and Etheridge was no slouch, either. Bittersweet, spooky and very hip. Etheridge then played Tema di Gitone (from Satyrcon) as a concise, Spaghetti Western-style solo.

Giulietta Degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) arranged by Michael Gibbs, based on the arrangement and performance on the original album by Bill Frisell, was a feature for Steve Swallow and the outstanding string section, Vince Green, Max Baillie and Anna De Bruin, who played with delicacy, precision and great feeling. They evoked a floating mood, rising and falling like a curtain wafting in the breeze through an open window.

Selecting highlights from such wall to wall quality is difficult, but one certainly was Il Bidone, arranged by Steve Beresford, on which Etheridge's guitar was supplemented and doubled by BJ Cole on pedal steel, giving an extraordinary science fiction sound, almost Theremin-like in its tuneful eeriness. It evoked both a cosmic melancholy and Looney Tunes cartoons before transforming into rich Hawaiian style exotica. Hugh Wilkinson’s vibes provided punctuation as tectonic plates of mood and sound shifted.

And special mention must be reserved for arranged by Carla Bley, who had arranged and performed it on the original album. With tumbling-clown brass and snarky trombones, featuring a swaggering solo by Barnaby Dickinson, it developed into a high wire act between Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Bley’s silent-movie melodrama piano and Karen Mantler’s stabbing, sweet electric organ which transformed into aurora borealis swathes of colour. Sam Mayne was outstanding on alto, proffering gentle insinuations that turned into bold assertions while Dai Pritchard’s memorable clarinet contributed to a tour de force of transformed moods

Carla Bley and Karen Mantler returned for The Godfather, the only Rota tune in the program that didn’t derive from a Fellini film, in an arrangement by Karen Mantler. Barnaby Dickinson’s startled, throbbing trombone intro gradually teased out the melody as Karen Mantler joined in on harmonica: bluesy, beautiful and eloquent. Carla Bley played skeletal piano, her reverberating trills adroitly shaping that so-familiar theme. Julian Siegel on tenor played a despairing, lush, seductive solo with bebop decorations while Karen Mantler’s harmonica sobbed in sympathy. Mantler’s arrangement was a staggering piece of work, its alertness to the colours of the orchestra quite stunning.

At the end of the concert, amid much applause, Hal Willner took the stage. Someone shouted from the audience, “Where do we get a copy?” And Willner dryly explained that the album had been recorded over thirty years ago, “And it’s been out of print for twenty.” Well, it’s high time it came back into print. And while we’re at it, someone should release a supplementary album preserving the splendid wealth of new material that was created for this evening.

Full list of performers: Steve Swallow (electric bass), Alec Dankworth (double bass), Ian Thomas (drums), Hugh Wilkinson (percussion), Nitin Sawhney, Carla Bley, Rita Marcotulli (piano), Karen Mantler (glockenspiel, organ, harmonica), John Etheridge (guitar), BJ Cole (lap steel), Rowland Sutherland (flute), Sam Mayne (alto saxophone), Julian Siegel (tenor saxophone) Kate St John (oboe and cor anglais), Dai Pritchard (clarinet), Steven Bernstein, Tom Rees Roberts (trumpet), Barnaby Dickinson, Andy Wood (trombone), Andy Grappa (tuba), Vince Green (viola), Max Baillie, Anna De Bruin (violin), Emma Black (cello), Marc Almond, Richard Strange (vocals).

Arrangers: Giancarlo Vulcano, Rita Marcotulli, Kate St John, Steve Beresford, Michael Gibbs, Carla Bley, Karen Mantler, Steven Bernstein, Nitin Sawhney.

Conductors: Giancarlo Vulcano, Mike Gibbs, Steve Beresford, Steven Bernstein

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