CD Review: Alessandro Scala Quartet - Viaggio Stellare

Alessandro Scala Quartet - Viaggio Stellare
(Schema Records. SCCD 466. CD review by Andrew Cartmel

Italy is a hotbed of jazz. There’s nothing new about that — the scene was thriving long before Chet Baker settled there in 1959 (and was busted for possession in 1960). And the latest manifestation of the impressive Italian affinity for the music is this robust CD by sax man Alessandro Scala and his usual quartet, supplemented here by Fabrizio Bosso on trumpet and flugelhorn and Roberto Rossi on trombone. The gifted Scala also wrote all the tunes on the disc, except one.

The title (translating as 'Stellar Travel') suggests we’re in for a Sun Ra style cosmic excursion, but instead it’s a hard bop outing with a strong vein of soul. Above all, though, the benign spectre of Coltrane presides over the recording. Coltrane at his most upbeat and accessible.

The opener Mood might just as well be entitled ‘Mode’, recalling as it does Miles Davis’s early modal excursions in the days when Coltrane was his sideman. Pianist Nico Menci and Paolo Ghetti on double bass lay down the groove before the horns and reeds come in. Scala is noteworthy here for the piercing sweetness of his soprano sax and it’s also a feature for Rossi’s virile, murmuring trombone. An insinuating hook keeps the energy level up in the tune as the musicians explore the piece, like detectives scouring a crime scene, while Stefano Paolini keeping proceedings moving with his unobtrusive drums.

Dexter Blues sees Paolini’s drums in the foreground and Scala’s brash, probing groove on the tenor shadowed by Nico Menci’s piano, before the sax drops back and the piano steps out and solos, jumping nimbly between stepping stones of sound. There is a fascinating alternate version of this tune, presented as the last track on the CD, on which Scala plays soprano sax instead of tenor, in a manner reminiscent of Yusef Lateef in Eastern mode, and Menci brilliantly substitutes an electronic Wurlitzer keyboard for his piano. The two versions of the track present a captivating study in contrasts — and I’d be hard pressed to chose my favourite.

On Viaggio Stellare Nico Menci is to the fore again with plangent piano but the real star on this stellar journey is Fabrizio Bosso who plays trumpet with chiselled clarity. Marcha Para Oeste (‘March to the West') is light hearted, with a looping, catchy theme and a touch of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever to it. A cheerful and freewheeling Scala blows joyously while the lush, liberated double bass of Paolo Ghetti is a particular feature, which makes sense since Ghetti also wrote the piece.

The fondly named Jazz Club is a gospel inflected number which finds Scala wailing, preaching and testifying, repeatedly hitting peaks on his tenor as though energetically scribbling graffiti on a wall — though that doesn’t begin to convey the organisation and beauty of the piece. He hands over to Fabrizio Bosso on swift and fluent flugelhorn and then Nico Menci, who plays the warmest and most mellow of piano, still busily producing ideas on the fade out. (Menci also distinguishes himself with funky Fender Rhodes on the appropriately named Lemon Funk.)

Sognare Ad Occhi Aperti ('Daydreaming') is a particular treat with Scala conjuring childhood innocence on his soprano, which floats over a soft cushion provided by Roberto Rossi’s trombone, Menci’s rolling piano chords and the restrained, ticking precision of Stefano Paolini’s drums. Fabrizio Bosso is unusually gentle on trumpet and Paolo Ghetti’s thoughtful, playfully plucked bass is outstanding — though he goes on to surpass himself on the lovely, upbeat My Sound.

This joyful, endlessly listenable CD is released by the Italian label Schema, who until recently were best known to me for their fine reissue program of classic European jazz (often on vinyl). This is further evidence of their strength in also producing original music.

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