LP Review: Piero Umiliani - Il Marchio di Kriminal

Piero Umiliani - Il Marchio di Kriminal
(Cinedelic Records CNPD003. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Italian composer, arranger and keyboard wizard Piero Umiliani (1926-2001) will probably be forever remembered for his groovy wordless vocal composition Mah-Nà Mah-Nà, which was so memorably covered by the Muppets. What is less widely known is that he was one of the leading lights of the Italian jazz scene. Like many of his compatriots he subsidised his jazz habit through his prolific film score work. Piero Umiliani conspicuously combined both these areas of music when he collaborated with the likes of Helen Merrill, Gato Barbieri and, most notably, Chet Baker. Umiliani worked with him on a number of soundtracks for Italian movies — and Nicolas Pillai has written about these for LondonJazz News  here.

Regrettably Chet wasn’t available to play on Il Marchio di Kriminal a low budget screen thriller of the kind known in Italy as a giallo — a reference to the lurid yellow covers of the pulp magazines that defined the genre. Made in 1968 and directed by Fernando Cerchio, it was the third in a successful film series. Fragments of a map hidden in a porcelain figurine, final death-leaps from an architectural site in Beirut, that kind of thing. Previous instalments had featured excellent scores by Roberto Pregadio and Romano Mussolini — that’s right, Il Duce’s son, and no mean jazz pianist — but it’s with this entry that the series hits its musical peak. Long thought lost, the master tapes containing the music were recently discovered in the composer’s archives and are now available to the public, on vinyl no less. Combining jazz with 1960s beats and a hint of bossa, the score is a classic of its kind and a potential 21st Century lounge music hit.

Working on soundtracks was a largely anonymous task. The tracks on this record don’t even have individual titles, just sequence numbers. And the names of the musicians who played on it have not survived. However, we know they would have been the elite of the jazz and session scenes at the time, and given the date of the film we can make some educated guesses about who played what. The piano will be by Umiliani himself, naturally. The wonderful Hammond organ that pervades the piece could also be by Umiliani, but at this date it is likely to be by Antonello Vannuchi who was also adroit on vibes, which play a major role here. The equally groovy guitar is almost certainly Enzo Grillini, while the other regular members of Umiliani’s rhythm section,Giovanni Tommaso on bass and Bruno Biriaco on drums, are a pretty good bet. The trumpet, sadly not by Chet Baker, might be the great Italian soloist Oscar Valdambrini. Tenor sax could be the equally renowned Gianni Basso but, given the period, might even be the aforementioned Gato Barbieri.

The album begins with tight drumming, a mirage-haze of strings and a blaze of electric guitar and Hammond organ. The bopping, serpentine, wordless female vocals that are a trademark of the score leave their stamp almost immediately. Edda Dell’Orso was the most famous exponent of this craft, and her sensuous voice may well be in the mix here.

On Sequence 2 chiming bells, angst-ridden strings and eerie gongs give a trippy winding-down feeling that takes us down into sinister territory where maracas suggest a rattlesnake about to strike. The beautiful whistling which features throughout makes its debut, woven around the Hammond. Identifying the whistler is relatively easy, since the virtuosic Alessandro Alessandroni was the go-to guy for such effects. (You will have heard him on Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores.) Then the scat vocals and Hammond perform a seduction routine which devolves into African style percussion and the flute once again emphatically distinguishes itself. Sequence 8, which wraps up Side 1, is a master class in percussion, notably using what sounds like a bamboo guiro shaker.

If the first side of the album is a crazed sixties classic, the second is a tour de force of melody and mood. We have the sexiest of scat vocals, which seem to tremble on the edge of meaning, about to form warm words. Bongos and precision vibes lay the groundwork for the Hammond and then, in a juxtaposition that’s worthy of Charles Ives, Spanish style guitar and trumpet. Latin inflected flute restores normality before the most romantic of saxophone and lounge piano play a club ballad in Sequence 10 which seems to cry out for a torch singer and indeed appears to be a quote from the jazz standard Everything Happens to Me. Minatory Hammond and trembling bongos remind us we’re in a suspense movie, though, and menacing metronomic guitar, guiro and electric bass hypnotically lure us towards our doom, before the propulsive, boogying Hammond and lighter-than-air flute come to the rescue.

The record, and presumably the movie, ends with rapturous exotica vibes and high pitched electric organ combining with a snake charmer’s flute to lull the listener before a full-on attack of guitar, drums and brass. Mysterious Twilight Zone runs on the Hammond chill us one last time before things get hip again. The organ parades with an echoing fade, as the music disappears down a nocturnal alley, literally whistling in the dark, like an insouciant stray cat, tail twitching arrogantly.

As the illustration above reveals, Il Marchio di Kriminal has been released on vinyl in the form of an eye-popping picture disc. The received audiophile wisdom is that only pure black vinyl has the best sound and that coloured or picture discs are a no-no. This release decisively puts that theory back on the shelf. The record is noise free, cleanly defined and dynamic with excellent sound. A great listening experience. Also available on CD (Beat Records CDCR107).

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