CD REVIEW: Tommaso Starace Quartet - Italian Short Stories

Tommaso Starace Quartet -  Italian Short Stories
(Emarcy 0602537863877. CD Review by Alison Hoblyn)

Everyone likes a good story - and this album contains fourteen of them, with pictures too.

Saxophonist Tommaso Starace is known for his love of cinema and photography and this new CD follows that passion by musically illustrating some intriguing black and white photos, displayed in the sleeve booklet. They're the work of esteemed Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Giardin, a man with an archive of about one and a half million images and recipient of the Lucie award for lifetime achievement (previously awarded to Henri Cartier-Bresson). And they're iconically Italian.

Starace admits that, although he has enjoyed the stimulus of living in London for the last 20 years, he's ' succumbed to a healthy homesickness and nostalgia for the memories of...childhood'. With his Italian quartet, Michele Di Toro, piano, Attilio Zanchi, bass, Tommy Bradaschio, drums with Paolo Fresu guesting on trumpet and flugelhorn, Starace has recorded some strong melodic compositions, 'in tune with the elements that make Italian music so famous throughout the world.' More, they're almost cinematic theme tunes and immensely evocative. Starace says that it was such a pleasure to choose the pictures of cities he grew up knowing..Milan, Venice, Naples... and make a tribute to these places; 'they bring peace to to me'. Starace majors on positive feelings. he wanted the whole album to make the listener feel good at the end and says when he plays he, and his colleagues, play for the audience not just for themselves. It works for me.

The album opens with Recollections, the soundtrack to a picture of a couple on the beach of the Venice Lido in 1958, dancing somewhat giddily to a portable gramophone. Starace imagined an old couple looking back fondly to the fun of their youth and there's a haunting melody that stitches present to future. In Motion in Stillness, the soprano sax of the piece reels and careers alongside the image of a whirling merry go round covered with the blurred images of children whilst the bass part tethers the solid and still form of the attendant priest who stands beside them. Starace says this image brought back childhood memories of the 'oratorio'- where children from religious families would go on the weekend, to learn their catechism and socialise with other kids under the benevolent eye of the Catholic father.

One of my favourites is actually not a Starace composition but by Zanchi. Ravel's Waltz is achingly poignant; the picture of a couple kissing under a Venetian portico shows them in the perspective of that moment - but what moment? Zanchi sees the couple about to set off on a waltz; I wonder if it's a goodbye, a last waltz? The instruments set up a dialogue - it's up to the listener to eavesdrop on the intimacy of the conversation...

Another tribute to Ravel comes with the reconfiguration of the evocative Adagio Assai from the Piano Concerto in G Major. The music is teamed with one of Gardin's most iconic photos - the hurrying figure of a woman seen from far above as she crosses St Mark's square, setting the dark silhouettes of pigeons flying. The musicianship is tender and you can believe it when Starace says that he and Michele Di Toro both love this music. Indeed the entire Concerto is being readied for performance soon by Di Toro. It's certainly a jazz piece you could take home to your mother; I can't see how it could fail to touch the stoniest heart.

More difficult for family acceptance might be the woman depicted in an image taken in Florence in 1998. Titled Sensually Deranged, Starace tells this as a story of a woman, once fun loving and lively but now with her mind damaged by booze and drugs. He uses a sensual, come-hither melodic theme for the introduction and conclusion; in the interim there are sustained notes on the alto sax, and points at which almost the whole band halts, to illustrate the woman's loss of lucidity. I heard an indolence, an apathy - just halting this side of despair.

And then there's Jamme; chaotic, dangerous - with Fresu on muted trumpet imitating the sound of the motorbike in the photograph. The final track is a sweet portrait of a little Neapolitan kid, his frailty emulated by soprano sax, with a backdrop of sounds recorded in Naples by Starace - the ice cream van clarion a part of many childhoods.

The album is well balanced with a mix of the joyously positive and the beautifully melancholic. There's more to discover the more you listen and you end up feeling you've been introduced to lives of intimacy and variety through these sound pictures.

Tommaso Starace begins a UK tour this Friday and he'll be playing many of the pieces from Italian Short Stories, illustrated by the photographs, in Oxford on December 5th and at King's Place on December 6th.

Tour Dates from website:

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