The jazz stylings of Italian trumpeter and flugelhornist Enrico Rava, much like that of his Polish counterpart Tomasz Stanko, are a synthesis 1950s Miles Davis and Chet Baker transformed through the fifty years that have elapsed since the release of the first sides which would become Birth of the Cool and the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartets through the redefining Kind of Blue. It is music that the pedestrian listener would define as jazz based on his or her encounter with countless film noir soundtracks: the frenetic balance between white-hot virtuosity and heroin-cool balladry.
Enrico Rava incorporates these characteristics into his two most recent CAM Jazz releases, La Dolce Vita, an Italian film soundtrack album he shares billing with the great Giovanni Tommaso and Full of Life, where the trumpeter leads his current working quartet. The discs differ in approach, mostly because of the subject matter, but also the active participants. There does exist a common thread passing through both discs and that thread is the leader himself. Rava's vision is pleasantly conservative, guaranteeing an equally pleasant listening experience. Each demonstrates the depth an accomplished artist reaches while painting within the lines of a given jazz genre.
La Dolce Vita
It was bassist Giovanni Tommaso who was initially approached with a proposed two disc survey of Italian film music as seen through the jazz prism. La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life is the first of these recordings to be released, Secondo Tempo is the follow up). For La Dolce Vita, Tommaso assembled a quartet of Italy's jazz aristocracy (which is headed by the bassist). Drummer Roberto Gatto and pianist Stefano Bollani have been steadfast members of the Italian jazz community, performing with a variety of American and European artists. Trumpeter Enrico Rava, like Tommaso, is in a class by himself. His musical roots are easy to spot: Miles Davis and Chet Baker. His trumpet rarely extends beyond the middle register and he uses his vibrato sparingly. The result is the dry ice cool sound affected so well by Paul Desmond and early Art Pepper, except on the trumpet rather than the alto saxophone.
Rava's approach melds well with Tommaso's overall arrangement philosophy for the chosen pieces. La Dolce Vita contains precious little anxiety in its music. For example, the two leaders infuse the melodies wrought for Dino Risi's Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman, music by Armondo Trovaiola) and Michael Radford's Il Postino (The Postman, music by Luis Bacalov) with a languid pathos, one of relaxation and repose. Rava's approach is wholly melodic with simple lines where he finds "all the pretty notes. Rava is conservative with improvisation, never losing site of the melody which spawned his explorations. Tommaso exercises the leader's prerogative and allows himself considerable solo space. His lengthy introduction to "Il Postino and his solos on "Profumo di Donna and the title cut display Tommaso's elastic sense of time and rhythm. The ringer is in the keys. It is pianist Bollani who counters Rava and Tommaso with an improvisatory tension that keeps the music from slipping into a soporific exercise.
La Dolce Vita is perfectly summed in the title piece, the lengthiest cut on the disc. Essentially a suite, "La Dolce Vita effectively captures the spirit of Fellini and his landmark movie by including every stylistic jazz convention available to the musicians. One moment, the quartet is playing it straight with an almost candy swing and the next each musician plays as if from different galaxies. This piece also contains melodies that will be the most readily recognized. La Dolce Vita is a superbly conceived concept recording dispatched in an equally superb manner by Tommaso, Rava and company. It should prove to please even the most difficult and demanding listener. It is very listener friendly and should be included in several writers' "best of 2005 lists.
Full of Life
Full of Life reveals a different musical side of Enrico Rava, one devoid of the round, mid-register sepia tone of La Dolce Vita. Rava presents a bright and playful tone, one not afraid of taking chances, albeit those chances do not stray far from the mainstream.
On Full of Life, Enrico Rava is the sole leader of a pianoless, trumpet/saxophone-led quartet with a pronounced creative edge to it. Three standards and eight originals comprise the song list with the composing duties shared between Rava and reedsman Javier Girotto. The pliable rhythm section of bassist Ares Tavolazzi and Fabrizio Sferra provide the solo instruments both room and cushion, while being allowed generous solo time for themselves.
The opening piece, Rava's "Recuerdos, illustrates a facet of all band formats lacking harmony instrumentation (e.g., piano, guitar): the absolute requirement for competent arrangements. Rava and Girotto follow one another through the head arrangement in a way reminiscent of Miles Davis and John Coltrane on Gil Evans' seminal quintet arrangement of "'Round Midnight. The relationship of brass to reeds is one of counterpoint, each instrument touching the other at precise harmonic times. If this sounds oddly familiar, it should. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker made a cottage industry of the method 50 years previous. It was no mistake then that Mulligan was one of the finest arrangers working. He had to be to pull off what he did with his pianoless quartet. Now as then, the combo effect is one of careful craftsmanship, a delicate crochet of notes seemingly held together by nothing.
Rava continues the recital with an arresting take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top. The listener cannot help but think of Miles Davis' performance during his marathon 1956 Prestige sessions with his first great quintet before moving to Columbia. Rava's tone is too close; however, is approach is not. Rava drops notes, adds notes, until by the end of the head it is apparent what the song is. Girotto provides a bouncy baritone behind Rava and when the two trade solo places, Rava does the same. "Moonlight in Vermont gets much the same treatment, a beautiful ballad played beautifully.
Of the originals, Rava's "Visions proves most compelling with the introductory baritone figure building the foundation for a swinging conversation between brass and reeds. The rhythm section suspends the soloists without tethering their individual explorations. In fact, that may describe the approach to the entire recording and why it works as well as it does.
Read another review of Tommaso-Rava Quartet's La Dolce Vita.
Tracks and Personnel
La Dolce Vita
Tracks: Profumo Di Donna; Mondo Cane; Cinema Moderno; Ammazzare Il Tempo; Il Sogno Di Hitchcock; La Dolce Vita; Il Postino; L' Avventura; Il Prato; La Prima Volta; Cronaca Familiare.
Personnel: Enrico Rava: Trumpet & Flugelhorn; Stefano Bollani: Piano; Giovanni Tommaso: Contrabass; Roberto Gatto: Drums.
Full of Life
Tracks: Recuerdos; The Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Mystère; Miss Mg; Moonlight In Vermont; Boston April 15th; Happiness Is To Win A Big Prize In Cash; Nature Boy; Full Of Life; Visions; Miss Mg (Alternative Take).
Personnel: Enrico Rava: Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Javier Girotto: Baritone, Soprano Sax; Ares Tavolazzi: Double Bass; Fabrizio Sferra: Drums.