In order to thrive as an independent jazz label, you've got to have a philosophy. It may be as broad as an overall aesthetic or as refined as a specific genre. Certain artists will draw fans to whatever label they're onKeith Jarrett, for example, brings a lot of listeners to ECM. But to transcend individual musicians on a roster and engender a true brand loyalty that entices people to check out releases through trust in what the label is aboutthat requires a clear concept.
Over the past few years the Italian EGEA label has emerged with a commitment to exploring the meeting place between jazz and a Mediterranean aesthetic, bringing Italian artists together with those from farther abroad. The emphasis may be on established and emerging Italian artists like pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi; but one is equally apt to find them in collaboration with players like British pianist John Taylor and American bassist Marc Johnson.
On his last EGEA release, 2004's Oltremare, saxophonist Pietro Tonolo brought together two compatriotspianist Riccardo Zegna and bassist Piero Leverattowith American drummer Paul Motian. The programme of original compositions demonstrated Tonolo's ability to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the abstract, informed more by European impressionism than a Mediterranean folk tradition. On Italian Songs he brings together an international ensemble, focusing on the work of a number of Italian writers. The American jazz tradition and European classicism are represented here, but so too is a clear ethnicity.
Part of it has to do with instrumentation. Pianist Gil Goldstein adds an underlying lyricism and harmonic richness, lending the straight-ahead swinger "Non Mi Dire Chi Sci and tender ballad "E La Chiamano Estate undeniable jazz credibility. But on the melancholy "...E Penso a Te he layers an accordion track that instantly draws the American and Italian traditions together. On "Almeno tu Nell'Universo, a duet featuring his accordion with Tonolo's soaring soprano, the two bring together folkloric ambience with a more abstract classical impressionism, bringing to mind the cosmopolitan yet Italian-centric work of reed player Gianluigi Trovesi and accordionist Gianni Coscia.
Drummer Joe Chambers relies on a more straightforward approach, contrasting Motian's more textural work on Oltremare. His lithe sense of swing defines the waltz of "Senza Fine and the light bossa of "Metti Una Sera a Cena, along with Essiet Okun Essiet's robust and ever-dependable bass lines. He's also comfortable veering towards more experimental territory on the mercurial "Terra Mia, featuring Tonolo exploring uncharacteristic extremes, and layers vibraphone on the poignant "Pensantodi for added color.
Tonolo's virtuosity is tempered by a melody-rich approach that stays close to the center, despite the occasional hint that he's clearly capable of moving farther afield. Certainly Goldstein, Essiet, and Chambers have proven themselves equally at ease with more outré contexts over their long careers. But the ambience of Italian Songs is one of soft edges and smooth surfaceseasy on the ears but multilayered enough to continue revealing on repeat listens.
Personnel: Pietro Tonolo: tenor and soprano saxophones; Gil Goldstein: piano, accordion; Essiet Okun Essiet: double-bass; Joe Chambers: drums, vibraphone.