Nino Rota was a composer who stretched the imagination, though he was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a jazz composer. Classically trained, at the Milan conservatoire and Rome's Santa Cecilia academy, Rota composed ten operas, five ballets and a great amount of orchestral and chamber music. He counted Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini among his friends and admirers, and was enough of a modernist to include Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method in his palette.
But Rota is best remembered for his work for the cinema. And there is a lot of it. From the 1930s until his death in 1979, aged 67, he wrote scores for over one hundred and fifty films, among them landmark works by the Italian directors Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and, from 1952 until the late 1970s, Federico Fellini. These include the scores for Fellini's Lo Sceicco Bianco, I Vitelloni, La Strada, Il Bidone, Le Notti Di Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, Otto Y Messo, 8½, Giuletta Degli Spiriti, Amarcord and Il Casanova Di Fellini. The bond between Fellini and Rota was so strong that, when Fellini died in 1993, his widow had Rota's "Improvviso Dell'Angelo" performed at the funeral.
There is an appreciation of Rota, written by Fellini in 1981, in the liner booklet of Warner Jazz's excellent anthology, Collector Nino Rota. Any single CD can only skim across the surface of Rota's work, touching down occasionally and briefly, but whoever chose the tracks on this one did a good job. The album includes music from all the Fellini movies listed above, and others by Visconti, Eduardo De Filippo and the French director René Clément. Most of the selections are main title themes and five of them feature vocalist Katyna Ranieri, who sang entrancingly on Rota/Fellini soundtracks from the mid 1950s until the late 1970s.
The album kicks off with the theme music from Filippo's 1958 comedy, Fortunella. You may not have seen the movie, but you have almost certainly heard the tune, for Rota used it note-for-note as the theme ("Love Song") for Francis Ford Coppola's blockbuster The Godfather (1972). Collector Nino Rota then winds back to Lo Sceicco Bianco (1953) and proceeds chronologically up until Il Casanova Di Fellini (1976). The album ends with "Valse Del Commiato" from Visconti's Il Gattopardo (1963).
Rota's music has been covered by many jazz musicians. Producer/arranger Hal Willner's tribute album, Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal, 1981), is recommended, and includes trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
There are, too, complete soundtrack albums for many of the films mentioned above, and all are worth listening to. Rota wrote beautiful, haunting main title themes, but his in-film music is just as engaging.
"When I'm creating at the piano," Rota once said, "I tend to feel happy. But, the eternal dilemma: how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music."
Tracks: Melodia Per Fortunella; La Sceicco Bianco; I Vittelloni; La Strada (theme); La Strada (Gelsomina); Il Bidone; Le Notti Di Cabria; Plein Soleil; La Dolce Vita (finale); La Dolce Vita (theme); Terra Lontana; Otto E Mezzo; Giulietta Degli Spiriti; Amarcord; Casanova; Valse Del Commiato.