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Tonino Montella’s All by Myself begins peculiarly (with a recorded broadcast about Medicare) and grows more peculiar as it progresses. The opening acoustic number, “If Someone Would Only Love Me,” changes abruptly and unexpectedly into a loping Bill Evans-like conversation with multiple solo overdubs that include banjo, flange/wah-wah electric guitar, and a violently picked acoustic. Instead of enriching the song, however, these polyphonic elements have the opposite effect. There is simply too much empty space between them. The song therefore seems to lack cohesion, as if built from disparate parts using a wobbly frame.
Then comes the tender Tex-Mex rendition of “Just a Gigolo,” practically over before it begins, and the even briefer rendition of Louis Bonfi’s “Black Orpheus.” It gives the impression that Montella’s lyre is not as charmed as it is simply laconic. And this idea isn’t countered by the guitarist’s own tongue-in-cheek, conga line anthem “Eurydice,” which is appropriately thematic but equally as fleeting.
Another shift comes with the title track. Here Montella combines his multifarious musical influences to give this Irving Berlin chart a clever gypsy-cum-bluegrass treatment, just before plucking his way into his subdued original “Per Francesco.” This spices up the Mediterranean musical idiom of Montella’s native Italy with a few lazy guitar drawls straight out of the American West. The “I’m in the Mood for Love/Well You Needn’t” medley is yet another odd pairing, this time blending Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Field’s suave love ballad with Monk’s flippant, nose-thumbing tune. Montella makes it work, but only by moving into a very different mode of expression than he has exhibited so far on the disc. With so many changes and backtrackings, it should be no surprise that when the album closer arrives, Montella has abandoned the whole premise of solitude and self-sufficiency and accepted the company of Francesco Forti for a very traditional performance of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sweet Substitute.”
Montella has a highly idiosyncratic style that ought to attract as many listeners as it deters. He plays like a temperamental lover, wrestling, tugging, smacking and yanking the guitar as often as he strokes and caresses it, often within the space of just a few bars. I find this technique tends to get in the way of the music, diverting the listener’s focus from the aural to the physical. The emphasis falls less on the music and more on the act of playing. This may greet some ears as refreshing; more urgent, perhaps. But it seems to me rather like a selection of excellent poems that asks the reader to notice the typeface and paper quality over the lasting intangible impact of the words on the page.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.