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Stefano Maltese is an accomplished Italian saxophonist who recorded a marvelous album in 1995, Double Mirror, featuring the "free music" giants Evan Parker and Keith Tippett. This time around he takes up soprano sax, alto sax, and (in a new addition) bass clarinet, but the rest of the instrumentation is rather more unusual: he's joined by the formidable bassist Paul Rogers (credited here with playing a "5-string bass"), pianist Sophia Domancich, and the world-class percussionist Antonio Moncada, along with French horn and flugelhorn player Arkady Shilkloper and vocalist Gioconda Cilio, who doubles on percussion.
This sextet works together extremely well, dancing at the boundaries of the jazz idiom as it is conventionally understood, freely experimenting with forms and harmonies without ever lapsing into grating or tiresome clichés. Maltese shows himself to be a composer to be reckoned with on these ensemble sections. But there's plenty of space for the soloists, as much of the album follows a rather conventional solo-turns format, although all the musicians comment at various points on the work of the soloist in action. Cilio, a highly evocative and multi-talented singer in the grand tradition of Maggie Nichols, Julie Tippett and Lauren Newton, is perhaps most effective in this supporting capacity, particularly when ensemble sections are being played out. She makes full use of the possibilities of the voice to communicate, from beautiful sung lines to abstract coloristic effects. Shilkloper has a gorgeous tone on both of his instruments, as does Domancich on piano, and both have a ! keenly developed melodic sensibility that leads them into a large number of delightful places. Maltese is somewhat more impassioned (as on his extended soprano solo on the opening and longest track, "Words - Two Colours") but never strays far from accessible melodicism. Rogers, meanwhile, is an extraordinary bassist whose work here is so consistently ear-catching as to make one long for him to do a solo album.
This is a good disc to give to someone who doubts the musical possibilities of "free" improvised music. An unerringly pleasant and uniformly well-executed feast of fine music.