Piacentini-Bonati-McCandless-Moreno: Circles

John Kelman By

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Today's Rediscovery will be a challenge for most; few will have heard of the record, and of those that have, even fewer will actually own it. Circles' biggest draw may be Paul McCandless—the reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist who has, with Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, performed with the genre-busting Oregon since its inception 45 years ago. But the balance of the album's quartet—a trio of Italian musicians including keyboardist Mario Piacentini, bassist Roberto Bonati and drummer Tony Moreno—may have been less known at the time of Circles' release on the Italian Nuevo label in 1991, but in the ensuing years have participated in enough contexts to have brought them at least some degree of international exposure.

Bonati may be the most visible of the bunch outside his native country, having been a longtime collaborator with Gianluigi Trovesi, notably as a member of the clarinetist/saxophonist's Ottetto (octet) last heard on Fugace (ECM, 2003), in addition to releasing a series of albums under his own name (many recorded at the double bassist's annual Parma Frontiere jazz festival) including the elegant trio record Bianco il vestito nel buio (ParmaFrontiere, 2013). Moreno—of Italian descent but born in Manhattan—has appeared on recordings by Marc Mommaas, Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough, while Piacentini has forged a career as a leader that includes the recent Néant (Incipit, 2014)—which, featuring Trovesi, Bonati, drummer Marco Tonin, Norwegian saxophonist Tor Yttredal and (another name known to ECM fans for his work with pianist Misha Alperin) French hornist Arkady Shilkloper, delivered one of the best performances at the 2014 Mai Jazz Festival in Stavanger, Norway.

But here, with Circles—recorded 13 years prior in the winter of 1991—Piacentini, Bonati and Moreno capitalize on chemistry already developed as a trio on Frozen Pool (Splasc(H)), released two years earlier. Adding McCandless to the mix was an inspired choice, and one that not only serves the Italian trio but McCandless as well, by placing him in a context that doesn't just lean on the Euro-centric approach that will give Circles plenty of appeal to fans of classic '70s/'80s ECM recordings by artists ranging from Art Lande and Arild Andersen to Jan Garbarek and Bobo Stenson (not to mention fans of McCandless' flagship group Oregon). Circles also has much to offer those more aligned to the American tradition, with one example being Bonati's fiery modal workout "Babìa la Magia," where Bonati and Moreno swing furiously behind Piacentini (who delivers his most impressive piano solo of the set) and McCandless, who, at that time, had often demonstrated plenty of passion with Oregon, but rarely this kind of fire. Clearly this quartet possesses plenty of breadth—and a healthy irreverence for artificial boundaries cultural, geographical and musical.

With Piacentini also contributing electric keyboards to the date, pieces like "Susansong"—the 55-minute album's longest track at just shy of ten minutes—possess a distinct vibe, in this case supported by a layer of synths over which Moreno's composition begins in a pastoral space not unlike Oregon's then-relatively recent inclusion of electronics, with McCandless soaring over a lengthy rubato passage with cued changes leading to a more time-based middle section, where Moreno's textural playing turns more grounded. An ostinato-based passage provides an even more energetic opportunity for McCandless, bolstered by Moreno's sharp punctuations and anchored by Bonati's Charlie Haden-like penchant for choosing relatively few notes over many, but always seeming capable of finding precisely the right ones...and the right number, too, with none too few and never too many.

With compositional duties split relatively evenly amongst Piacentini, Bonati and Moreno (three, three and two, respectively), along with the group-credited title track which evokes Oregon's similar ability to not just freely improvise, but to spontaneously compose, Circles is an album that was largely overlooked at the time—other than, perhaps, in its native Italy. My copy was found buried deep in a bargain bin at the HMV store on St. Catherine Street in Montréal a few years after it was released—and for under $5.00. For an Oregon fan it was an instant buy—an exciting prospect, despite having no idea who anyone else was at the time.

But in many ways,Circles has turned out to be a very personal recording. At the time of purchase, I'd already met McCandless on more then one occasion, performing with Oregon in Montréal in the late '70s/early 80s prior to 39 year-old percussionist Collin Walcott's tragic death in a 1984 car accident while on tour in Europe; and thanks to Norway's JazzNorway in a Nutshell initiative—where I was invited to the country for exposure to its richly diverse culture (musical and otherwise) between 2008 through 2011, I came to know Bonati not just as a musician but as a friend. I finally came to meet Piacentini at Mai Jazz in 2014, where he performed the music of Néant; it was a brief meeting but, along with bandmates Trovesi, Bonati, Yttredal, Shilkloper and Tonin, a memorable one. It was only upon returning home that, remembering Circles, I pulled it out and discovered just what an esteemed group of Italian musicians participated on a recording I'd originally bought solely on the strength of McCandless alone.

Now, armed with a new pair of Tetra listening instruments, Circles sounds even better then it did back in the '90s; an album of DNA-level chemistry and structurally deep compositions that nevertheless remain open to any and all possibilities by this group of fearless improvisers, it's now possible to experience it as the musicians must have in the control booth of Milan's Cetra Art Recording studio. Circles may be a tough record to locate, but for those who don't mind a challenge, Circles is an album that will reward some internet sleuthing...an album well worth Rediscovery for those who managed to find it at the time, and a tremendous first-time discovery for those new to its rich and varied charms.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you know this record, and if so, how do you feel about it?

[Note: You can read the genesis of this Rediscovery column here.]

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