Few would argue against Bill Frisell
's status as one of the most singular and influential guitarists/composers since around 1980. And yet, the Baltimore-born musician remains something of an enigma: easy to admire but a tad more difficult to pin down. Instantly recognizable from just a handful of notes, Frisell is, at the same time, a musical polyglot, the breadth of whose musicparticularly his myriad collaborationsis perhaps unparalleled. How best then to approach his music?
The Unscientific Italians, an eleven-piece led by Alfonso Santimone
, explore Frisell's music of the late '80s and early '90s, in the main, which likely reflects the timeline of Santimone's introduction to Frisell's music rather than, say, the adoption of a more scientific approach. A case, perhaps, of stick to what you know best. That also goes for the personnel, a close-knit ensemble of some of Italy's current trailblazers, all of whom play in each other's projects. This familiarity with the material and with the tools at his disposal seems to be key to Santimone's approach to Frisell's idiosyncratic soundscapes.
Occupying a dynamic and fluid space somewhere between a rogue big band, a crafty chamber ensemble and a swinging small combo, the Unscientific Italians immerse themselves deeply in Frisell's harmonic and melodic world from the get-go, with a delicately intricate weave of horns on "Before We Were Born"; at just over a minute, the brevity of this fine sonic tapestry belies the complexity of the chart, where the music seems to be rising and falling simultaneously.
With Frisell's music there is often a sense of shadow play, where pretty melodies and altogether darker tonalities are two sides of the same coin. This emotive ambiguity is one of the cornerstones of the Unscientific Italians' handling of his music, notably on "Probability Cloud," whose edgy introcolored by deft electronicsand sombre counterpoint contrast with the joyous freedom in the ensuing solos and in the buoyant rhythms plied by double bassist Danilo Gallo
and drummer Zeno De Rossi
The eleven-piece casts a hypnotic spell on the slow-burning "Unsung Heroes," where mantra-like groove, wicked polyphony and bluesy improvisations make for a potent brew. Polyphonic maelstrom also colors the manic "Hangdog," which conveys the curious sensation of a meticulous score masquerading as improvisation...or vice versa. Santimone's charts are complex, an inevitable consequence of the number of individual voices that he combines, but the inherent simplicityand therein the beautyof Frisell's melodies are never sacrificed at the altar of innovation.
Instrumentation is central to the Unscientific Italians' originality, with saxophones and trumpets joined by French horns, flugelhorns and trombones, while piano is only sparingly used. Bass clarinet and French horn provide a dark underbelly to the cheery melody of "Rob Roy." A collective lull, pregnant with the possibility of a greater mystery to unfold, instead gives way to a scorching saxophone solo that drags the ensemble into explosive, big band lift-off.
Brushes and bass gently guide the elegant "Twenty Years," a slow waltz that veers between trio intimacy and painterly, chamber-esque sonorities. Ever present, however, is the space to breathe, an element that defines Frisell's music as much as anything. The band injects pep into the melodically bright "Verona," accentuating the original's rhythmic groove with a raft of riffing horns. It sounds like everyone is having a ball, all dished up, of course, with the greatest respect in the world.
A wonderful, multi-layered homage to Frisell, The Unscientific Italians starts where Frisell left off, taking his music and shaping it into something fresh and vital. With Volume 2 on the nascent Hora Records seemingly a given, the Unscientific Italians seems set for the long haul. It will be fascinating to see how the Unscientific Italians might tackle Frisell's later works, though we may have to wait for Volume 3 or 4, however, for an unscientific trip to Frisell-filtered Nashville. Now, wouldn't that be a blast?
Before We Were Born; Probability Cloud; Unsung Heroes; Hangdog; Rob Roy; Twenty Years; Verona.
Alfonso Santimone: live electronics on clarinets; Mirco Rubegni: flugelhorn, French horn; Fulvio Sigurtà: flugelhorn;
Cristiano Arcelli: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Piero Bittolo Bon: clarinet, bass clarinet; Francesco Bigoni: clarinet,
live electronics on brass; Rossano Emili: bass clarinet;