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Roberto Bonati: Macbeth and the Whale


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Italian bassist-composer Robert Bonati is one of the most ambitious and literate composers in contemporary jazz. Between 2000-2006, he released four ground-breaking extended works with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra. While they attracted notice in Italy, they seemed to pass by the wider jazz audience in Europe, North America and the Far East. If at one level, the issue was one of a lack of exposure, at another, the twin curses of conservatism and localism in jazz no doubt applied. The history of jazz is primarily that of a music outside, a music that challenges expectations. Enter stage left, Roberto Bonati, a composer of jazz beyond the margins.

It is no surprise that Bonati took his first degree in literature. His music frequently explores literary themes, drawing sustenance not just from the subject matter but from similar processes of narrative and story-telling. His work is dramatic, speaking often of tragedy and tragic figures. It is driven by a profound love of Italian elegiac poetry and by the music and language of his native Italy.

Bonati was born in October 1959 in Parma. He returned to Parma in 1996 after some thirty-five years living first in Rome and then in Milan. Since then, he has been the artistic director of the ParmaFrontiere Festival, as well as teaching bass and jazz composition in the Conservatorio di Musica-Arrigo Boito in Parma.

The bassist started out playing piano and rock guitar. Then, when he was eighteen years old, a jazz drummer friend played him a cassette of John Coltrane's "India." "I was really moved by the sound of the bass," he says. "I said, 'That is what I want to do. I want to play double bass.'" I came back to Milan and borrowed a broken-down bass from a German girl I knew, found a classical teacher and started my studies. But at the same time, I started to play jazz."

On completion of his degree in literature, Bonati undertook a music degree on double bass at the Conservatorio Vivaldi in Alessandria and studied with the first bassist in the Italian Radio and Television Orchestra in Turin. Equally important for his later work with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra were the private studies he took in composition and orchestral conducting with the highly-regarded conductor Kirk Trevor.

He played his first gig in 1981 and that summer attended the Siena Jazz Summer School, where he got to study with the great Bruno Tommaso. "At the time, the scene in Milan was very active," he explains. "So, I could play three or four times a week in jazz clubs and I got a lot of experience playing with some great musicians like Claudio Fasoli and Antonio Faro. I played with Paolo Fresu for a couple of years -we started together—and I played many, many times with Massimo Urbani."

For a while, Bonati had a trio with pianist Mario Piacentini and American drummer Anthony Moreno. Together they recorded three records, one with saxophonist Paul McCandless as a guest. Then, around the same time he started in Parma, he began working with Gianluigi Trovesi, playing in his octet, and also with that colossus of Italian jazz, pianist-composer Giorgio Gaslini. In fact, Bonati continued to work with Gaslini until his untimely death last year.

Bonati was, by that time, writing his own music and he formed a quartet with pianist Stefano Battaglia, saxophonist Riccardo Luppi and Anthony Moreno. They recorded their first CD Silent Voices in 1996, a busy year by any standards for the bassist. Silent Voices was a strong "modern-mainstream" debut but one which featured one or two more left-field deviations. All four musicians acquit themselves admirably. Bonati's arco bass adds both texture and drama to proceedings, whilst Luppi's Coltrane-influenced approach fits perfectly in this context. Anthony Moreno was already a fine drummer, though he had not yet developed the empathy and subtlety that would come to characterise his more recent work with Bonati. Stefano Battaglia was, perhaps, the star turn on this outing. Whether soloing or playing behind Luppi, his grasp of harmony is remarkable and the way he frames Luppi's sax or flute is one of the record's true joys. Compositionally, however, it is the two left-field pieces on Silent Voices that best suggest the composer that Bonati would soon become. "Tribal Dance in the Sacred Woods" has a strange pagan feel to it that recalls simultaneously Native American music but also Stravinsky's arrangement for two pianos of Rite of Spring, with its awkward and angular syncopations. If this track indicates Bonati's ability to create a sense of mood and place in music, the sonata-like "Lontano" reveals his effective use of thematic development in a jazz context. What happened next seems pivotal. "We started the ParmaFrontiere Festival Orchestra in 1996 and the following year we formed the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra," he tells me. "Our first performance was a version of Porgy and Bess [never released on CD]. The next year was Reve de Jongleur and every year we were able to spend one week together and perform a concert at the festival."

I ask how he came to decide upon the rather untypical instrumentation for the orchestra, with its violin/viola and cello, its emphasis on the higher register woodwinds such as oboe, soprano sax, clarinet and flute and just two brass instruments. "I wanted to have some kind of jazz instrumentation but also some kind of contemporary or classical sounds," Bonati explains, "coming from the European classical tradition, in a way. Then, we had drums and bass and, on the early records, electric guitar (Vincenzo Mingiardi), which gives these different electronic soundscapes and also Fulvio Maras with electronic percussion. So, I chose these musicians that I knew before the orchestra came to be formed, musicians with whom I had already collaborated many times —Riccardo Luppi, Stefano Battaglia, Anthony Moreno, Vincenzo Mingiardi. Fulvio Maras on percussion, trombone and tuba player Beppe Caruso and the cellist Marco Remondini were also in the Trovesi octet. Oboist Mario Arcari played my music a lot before. These were people who were already inside the family and, with Michael Gassman from Zurich, we had this very good trumpet player who could play in many musical languages with one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard."

The piano chair has been held by both Stefano Battaglia and Alberto Tacchini, whilst clarinetist Alessandro Benassi has been a constant presence. Other musicians have come into the family over the years, including clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi. And since Le Rêve du Jongleur, the wonderful Luciano Minetti has been the vocalist of choice. Le Rêve du Jongleur (or "The Troubadour's Dream") from 2000 is an absolute delight and draws extensively upon early and liturgical music. Bonati points out that his subject matter is the very origins of Western music and the coalescence of different influences from both "sacred and popular repertoires," which came together via routes of pilgrimage such as the Via Francigena.

"I made Le Rêve du Jongleur for the jubileum of 2000," he says, "with the focus on the music associated with pilgrimage in the middle ages from Canterbury to Rome. So, I took some melodies from France, Germany and England and I worked with these and I use, as well, a Gregorian choir, which sings on its own and sometimes with the orchestra." The suite, which mixes pieces from the 8th-14th centuries with Bonati's own compositions, was written for the ParmaJazz Frontiere Festival Orchestra along with the Choir of Schola Gregoriana del Coro Päer. One suspects that its ambition owes something to the example of Bonati's one-time boss Giorgio Gaslini, himself no friend of musical boundaries and no stranger to fraternization between the sacred and the profane. It is the unusual—for jazz—combinations of woodwinds, often played in higher registers, with violin, cello and bass and an expanded jazz rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass, drums and percussion that create the signature colours and textures of Bonati's work. The addition of voices here extends the palette, whether these are heard a cappella, as on "Veni Creator Spiritus," or accompanied, as on "O Lylium Convallium" and on the sumptuous "Gli Angeli di Ildegarda."

There is a wonderful sense of flow between these different aspects of Le Rêve du Jongleur. The movement between the organum of the opening "Veni Sanctus Spiritus" and Bonati's own "Spiritus in Terra" is quite perfect and shows how far this music is from pastiche. The rhythms and melody of the first piece continue to inform that which follows and connects ancient and modern. Its solos—from Beppe Caruso on trombone, Renato Geremia on violin and Mirabassi on clarinet—mirror that dialogue quite beautifully. Later, Bonati features a potpourri of vocal and instrumental pieces, both his own and from the 8th, 12th and 13th centuries. The choral polyphony of "Alle Psallite cum Luya" slides elegantly into the jazz of Bonati's "Alleluja," aided by its reference to the rhythmic and motivic elements of the chant, which are referenced in their solos by Battaglia and Alessandro Benassi on bass clarinet. The longest piece, the skipping "Danse Macabre," provides the suite's high point, which again ties the album's diverse purposes together.

Is it jazz? Probably not, if one follows the line of Wynton Crouch, Stanley Murray and Albert Marsalis and views jazz as a genre or a "what." However, if one understands jazz as a way of making music or a "how" and sees this fact as arising from its syncretic origins and from the part played by improvisation in its practice, then the answer is simply, "yes."

...poi nella serena luce...Nine Poems by Attilio Bertolucci recorded in 2001 presented Bonati with a different set of challenges. It saw him bring together his love of Italian lyrical poetry and his own distinctive vision of jazz. Gregorian chant features once more on the piece "Stabat Mater" but the composer's concern is to go beyond the notion of song or poetry set to music. "Attilio Bertolucci was the father of film director Bernardo," he says. "He was from Parma and he was an important Italian poet. He died in 2000 and I set his lyrics to music. While working, it began to take shape of a suite of a nearly pictorial meaning, based on [a] certain canvas that recreates a 'drama' directly originating from the poems through the interpretation of various colours."

...poi nella serena luce... is by any standards a very strong record with some fine orchestral writing that are matched by strong performances from the musicians, not least vocalist Lucia Minetti. At times, Bonati seems forced to curb the more open, expansive tendencies of his approach to accommodate the song-form settings required by the poems themselves. This tension is never quite satisfactorily resolved on ...poi nella serena luce.... That point aside, Bonati frames Minetti's vocal beautifully, wrapping it in a rich and empathic orchestral accompaniment.

"Funeral March" which opens and closes the suite, albeit at the end with significant variation, is both witty and sharply-focused, drawing a parallel between the Italian town band tradition and the marching band origins of early jazz. The edgy, filmic "Assenza" is blessed with a tense, noir-ish solo from trumpeter Michael Gassman and the first section of the two-part "Azzurre spade" ("Bianchi pennacchi") reveals Bonati's compositional range. It starts with Stravinsky-like accents, leads into a Latin-jazz section featuring Paolo Botti on viola -echoing "Giant Steps" and "Caravan" -before a final, more fragmentary section featuring Alessandro Benassi on bass clarinet. Later the highly chromatic "Stabat Mater," a reference to a 13th century hymn otherwise known as "The Sorrows of Mary," is impressive indeed in both its structure and execution. This contrasts cleverly with the shifting moods and stylistic references of "1945," which are brought to life by some fine playing, notably from Beppe Caruso on trombone and drummer Anthony Moreno. Finally, it is important to mention Bonati's setting of "Per Ottavio Ricci." It is the strongest arrangement for voice on ...poi nella serena luce... and brings out the glorious timbre and expressive qualities of Lucia Minetti's voice.

The Blanket of the Dark : A Study for Lady Macbeth was released in 2003 but was actually recorded in performance at the ParmaFrontiere Festival, of which Bonati is artistic director, just a few weeks after ...poi nella serena luce.... The work, inspired by both Shakespeare and Verdi, is a magnificent achievement. Where it not for the fact that it was performed and apparently written around the same time as ...poi nella serena luce..., I would have suggested that it represented an advance in confidence on Bonati's part.

In a sense, it raises differences in the positions of the classical composer and his jazz counterpart. The latter may lack the resources of a mighty symphony orchestra but he or she has two advantages over their classical colleague. Firstly, lacking the twelve or more woodwinds, similar number of brass and the fifty or sixty string players and percussionists, the jazz composer must maximise his/her resources seeking highly personalised and often unusual musical combinations and textures. The second point is just as important. The jazz composer writes for musicians whose voices he or she knows intimately. They will provide their signature colours and, when the jazz composer gets it right, their players will achieve that unique balance between the individual and the group that is the hallmark of great jazz. It has been so since Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.

These are Bonati's great skills—marshalling his resources, trusting his musicians and creating the environment where composition and improvisation become one. Featuring some twenty-four musical events, fifteen of which are organised into three subsets ("The Blanket of the Dark," "La Danse" , "Somnambula"), it is impossible to do adequate justice to the music on the CD, It flows elegantly from "Miserere," the fractured opening track with its eerie, doom-laden voicings derived from Gregorian chant, to the two closing tracks, "Lady Morley" and "Lady Tango." "Lady Morley" draws upon Elizabethan courtly music and features clarinetist Alessandro Benassi. The burlesque of "Lady Tango," however, seems a strange, almost upbeat choice to finish music based upon the tragedy of ambition. Yet, it works beautifully as a witty coda, a reminder to the audience that we "have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear," to quote a very different Shakespearean play.

Written from the perspective of Lady Macbeth, the inspiration here is Verdi and not Shostakovich. "I was particularly taken by the character of Lady Macbeth," Bonati explains, "because she is the engine of the drama, the one who is pushing Macbeth to the murder of Duncan. But then it is as if she is imploding. Nothing is visible outside but inside she is becoming crazy. She doesn't speak any more. She walks in her sleep. That was interesting to me because Macbeth has an important role but in the end he dies in battle. So, that is normal in his world. But Lady Macbeth pushes for the crime but then it is like all this energy she put in motion returns inside her and destroys her inner soul. This seemed more abstract, more mysterious because we just see the result not what is going on in her head. So, I tried to work from this impression."

The play's dreamlike qualities, its inevitabilities, the normalcy of treachery and violence are all realised but with macabre humour rather than melodrama. This is most evident in the mini-suite "Sonnambula." In Bonati's hand, "all the perfumes of Arabia" do "sweeten this little hand." Only the concluding "Nightwalker" reveals the darkness within Lady Mac, as a simple ostinato from Stefano Battaglia and ominous chords tell of her insanity. The performances are first rate throughout The Blanket of the Dark. Lucia Minetti is magnificent, a real story-teller but, once more, it is the way Bonati uses his unusual big band with its higher woodwinds and strings alongside more standard jazz instrumentation that really allows The Blanket of the Dark to take on its epic character.

Bonati is not alone amongst jazz composers in his interest in literature and its use as inspiration for his work. The names of Barry Guy, Mike Westbrook and Graham Collier immediately spring to mind. I suggest to him that he is not trying to represent the book or play or poems in these works but rather to discover a way of exploring their underlying themes. This seems particularly true of Melville's Moby Dick, which provided the source material for the orchestra's final recording to date, A Silvery Silence, fragments from Moby Dick.

"I have read Moby Dick many times but then I went to the Old Testament because all the names in the book are coming from the Bible," Bonati tells me. "In a way, it is like the fate. The characters in Melville's book, in a way they share the destiny of the character in the bible whose name they have. I like that proverb 'In nomen omen,' in the name you have your destiny. These characters in the book share the way of living and of dying with their namesakes in the bible. Ahab will die on his boat and there is a prophecy regarding Ahab in the bible, who died in a chariot and in the end the dogs come to lick his blood. It is a very heavy image in the bible. And it is like that with Ahab in Moby Dick because he is dying on the whale and the blood is coming down. There is a shadow over the book from the beginning that comes from these ancient stories."

Despite its august predecessors, A Silvery Silence has to be Bonati's—and the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra's -crowning achievement so far. Bonati relates Melville's epic novel through both literary and musical fragments, offering a discourse that speaks of Ahab's pursuit of the whale that will prove his nemesis but also about the book's philological and biblical references. A Silvery Silence features Riccardo Joshua Moretti, as cantor, singing verses in Hebrew from the books of Isaiah and Kings at several junctures is to make this link explicit. But Bonati also uses the names of the characters transcribed into musical notation to create recurring motifs that feature at different points. These are not just musical tricks or gestures but part of the process of building the musical narrative of what is a considerable work by any standards, jazz or classical. Ultimately, A Silvery Silence rests upon the achievements of its music. "Letter H (Time and Tide flow wide)" offers high drama and an almost classical overture with its fine piano solo from Alberto Tacchini. Musical impressionism features strongly on the lovely melody of "L'appel," with its perfectly poised bass-clarinet solo from Alessandro Benassi and on the exotic chanting of Lucia Minetti and brass choruses of "Polynesian Drums (Tamburi sui mare)." "De Profundis Corale" somehow succeeds in hinting both at Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans and Gregorian chant, while longer pieces are linked by brief orchestral fragments, which establish a mood or introduce a new set of colours and textures. For example, cantor Riccardo Joshua Moretti prepares the listener for the final four tracks that will tell of Ahab's demise beginning with the near jazz-rock of "Ahab" and closing with "Whale Song" and its shanty-like ending. This is a work of the imagination and, in more than one respect, one of literature. Bonati writes music like a novelist, digressing to describe a character, the weather or the colour of the sky, but never losing sight of the events that make up the story he tells. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

Given that Bonati has also recorded a small group album dedicated to poet and film director Paolo Pasolini, Un Sospeso Silenzio—Appunti a Pier Paolo Pasolini, alongside these excursions into Moby Dick and Macbeth, I suggest that he seems drawn to tragic figures. It is clearly a possibility that has already occurred to Bonati, as his response indicates,

"I think it is something like that. There is a phrase from Mark Rothko, the abstract painter, which says that to be an artist you must have a big sense of death. I think that to me this is very important because what are we doing with music or with art? We are trying to cheat death. To go beyond our daily life. I think I am also positive in my life but it's very important that the interesting things in life do not always lie in happiness. I think being an artist isn't about happiness. To be an artist is not having answers but asking questions of ourselves but reaching to more universal questions as well."

Un Sospeso Silenzio ("A Suspended Silence—Notes to Pasolini"), released in 2007, featured Bonati's quintet with the virtuoso Italian singer Diana Torto, saxophonist Riccardo Luppi, Alberto Tacchini on piano and drummer Anthony Moreno. The scale might be less grand than the albums with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra but the ambition is just as great. Bonati's route into the poet, film director, intellectual and political activist explores Pasolini as an artist and a person riven with contradictions.

"There is something I need to explain," he says. "Before becoming a movie director, Pasolini was one of the most important elegiac poets. In the beginning, his approach to writing poetry was very much inside the lyrical tradition of Italian poetry. Sometimes this is not understood with Pasolini. The political thing came later. Then, he joined the Communist Party but because he was homosexual the Communist Party expelled him. So, he was always in a way alone. Pasolini was an outsider. He was outside of the Communist Party. He was outside the church. This put him in a lonely and tragic place. He was murdered in the end, you know."

For Bonati, Pasolini's art was a struggle. Though he remained an atheist, there is a sense in which this was a source of regret. As he once said, "I may be an unbeliever but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." Accordingly, the record features two readings, one from the Gospel according to Matthew ("The Sermon on the Mount") and the other from a letter Pasolini wrote to a priest he had met in Umbria. Though a revolutionary, he was drawn to politics by an anger at what was being lost to consumerism and at the destruction of a rural way of life. He detested the power of television and the homogenisation of life and culture. Bonati sees him as a "struggling and at the same time sensual man, whose sense of the erotic derived from his love of life." But perhaps the key for Bonati in seeking to understand his subject lies in those words from Matthew and the imagery of Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Not only does the saint open proceedings but in a way he closes it with Bonati's mini-sonata, "Mattutino," meaning "matins" or "early morning prayers" but perhaps also puns "Matteo," as in "Little Matthew," with the suffix "tino" meaning "little."

Pasolini was also a fan of jazz and blues and was at one point closely associated with the emergent free jazz scene in Italy. Un Sospeso Silenzio derives its dramatic tension from the contrast between compositions such as the rubato, abstract and, at times, abrasive "Dirge a Pier Paolo Pasolini" and others like the title track, which express more elegiac and lyrical qualities. It is good to hear Bonati allowing himself space to express himself on his instrument. The arco playing on "Solo Prelude" is superb but so too is his duo with Riccardo Luppi on tenor sax on "Dirge."

This is very much a group record. Diana Torto's voice ranges from the ethereal, on "Ninna Nanna Ninna Luna," to an operatic intensity on "Lontane Campane." Both Luppi, on saxophones and flutes, and pianist Alberto Tacchini lend gravitas and power to the music but are equally capable of expressing its more tranquil, delicate moments. Tacchini's accompaniment of Torto at the beginning of the title track and then later his support of Luppi's lyrical saxophone being just one such example. Tacchini and Luppi seem to have an almost symbiotic relationship, an ability to follow one another and connect at an emotional level that is palpable on the sprightly, near waltz of "Bounce Tempo." As for Anthony Moreno, he is on this showing one of the most musical of drummers, with excellent time but also with a highly personal approach to his role. The record closes with its most lovely track, "Mattutino" and some inspired playing from Tacchini.

I ask Bonati if he would consider himself a man of faith or else someone like Pasolini simultaneously drawn to belief but unable to suspend disbelief.

"To me, the background of this culture is Christian," he replies. "You ask if I'm a 'man of faith.' It is not easy to answer. I think I'm a man of faith but to say it could sound like a kind of pretentious statement. There is so much beauty in this world, it is difficult to think everything is by chance. I feel there is much more beyond what we see. Many years ago, I had some special kind of emotional breakdown during a Mexican tour when I visited—by chance—the sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe."

He continues, "And there is something important about how music was born, how some homo sapiens started to hear noises, beats and the sound of the human voice as something that was different from simple noises. These sounds have always been connected with religious ritual. And how is sound connected with our inner body and how we can vibrate in emotions and concentration with sounds? This is also why I have such a spiritual approach to music. Sometimes -and this happens to many artist-friends and musicians -it seems that we are not composing the picture or the music but in a way the music or the picture comes out by itself. I feel like a kind of a medium -the music must come out."

Bonati's music certainly breathes with a sense of the spiritual. Bianco Il Vestito Nel Buio from 2012 is a piano trio record with Alberto Tacchini and drummer Roberto Dani with its loose structures and slow-moving themes and is astonishingly beautiful. Heureux Comme Avec Une Femme with just Bonati and vocalist Diana Torto from 2013 is also quite lovely. One hopes that both the new trio and the duo with Torto will continue alongside opportunities to work in small groups and with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra. Bonati continues to perform once a year with the orchestra in Parma and just waits upon funding and timings to record a new project.

"When things became difficult for the economy, I did something with less people—a project based on Japanese Haiku—but that has yet to be recorded," he tells me. "Then last November, the orchestra came together to perform a homage to Giorgio Gaslini. It was a very good moment in the festival. All the musicians were very happy to be together again, so I hope we can do something again in the future because I think it is something special. It is an experience of an orchestra that is quite unique."

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