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Rossano Sportiello: Milano Stride Piano

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Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz Festival The Hub
Edinburgh
August 6, 2005

The cliches supplied in the programme blurb about this concert were wrong. The pianist isn't an Earl Hines-Jelly Roll Morton specialist. He's been a pupil of Barry Harris, and his music includes beside a Dave McKenna walking left hand some bebop, and Harlem stride from Clarence Profit back to Luckey Roberts — both under-recorded masters of the fine gradation of touch Rossano Sportiello has.

His hero is the late stride-master Ralph Sutton. He wears the same model of jacket Sutton wore on his last Edinburgh gig (he was delighted I recognised it) and presumably on their one meeting, a month before the old maestro's sudden death. At time of meeting they both had a gig in Bern, Switzerland, one in the jazz club and the other in the restaurant.

If the Edinburgh gig had been better billed, some elderly men would have been very happy. Maybe they've seen and heard him since, at the Nairn Jazz Festival in north-eastern Scotland. Sutton had some close friends in Scotland, always there when he turned up and sometimes greeted or joked about from the stage.

The Sutton thing goes deep, although the young man has more schooling and a wider range (which doesn't mean he combines classical and jazz — though his grasp of Debussy allows him more flowing phrasing and harmonic swell when tackling a Bix Beiderbecke number).

He began his gig to a hopeful but not fully informed audience in a Tatum style heard the same weekend in some intros John Bunch played. Bunch is in his list of heroes, and still ahead of him (and most pianists) in melodic phrasing and touch. After the fingers were warm and the audience inspired and relaxed, the second number went into some mighty stride. He has an enormous repertoire of tunes, and varies programmes by playing lots of unhackneyed out-of-the-way items. This time he played famous old standards, as per a Sutton recital, reliable items with plenty for the stride style and nice to hear new; as well as a few specialties.

Thus we had Willie the Lion Smith's frequent vehicle "Shine," which turned up again during the evening by Duke Heitger's all-stars, when the pianist had his friend Dan Barrett for company, as well as Evan Christopher, and Edinburgh's Roy Percy and John Rae (as good as any bassist-drummer team I've heard with a stride pianist!). There were signs of dismay among evening audience members who (curses!) could have attended the lunchtime concert.

The first specialty was a citation of Ralph's special preference for the compositions of Willard Robison, another minor star from the great American songbook whose tunes find special results in specific fingers. Robison's name was got wrong when Don Friedman included "Old Folks" on a CD last year. This time we heard "Love Lies," a ballad.

Then the pace upped with "All God's Chillun" trotting to a walking bass (McKenna/ Hyman) with hints of "Memories of You" as the music leapt into more stride, On other and recorded evidence this brilliant young stride player doesn't always bear a strong resemblance to Sutton, but he was slanting his playing in that direction.

There was "I guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," simmering ballad and between the one plan-change and the other which took him through a fresh "I Got Rhythm" then "Don't Blame Me" (not entirely, more Ralph Sutton here, to whom many thanks!

During the interval an attractive young lady in the audience, sitting beside a veteran pianist called Joe, was marvelling at the movements of the Sportiello fingers. They looked like they were rummaging at high speed inside a sack. The movement looked too rapid to be anything but random. Joe was dizzied by the speed at which the left forearm and hand bounded in playing the strides. This wings on his fingers had just been demonstrated again in a coming-home performance of the tune abbreviated as T42. It began bop, switched into walking bass, and then it strode.

Interval Interview

The locally resident major pianist (no mere regional talent Brian Kellock) has in recent years been playing a Fats Waller stride programme (with John Rae on drums), and during his duo gig with Dave Berkman the night before he'd done a bit of striding on one number. Interviewed when waiting in the bar, he responded to the idea of a traditional Harlem school cutting contest with his own mighty left hand signalling deference. The head shook in mellow appreciation, no, not with (expression of awe) all that. The versatile combination of stride, Tatum and sometimes boppish walking bass reminded Prof. Kellock of a Dick Hyman solo recital.

Part Two

The performance of Earl Hines' "Rosetta" presumably intended no comment on the festival programme's cliché inaccuracy, mellow with some bluesy colouration, Willie the Lion Smith harmonies but no real Hines echoes. "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"? Good a word as any for the miraculous refinement of touch. Some passing notes were amazing. Did I actually hear them? No point in trying on anything less than the Bösendorfer which thereafter took the massive stride of "After You've Gone," After which, some interesting talk.

"The first time I heard a piano played completely beautifully was when I heard Ellis Larkins,"

That was actually the great stride pianist (not Big) Joe Turner, speaking over twenty years before Rossano Sportiello was born. The young man agrees, Larkins was 'the greatest of all accompanists' (last heard by your writer on the Newport Festival Fifty Years set with Ella Fitzgerald). There are the celebrated recordings with Ruby Braff fifty years back, then some more recent ones by them together again before they both left us. The young Italian pianist has recently acquired an Album of Ellis Larkins tunes, compositions with an element of French impressionism. Such as "Perfume and Rain," on his recent CD for Dan Barrett's Blue Swing label.

The Dave McKenna influence was obvious from the first half, and the pianist's trio slot in the evening performance (I ought to have recognised the tune, dammit!) was very close to a McKenna recording so good that (name apart!) I remember it very well. I waited for the titanic back-stride left hand into which McKenna builds, with its split-second timing. Professor Sportiello found something else to do!

After the McKenna-influenced "Lady, be Good" on the lunchtime gig, the young maestro spoke of his sometime tutor Barry Harris, another hero (really -for all the work he has done with youngsters in New York too, Two Harris compositions provided the concert's official conclusion. Not quite the master of clear articulation in the English language he can be when playing music, the pianist with whom most people in the audience had fallen in love didn't make sufficiently clear the titles of the Harris tunes. One was dedicated to Tommy Turrentine, the other a perky item which slipped neatly in and out of stride passages before a perfect conclusion.

The Encore

So far as I'm aware the Italian singer-pianist Renato Carosone's "Pianofortissimo" isn't quite what our pianist managed to deliver. Dick Wellstood would have liked it and presumably added it to his repertoire of the sub-genre of ragtime known as 'novelty' and represented with some musical distinction by Zez Confrey's tunes (see Wellstood's discography). The attempt to imitate ragtime brings in all manner of interesting things, and the effort to play "Pianofortissimo" induced on our pianist's part a little mugging, deep breaths of mock anticipation, apologies that in such difficult music we might need to make allowances. He sat down, there was a sigh, a shrug of mock dread, and a pretended slicking back of the sides of the scalp.

Suddenly: he got tore in. The composition includes pauses, rests a couple of bars long, rapid restarts. Of course he was more than up to it,. and the combination of prestissimo runs and variation of touch gave the fast runs something of the aura of Luckey Roberts phrases which Wellstood likened to imitations of a rubber band being stretched out and then suddenly released. Tom Roberts has recorded a CD of the underrecorded Luckey, grandfather of stride piano. There are real grounds for thinking he has welcome competition.

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