From Europe in the ‘Seventies came two types of music, each labeled “progressive”. One kind described Yes and Genesis; this was later called “art rock”. The other utilized violins, woodwinds, and other things rarely used in pop vocals. These groups, with names like Art Zoyd, Henry Cow, and Univers Zero, are hardly famous, but their sound is remembered. Stefano Maltese takes many elements of this sound (shifting moods, stylized vocals), and adds jazz touches for a blend you will find odd, challenging – and not at all familiar.
Sharp horns blast in stacatto, answered by plucked bass and violin. The theme is sinister and the tension keeps building. Violinist Michele Conti begins a three-note pattern, the horns raucously follow, and then chaos (or the ensemble parts of Ascension.) Maltese blats in multiphonics, getting more foghorn power than you thought an alto possessed. The horns chime in mellow behind him – a nice contrast. An off-center shuffle develops, gets really loud, and then the trumpet steps forward. Roy Paci is brassy, and the others horn in on his solo, the drums in particular. Rosario Patania’s tiny trombone part is accompanied by bells, bangs, and yells. The theme comes back meekly, then blares and recedes at odd moments. It’s called “Lions at Coffee House”, and roar it does!
With the next track we get vocals. Gioconda Cilio sings the title phrase sweetly, and the screaming horns return. Bass moans and mandola wails as the brass hangs a sad theme. Cilio returns: her approach comes between a torch singer and a muzzein. The mandola sounds Middle Eastern, and the cymbals ring. And the horns come in slick, like uptown pop: we’re getting about four cultures at once! Paci gets a nice blaring solo as the horns do an angular riff around him. The mandola resumes and Paci gets angry, screaming high to the wind. The ensemble roars back at full volume, before some sad moans at the end.
While this is the basic sound throughout, there are variations. “Water Dust” comes on mellow, first with flugelhorn and flute, then violin and muted trumpet. It’s a coiled snake, slow and tense and ready to strike. Cilio’s vocal is pure and dramatic, while the band continues to seethe. Water sounds and music boxes make a brief solo (similar to Frank Zappa’s interludes on Lumpy Gravy ). Maltese has a breathy flute solo over bells, then the band makes its anticipated outburst. The tense clam returns, then it ends.
“Three Clouds in a Windy dream" is a lovely mood piece, Maltese’s flute rising above bowed strings and soft brass. And when the drum rolls, you expect the elephants to charge in – and they don’t! It’s a great change of pace from the furor of the other tunes. Paci takes the lead in the middle section, aided by Cilio’s best vocal. Instruments drift in and out of “Chanson pour les Sarrasins” , and I think some backwards tapes as well. This goes from quiet musing to full scream and back in two seconds. The ominous brooding felt on many tracks was never stronger than this. Maltese takes the long solo, but this is really a group effort. All of a sudden the natives go restless in an outpouring of drums. Patania blows old-fashioned muted trombone, slow and oblivious to the onrushing hordes. It’s many things, and it’s hard to put a finger on it. You can say the same for this album.
While I think more variety would have helped, this is an intriguing package. The voices keep changing, and it blends jazz, modern classical, and more avant branches of pop into a heady mix. If your ears want a workout, you might consider this.