They played some of the Rava tunes from the Tribe album, like "Planet Earth," "Choctaw," and the title track. They also played pieces from earlier albums, like Rava's "Jessica Too" and "Serpent," and Don Cherry's "Art Deco." But there was an issue with the ensemble's approach to every song. It was that the emphasis on group interplay at the expense of solos became a limiting factor. On the first pieces of a set, it was fun to hear Rava and Petrella in their slithering rough (or locked) theme unisons and contrapuntal cacophony and staccato counterpoint. They have played together since Petrella- now 38- was in his 20's, and they are gifted at inciting, paraphrasing, contradicting, and inspiring one another. But over the course of an entire evening, their insistence on nearly always playing together became frustrating. They are both imposing jazz soloists, but they almost never truly soloed. Neither Rava nor Petrella had more than a few moments alone before the other entered. The focus on collective improvisation also meant that Guidi and Evangelista were given very little solo space. It felt like Rava had chosen to put his band in a box. You waited for him to open the box and set his soloists free. He never did.
But the rewards of these nights in Birdland far outweighed the frustrations. "Top Italian Jazz at Birdland" is not only one more reason to like New York in June, it is a reason to go there. Even through Times Square.