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Unscientific Italians: Frisellian Magic

Unscientific Italians: Frisellian Magic

Courtesy Giuseppe Arcamone


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If Italian film director Nanni Moretti had been born in 1973 instead of 1953, he might well have set the iconic Vespa ride through the empty streets of a languid, mid-August Rome in Caro Diario against a Bill Frisell rather than a Keith Jarrett soundtrack.

Because if every era is defined by a limited number of musicians who characterize it with their innovations and sounds, then for jazz fans who grew up musically in the '80s and '90s, guitarist Bill Frisell is one such figure, with seminal albums like Lookout for Hope (ECM, 1987), Where In The World? (Nonesuch, 1991) or This Land (Elektra Nonesuch, 1994), perhaps representing their personal Köln Concert.

Frisell's instrumental style has transformed the way subsequent generations have approached the guitar, but for some time now his compositions have also proven to be increasingly influential. These are tunes that amaze for their very rare quality to be at once original and yet familiar, due to Frisell's uncanny ability to synthesize sources as diverse as jazz, country, bluegrass, rock, pop, surf music, or American modernist music.

The difficulty in approaching a repertoire that is so strongly characteristic is to find a way to play it without becoming entangled by the sounds and atmospheres of the original versions. Fortunately, in the evolutionary trajectory that leads the compositional work of a musician to acquire a dimension independent from that of its author, there is always a centripetal phase in which the interpretation of this work turns from homage to springboard, eventually going in directions totally unforeseen by the composer.

Unscientific Italians Play the Music of Bill Frisell, Vol. 1 might very well represent the point of no return in the evolutionary trajectory of Frisell's repertoire. Released by the nascent label Hora Records, this striking recording documents painstaking and elegant work that adds new colors and timbres to the familiar Frisellian soundscapes, without affecting their minimalist allure. As such, the Unscientific Italians—the 11-piece ensemble lead by Alfonso Santimone—pay tribute to Frisell's spirit as much as to his music, drawing from the source yet producing fresh and exciting new sounds.

Together with Mario Calvitti All About Jazz talked about this project with Santimone, drummer Zeno De Rossi, saxophonist Francesco Bigoni and trombonist Filippo Vignato, members of Unscientific Italians and leading figures in the emerging field of Frisellian sciences.

All About Jazz: What does Bill Frisell represent for you from a musical point of view? What are the aspects of his music that strike you the most and inspired you to realize this project?

Alfonso Santimone: I discovered the music of Bill Frisell during my adolescence at the height of my exploration of the jazz language, which in those years was going in all directions, hopping without difficulties from very traditional to very experimental albums. I was driven only by curiosity, going through piles of records, some found at home, others bought with the pocket money I received from my parents. One of these albums was a birthday present I bought for my brother, in 1989 or 1990: Before We Were Born. In those years I kept reading about Bill Frisell, but I did not know his music yet; I chose that record for my brother because he was a guitarist and a great fan of Jim Hall and all guitarists are inspired by him.

Listening to Before We Were Born was a gateway to the forward-looking New York scene of those years. I still remember the effect of listening to the first seconds of its title track. It was as if a veil had lifted, and my fifteen-year-old self discovered an entirely new universe. On that album there were many striking elements, in particular his very original relationship with the jazz tradition. The "knockout punch" came three years later, at a concert by the Bill Frisell Trio at the Teatro Nuovo in Ferrara, Italy, with maybe 40 in the audience, or 50 at most. That performance transformed me forever. The very concept of a trio changed after listening to that concert.

Ultimately, Bill Frisell has been a pivotal musician for my creative and musical development. There has been no music that I have become interested in thereafter that, in one way or another, has not been influenced by this. Even though I am more attached to the projects which revolved around collective improvisation than to his exploration of American musical traditions, he remains one of my points of reference to this day. He was one of the idols of my teen years.

Zeno De Rossi: For me he still is one of my idols, even though I'm 50 years old! I am three years older than Alfonso, but I discovered Bill Frisell around the same time, and that discovery was a total shock for me too. In the late eighties he came to Verona, where I lived, on several occasions, first in duo with Tim Berne, then with Marc Johnson's Bass Desires and again with his quartet featuring Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll and Joey Baron. Unfortunately, I missed all these concerts because at that time I had no idea who he was...

Later I listened to Lookout for Hope... and that was a revelation! I fell in love with his music and that band's incredible interplay. It is through that record that I discovered Joey Baron, who opened a door for me to a new way of approaching the drums. I remember thinking "this is the music I want to play!" I ran to buy all Frisell's previous records and obviously I kept buying all the following ones, a tradition that I have maintained to this day.

I heard him live for the first time shortly after, in 1990, at Il Posto, a venue in Verona, as a member of the Paul Motian Trio, one of the concerts that changed my life. If I have to mention one reference musician for me, it can only be Frisell, not just because his timbre and his music resonate deeply with my body and soul, but also for his transversality as a sideman. I love musicians who remain authentic and recognizable despite the diversity of the projects they take part in. They have always been a point of reference for what I am interested in doing musically.

While embracing the most disparate musical collaborations, from Laurie Anderson to Paul Bley, from Paul Simon to John Zorn, Frisell always manages to put himself at the service of music by elevating it to a higher level, something he manages to do with just a few notes, always played with disarming honesty and authenticity.

His sound, like that of other great masters—I am thinking of Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden or Paul Motian—gets more and more profound and pure as time goes by.

Francesco Bigoni: I was there too at the concert in Ferrara in 1993. I was very young and so it was a musical imprinting of sort. Frisell is like a musical father for me—he even has the same age as my parents. When my dad accompanied me to that concert, I had no idea who the musicians were on stage. By that point, I had listened to—I believe—just four jazz records: two Atlantic compilations (Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane), an album featuring the Red Norvo All Stars and the Gene Krupa/Charlie Ventura Trio, and a Jack Teagarden LP. So, practically I was a jazz virgin, when I entered that concert in Ferrara, and it made such an impression on me that when, after many years I listened to a bootleg recording of that concert, I realized that I could remember note-by-note the opening tune of the concert.

AS: I started crying when I listened to that bootleg!

FB: Me too! That concert was a door to a series of new musical experiences also for me: John Zorn, the New York downtown scene, and—more generally—all the music that was made in the nineties. That concert made me abandon the idea of having to approach jazz from a rigid historical perspective, in chronological order, and made me jump to the music of those years. The first Frisell record I remember listening to was Is That You?, which I had copied onto a cassette tape. A great record, even though it's not as celebrated as it should...

AS: Besides Zorn, Before We Were Born made me discover Arto Lindsay, who later became one of my favorite musicians.

ZDR: And Lindsay's Ambitious Lovers!

Filippo Vignato : Being from a later generation I would not have been able, unfortunately, to hear a live Frisell concert in the early nineties. Somehow, I took the opposite path, starting from the 2000s and from Frisell's Americana albums. I listened to many of his things, without it ever becoming an obsession. Later, thanks also to the musicians present here, I discovered the rest of his discography. Whether he deals with American traditions or his own compositions Frisell is always himself. Even though this is largely due to his instrumental sound, I can't think of him as just a guitarist. At times, he approaches the guitar as if it were a wind instrument, for its richness of inflections.

ZDR: This is exactly what Frisell says, when he talks about his beginnings on the clarinet or his relationship with the music of Sonny Rollins.

AS: In this regard, there is an important technical detail in his approach to the guitar. He has a way of handling the two-dimensionality of the instrument—the strings on the y-axis and the fretboard on the x-axis—which is entirely his own. For instance, he practices studying scales and melodies on a single string, which makes him obtain a very "tied" sound, with that same "spoken" quality that wind instruments have.

Then there is his use of electronics, which for me became a fundamental reference in the nineties. I had used MIDI, computers, and synthesizers from an early age, but focusing on jazz piano made me abandon those tools. Within a few months of listening to Before We Were Born, that circle was closed and electronics acquired a new dimension of interest for me, because I saw how they could be used in creative and stimulating way.

Frisell's sound is the result of a great deal of work on the instrument and on his idea of music, filtered through all that is in his mental musical database. This sound determines his peculiar language, influenced by many things but transformed into something absolutely original. That is the quintessence of being a jazz improviser.

FV: Another thing that shines through in his music is the coexistence of a joyful, light-hearted, playful side and a dark side which conjures a sense of mystery, of things unspoken. He is very good at keeping these two sides together. This is something that goes beyond how he approaches music. Frisell, in his extreme humility, is not afraid to hide any of these sides; somehow, they are both part of him. Ultimately, he is an extremely sincere musician. This quality can be perceived even by people that are not music experts, and I think it is one of the reasons why he is so loved. And he never shows off!

AS: True, he always plays within his limits. Limits that define his style and make it unique. That's quite refreshing in today's jazz climate.

AAJ: How did you choose the name of the group, Unscientific Italians?

ZDR: It's a pun on Bill Frisell's song "Unscientific Americans," which was inspired by Roz Chast's comic book of the same title.

FB: We talked about it recently with Bill Frisell. "Unscientific Americans" was a comic book with a strong subtext of satire addressing certain aspects of American politics of the early 1980s, and that today has become overwhelmingly relevant again. That was an interesting conversation. Behind his always polite, poised and slightly shy attitude Frisell hides a great critical spirit!

AAJ: How did the project come about? What kind of difficulties, or pleasant challenges, did you face in tackling the repertoire of such an original artist?

ZDR: The first live performance of this band dates back to October 2008, as part of a two-day event dedicated to the musician collective and label El Gallo Rojo, which was organized by the Padua Art Center. However, knowing how long Alfonso takes in giving shape to his musical ideas, he must surely have started working on it a couple of years earlier! Francesco, Alfonso, and myself were members of El Gallo Rojo, together with other musicians who are part of the current lineup of the Unscientific Italians (saxophonist Piero Bittolo Bon and bassist Danilo Gallo) or who have been part of it back in 2008 (saxophonist Beppe Scardino). The idea of interpreting Bill Frisell's repertoire came from me, but then it was Alfonso who got busy arranging it.

AS: Yeah, the project is more than a decade old but stayed somewhat dormant for quite a while after that first gig. For many reasons, not least the fact that it is difficult to keep together an ensemble of this size, organize rehearsals and so on. This is material that requires a lot of work due to the way it is written and orchestrated.

One of the obvious aspects of the project is the absence of the guitar. The way I approached the reconstruction of Frisell's approach was by excluding the guitar, and also —to a large degree— the piano, which is present in a few songs, but without any written scores, both by necessity, since I have the responsibility of directing the group, but also by musical choice. I conceived the role of the eight wind instruments as one of the six strings of Frisell's guitar. As a consequence, all the arrangements—as well as the instrumentation of the eleven players—are quite different from those for classic wind and big band ensembles. The improvised parts are fundamental and not over-structured.

For these reasons I prefer to refer to them as orchestrations, rather than "real arrangements," which try to reproduce Frisell's sound and performative approach and leave a lot of freedom to the group during the improvisation phase. Both Danilo on double bass and Zeno on drums use lead parts, which contain just the tune's basic theme and form, because my intention was to reconstruct the sense of freedom that existed in one of my favorite bands ever: Bill Frisell's Trio with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll.

That trio represents one of the most important contributions to the evolution of jazz trios, after those lead by Bill Evans, Paul Bley, or Jimmy Giuffre. I think that Trio has been even more important than the Paul Motian Trio, for the type of language Frisell has built, and his ability to interact with contemporary aspects of jazz and related music. Our ensemble tries to go in that same direction, which makes the construction of dynamic mixes and timbres particularly difficult; they both require a lot of awareness on the part of each musician of their "position" within the orchestration.

As Zeno said, I generally have very long processing times, not so much because it takes me a long time to write—a piece for this line-up, for instance, would take me at most one day, if I have it very clear in my head—but because it takes me a long time to set aside the time to focus exclusively on my goal. I go through a series of stages, such as the three months in which I do not listen to any music whatsoever, what I call "being on strike."

Many years have passed since 2008; now there are three more tunes that were not present in that first repertoire—"Before We Were Born," "Probability Cloud" and "Rob Roy"—which I arranged in a few days, just before the recording, because I had some language coordinates already very clear, having developed a writing strategy at the time.

For me all this is also a reality-check because I throw my own things into the mix. However, many of those things—the way I approach sound, harmony, polyphony, spaces—come from the radical and seminal experience of listening to Bill Frisell at a very young age. It's like going full circle.

FV: In my view, Alfonso's writing and orchestration is as fundamental for Unscientific Italians as Frisell's compositions —the way Alfonso used orchestral solutions to flesh-out the Frisell sound in way that no-one else could do, at least on the Italian jazz and new music scenes. Another strong point of this project is its capacity to capture that nuanced balance between abstraction and "linear" melodies that is present in these compositions by Bill Frisell.

AAJ: Am I wrong or is the trombone, among all the instruments included in the Unscientific Italians' line-up, the one which is least used in Frisell's music? Filippo, how did you relate to it?

FV: Actually, this has not been a problem that I've really encountered since this is a work in which the sound of the ensemble matters more than that of the individual instruments. At the same time, as Alfonso said, the project requires a great awareness in the approach to the charts. It is as if it were a small chamber orchestra, made up of improvisers; changing the musicians would totally change the sound, even though the writing is so strong. Then we have the French horn, which is perhaps even rarer than the trombone in Frisell's music.

FB: I would like to add a couple of considerations about the sound of this ensemble. It is right to look at it as "chamber orchestra" of sorts, but here we are faced with an idiosyncratic writing which has no precedents in the jazz canon. Our sound comes straight from the writing and from our interplay, in an exquisitely jazz dimension. As a result, and not surprisingly, it is as far away as possible from the sound of a big band, which is perhaps the most codified of jazz ensembles.

AS: With the right writing any jazz canon, even the big band canon, can be challenged. The instrumentation that we have chosen for this project resulted from our desire to reflect our understanding of the "Frisellian instrument" in a broad sense, namely what results from the way he plays the guitar and from the way he composes and arranges. Furthermore, our unusual line-up, halfway between a combo and a big band, which looks like a chamber group but is not, has the effect of reducing the expectations that a listener approaches it with. And that seemed to me the appropriate way to confront Frisell's music.

I have listened in the past to various orchestral experiments based on Frisell's repertoire and I did not find them very convincing, because of the weight of the orchestral canons that they carried with them. It is obviously a purely personal point of view.

The way around these challenges was to start from scratch with regards to the instrumentation. In addition, the writing is very detailed. We spend a lot of time trying out articulation and dynamics; sometimes I correct the scores during our rehearsals, because by taking risks during the orchestration at times I may get the instrumental calibration wrong.

All in all, we managed quite well in bringing to fruition the sound that I had conceived in my head. The fact that I knew my bandmates very well was extremely helpful while I was writing the arrangements.

First, we played two of these pieces with the Tower Jazz Composers Orchestra. Afterwards, I expanded and changed them a lot in terms of arrangement and orchestration.

For Unscientific Italians, we also introduced the use of electronics. I cross-processed the clarinets, and Francesco did the same with the brass instruments. This way we tried to come up with a sound that was somewhat reminiscent of how Brill Frisell works with his magical pedals... This approach is included in two tunes of our first release and will be present also in our upcoming Volume 2.

AAJ: When will the second volume be released?

FV: Probably in early 2022.

AAJ: One of the most fascinating aspects of Bill Frisell's music, is his ability to create a "sonic prairie" evocative of wide-open spaces. One of the most remarkable achievements of your project is that despite being a large group, it manages to keep these spaces uncluttered. The feeling of "crowding" that is present in other tributes to the music of Bill Frisell is completely absent here. Did you choose the compositions for this album with that specific goal in mind?

ZDR: Francesco and I had extensive conversations about the song selection with Alfonso, who then had the final word. I had proposed to pick songs from various phases of Frisell's career, but ultimately the repertoire is centered on the turn of the eighties and nineties, with the exception of "Probability Cloud" which was featured on History, Mystery, released in 2009.

AS: I can say in no uncertain terms that that was the composition that least stimulated my tonal and orchestral imagination. Perhaps because it has less unique traits compared to the Frisellian melodic-harmonic language. Its most interesting feature might be a certain rhythmic ambiguity—a pulsation in triplets that creates a sort of illusion with respect to the weight of the accents—which is a typical trait of many African music tradition, especially those that come from the Yoruba universe. I am thinking of the traditional Cuban rumba, which often also exploits this ambiguity. Apart from this, "Probability Cloud" has a "Fellini-like" vibe that posed some challenges during the arrangement phase, but as a whole the tunes included in this first volume have an undoubted coherency.

The song-list of the second volume is pretty much done; many songs have been recorded already and we are converging towards the idea of completing the "Some Song and Dance" suite from Before We Were Born. Who knows... there might even be a third volume for which we could accept the challenge of arranging Frisell's most recent compositions! Either way, the songs we recorded have been played so little by other musicians, that they still feel brand new...

FV: I think that this is because they have unconventional forms, harmony-wise. Unless you dive deep into them, they can be a bit disorienting. I like the "sonic prairie" metaphor and I agree that despite being a largeish ensemble, we have managed to preserve the spaces and the transparencies so as not to lose the airiness of Frisell's music.

AAJ: Thinking of musicians who have an unmistakable sonic signature, such as a Bill Frisell—or a Thelonious Monk before Steve Lacy and others paved the way to him becoming one of the most covered jazz composers of all times—one wonders if the reason why it took some time to bring his songs into the jazz repertoire is the fact that it is difficult to imagine them without his signature guitar sound. How did you face this challenge?

AS: This is a very complex subject. When I face, personally or with certain students, Monk's music—which is certainly one of Frisell's great sources of inspiration—the problem is how to play Monk while remaining yourself, on the one hand, and without losing the sense of his music, on the other hand. Frisell is one of the few artists who knows how to do this. Playing Frisell's music also means inheriting the models that he has metabolized in a highly personal way, which is not easy at all.

I often tell my students something that I heard Frisell say about his daily practice on any type of material, from a Tin Pan Alley piece to a Beatles song or a Monk composition: play only the melody for days; then add the bass line and then, one by one, all other instrumental lines. By studying the composition in such an intimate way, it becomes easier to improvise freely over it. This level of depth and commitment is a great source of inspiration for me.

FB: I also found myself having such talks about Monk and Frisell with my students. It is necessary to internalize the thematic material, starting from the melody, in a profound way, otherwise one cannot understand it. And for Frisell, as for Monk, you have to know the sound, the timbre, the position of the individual voices within the polyphony, to bring out the true spirit of his songs. It is a central challenge in the world of jazz and other music genres, and it's far from certain that every musician will come across his own path. As far as Unscientific Italians was concerned, we had an added challenge, the timbral aspect had to be adapted to an ensemble perspective.

AAJ: Did you contact Bill Frisell about this project?

ZDR: As it happened, Bill Frisell was on tour in Italy with the Harmony project during the same period in which we recorded the album. After two days of rehearsals and a concert at the Torrione Jazz Club in Ferrara we went to record at the Asioli Theater in Correggio, while he arrived at the Torrione! We talked to him about our project from the beginning and he was immediately enthusiastic about it, so much so that he also made some drawings for the cover of our record. In particular, he is happy that we chose compositions from his earlier period. He did not object to our musical direction... but that would not have been in his style anyways.

AS: I remember that while we were recording "Before We Were Born" Danilo filmed a take on his cell phone and we sent it to Bill that same evening, while he was playing at the Torrione. He responded enthusiastically the next day...

AAJ: Can a non-American approach Frisell's roots with authenticity?

AS: Frisell's American roots—Ives, Copland, Monk, early jazz—that sprung out of his early records were already so intertwined with his own music that they came out naturally while orchestrating the tunes for our album. It is as if that world, which tends to be seen in black and white in his music, acquires a different chromatic depth in an orchestral dimension. I did not set out to deliberately emphasize or hide those traits, but while writing I realized that they were coming out in a strong way. That was not surprising as they are the strongest influences in his music of those years.

Another strong presence in Before We Were Born is John Zorn, especially in the song "Hard Plains Drifter," which is clearly indebted to the experience with Naked City (which in those same months would have led to the release of that band's first album) and Zorn's lysergic postmodernism.

Conversely, it is very difficult for me to explore his idea of American folk, which is often intrinsically guitar-centric and somehow "de— jazzed," two aspects which make it difficult for me to adapt it to an instrumental ensemble like ours. But, at this point, I welcome the challenge and will dedicate the third volume to this ...

FB: As an Italian the things that I may miss while listening to Nashville [Nonesuch, 1997] or Guitar in the Space Age! [Okeh, 2014], is a deep understanding of Frisell's sources of inspiration, the albums and radio shows that he grew up listening to... The key is therefore to study those models in an honest way, without stopping at their surface.

AAJ: To be admitted to the Unscientific Italians, was it necessary to pass a demanding knowledge test of Frisell's trivia?

ZDR: No! Otherwise, we would have rejected almost everyone! Obviously, I am joking!

FB: Joking apart, the selection of players for the band was based on our friendships and prior shared experiences, but also on the ability of the musicians to deal with a highly idiosyncratic material. In good Ellingtonian tradition, there is a lot of heterophony inside the ensemble, but also great attention towards the jazz tradition

AAJ: The album was the first released on the newly created Hora label. How was this new label born?

FV: Hora is a label that was born with a very clear objective: to offer a creative incubator tailored to the needs of musicians. It is an artist-run label founded and managed by me together with Zeno and other leading musicians of the Italian scene with whom we have found the common need to have our own 'space' where we can act with maximum creative and organizational freedom, which allows us to express our vision without compromise. I am particularly happy that the very first release is the first Volume of Unscientific Italians for its choral dimension, for the sound, for its commitment to research. I can't wait for the catalog to grow with new works. We are at the beginning of the adventure, but it feels great, and the feedback received so far has been very positive.

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