Paolo Vinaccia: Very Much Alive

John Kelman By

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Paolo Vinaccia: Very Much Alive
[NOTE]: This review is being republished as a celebration of just one aspect of the life of drummer Paolo Vinaccia, who passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer on July 5, 2019. Best-known in Norway, where he emigrated from Italy in 1979, enjoying a busy career with artists including Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Mike Mainieri, Bendik Hofseth, Bugge Wesseltoft and Palle Mikkelborg, amongst many others. Vinaccia's big heart and warm concern for others made him everybody's best friend, and his sense of humor could be easily seen on the T-shirts that became a signature for the drummer/percussionist, including ones like "If I'm Reborn I'll Do It Again," "Not Loud Enough," "Old But Still Alive," "Normal People Scare Me" and "Almost Musician." He will be missed by many, but remembered through both his recorded legacy and his many friendships with people around the world.]

While he's less-known on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean, drummer Paolo Vinaccia—he of the witty black T-shirts, such as "If I'm Reborn I'll Do It Again" and "Not Loud Enough"—is far from an unheard-of quantity in Europe, where he has been a part of a number of important groups, including bassist Arild Andersen's trio with saxophonist Tommy Smith, last heard on ECM's powerful Live at Belleville (2008). The Italian expat/Norwegian resident has been heard on over 100 recordings, including work in the jazz sphere with keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft on his New Conception of Jazz (Jazzland, 2009) box set, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's boundary-breaking Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), and oudist Dhafer Youssef's equally genre-busting Digital Prophecy (Enja, 2003), in addition to work with pop singer/songwriter/producer Morten Harket, he of 1980s pop stars a-ha.

But the group Vinaccia has toured with the most in recent years has been Terje Rypdal's hard-hitting Skywards trio, also featuring Supersilent/Elephant9 keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and, on occasion, expanded to a quartet with the Norwegian guitarist's longtime musical friend, Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. The group has only released one studio album—the expansive and, as ever for Rypdal, ambitious Skywards (ECM, 1997), fleshed out to a septet for a project originally intended to celebrate Rypdal's quarter century relationship with the venerable German label and its head, Manfred Eicher, but ultimately and equally the result of a commission for the Lillehammer Vinterspillen Festival in the winter of 1996. Still, its core constituents have toured almost every year since, including in an even more expanded form as part of Rypdal's most recent project, collaborating with the Bergen Big Band in 2009 for the live performance of a new commission, Crime Scene, at the city's Natt Jazz festival; recorded, and ultimately released the following year by ECM.

That there's so little recorded evidence of this rock-edged but improvisation-heavy trio is, indeed, a crime, and one finally addressed with Vinaccia's Very Much Alive. The drummer has been dealing with a serious medical condition for the past couple of years, and with no releases under his own name, it seems that Vinaccia was looking to create some kind of recorded legacy under his own name. With ECM disinclined to release live shows from Rypdal's Skywards trio—more disposed, as ever, towards newer projects that, in the next few years, should finally see the release of an album documenting the guitarist's work with The Hilliard Ensemble, and another trio, this time with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Gerald Cleaver, heard in an incendiary performance at the 2010 Molde Jazz Festival—VInaccia was able to secure permission to release this comprehensive, six-CD box set, containing music from five performances in locations ranging from Norway to Sarajevo, as well as a bonus disc with a slightly different focus.

It's an important release for a number of reasons. First, it's a chance for those not lucky enough to catch this inspired trio (and, for one show, the fifth disc's 2005 show in Arendal, Norway, a quartet with Mikkelborg) to hear it in all its power, passion and glory; second, it gives Vinaccia's visibility a well-deserved shot in the arm; and third, and it comes with some very good news—that Vinaccia is, indeed, as the title indicates, very much with us—and still working.

A relatively Spartan package, Very Much Alive's six discs come in a relatively small box, with each disc in a separate cardboard sleeve, and also featuring an insert that, along with rather incomplete information with respect to personnel and recording dates, does include uncredited liner notes by Jazzland and Gube Music cohort Dave Mullan, who provides additional perspective and insight into the careers of all involved, but mostly Vinaccia, who he accurately describes as "a musician's drummer," who can "glide into place in almost any musical setting, making the whole of which he is a part a richer, fuller sonic experience."

The five shows that make up the first five discs—recorded in three Norwegian locations in addition to Sarajevo and Berlin, Germany—cover a five-year span ending in 2005, and collect some of Rypdal's best, most well-known compositions from across his five-decade career, along with a bounty of previously undocumented Rypdal originals and a few Vinaccia-penned pieces. Rypdal's hard-rocking jam tune, "Tough Enough," dates right back to his eponymous 1971 ECM debut as a leader, while his longstanding Chasers power trio, with bassist Bjørn Kjellmyr and drummer Audun Kleive, is well represented: searing versions of the title track to the trio's debut, Chaser (ECM, 1985); "The Curse," originally nothing more than an introductory miniature on Blue (ECM, 1987), expanded here to open—ended glory on four separate versions ranging from seven to 11 minutes; the balladic "Mystery Man," from the paradoxically titled Chasers+1 disc, The Singles Collection (ECM, 1981); and "The Return of Per Ulv," perhaps Rypdal's single most iconic (and memorable) song, from his aptly titled career milestone, If Mountains Could Sing (ECM, 1995), where Rypdal found the nexus of his rockier proclivities and contemporary classical interests on an album teaming The Chasers with a string trio.

Skywards is represented by three different versions of its title track (one, curiously titled "Skywald"), while the near—pastoral "Easy Now" comes from a recent disc with longtime collaborator, pianist Ketil Bjornstad, Life in Leipzig (ECM, 2008)—here, equally gentle, but more sonically expansive with the larger textural palette of Storløkken's electric keyboards. But what makes all of these familiar pieces soar is this: there may be structural signposts for Rypdal, Storløkken and Vinaccia to hang onto, but they're only jumping off points for exploration, where there are no rules and no predetermination; "Memory Lane," for example, ebbs and flows with predictable unpredictability in three versions ranging from two to 11 minutes. The Sarajevo 2001 version begins atmospherically, building to a rubato climax, while Sundalsøra 2002 comes in with Vinaccia already pushing a complex, polyrhythmic groove. The longest, from Arendal in 2005, enters with an immediately strong bass line from Storløkken's synth, leading to an open-ended middle section that's as visceral as this trio gets, featuring one of Rypdal's most blistering solos of the entire box, before a curious break from form and reality, as Vinaccia and Storløkken's groove slowly dissolves into abstruse electronics and a strange, sampled vocal chant that gradually fades to black over the course of five minutes—no surprise, given the keyboardist's noise improv work with Supersilent.

Rypdal may be the big name on this set, but the increasingly visible Storløkken comes a close second—and the keyboardist's encyclopedic command of sound, harmony and melody is heard throughout the set, as he delivers some harsh Hammond organ on the opening "Tough Enough" that's a precursor to his work with Elephant9 on Dodovoodoo (Rune Grammofon, 2008) and Walk the Nile (Rune Grammofon), and synth work that harkens back to 1970s-era fusion, but without the cheese factor.

The trio's Arendal set, with Mikkelborg, differs from the other four in its general lack of familiar material, a greater emphasis on free improv—accessible yet challenging, edgy but never over-the-edge—and, with the swelling sound of water that introduces this hour-long set of cinematic proportions, truly reflective of the island on which Rypdal lives, situated in the large fjord where Molde is also located. A master of tone and phrasing, with a vivid command of harmonic feedback, and his whammy bar creating a distinctive and definitive sound that's been influential to more than one generation of guitarist, Rypdal's echo and reverb-laden, overdriven and volume pedal-swelling approach truly evokes the sound of expansive vistas and icy fjords. Perhaps more than the other performances—and, just as likely, because of Mikkelborg's participation—the Arendal show feels more harmonically tied to the jazz vernacular, with Storløkken's rich voicings and spare bass lines supporting Mikkelborg's lyrical, at times Miles Davis-ian trumpet on Rypdal's theme-rich "Terje Aren 1," even as the aptly titled "Storm" turns into an electro-centric tone poem, with Vinaccia's maelstrom-like playing evoking the sound and ambience of waves crashing against a cliff.

Vinaccia may be the lesser-known here, but it's his intuitive, near-orchestral approach that makes him so essential—and distinctive—to this trio. He might look like an old metal-head (not that there's anything wrong with that), and a 1998 Montreal, Canada show with the trio supported the impression—not only was the band loud, but Vinaccia was hitting so hard that his bass drum kept creeping forward on the stage of Gésu, forcing Rypdal to constantly nudge it back into place throughout the performance. But as loud and high octane as Skywards Trio, in general, and Vinaccia, in particular, can be—and there's plenty of that on Very Much Alive—it's also about subtlety, color, and dynamics; clearly, Vinaccia's as good a colorist as he is a thundering groove-maker. Though he may rarely swing in a conventional way, "Terje Aren 2" proves he can, especially during Mikkelborg's initially muted, then open horn solo, with Rypdal providing rare chordal support alongside Storløkken's gritty Hammond. And with four sets containing a drum solo ("Paolissimo") that ranges from short (under three minutes) to long (nearly 12), Vinaccia proves himself a soloist with a focus as compositional as the group's leader; more than a capella soloing, however, "Paolissimo is a spontaneous duet with Storløkken, a textural keyboardist with no shortage of corresponding rhythmic foundation.

And so, Very Much Alive acts as a kind of a live counterpoint to Rypdal's self-picked collection from his ECM studio recordings on :rarum VII: Selected Recordings (ECM, 2002); but with a single lineup performing these legacy tracks, it also shows how, regardless of context, and across a period of four decades, Rypdal's compositional voice—which emerged so distinctive and focused from his earliest days—has remained unfailingly so. There has, of course, been growth in his compositional skill, just as listening to these five shows in chronological order suggests a trio that has, over the course of its decade-plus existence, evolved in its liberated approach to even the most structured of environs.

The sixth bonus disc includes two live tracks, featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, bassist Marius Reksjø and turntablist/sampler Jonas Lønnå, from a 2004 Amsterdam performance. Not surprisingly, they're less rock-edged and more electronica-centric, demonstrating Vinaccia's strength in a completely different context. More groove-centric jams than structured pieces, they'd fit comfortably on any of the keyboardist's New Conception of Jazz releases. Three additional tracks, with the Skywards Trio, fit perfectly with the Wesseltoft tracks, though they're less about groove and more completely about color, with the 33-minute "Budapest," in particular, the kind of improvisational experiment that would work well at Kristiansand's annual Punkt "Live Remix" Festival, and the set's strongest example of Vinaccia as a deeply listening percussionist.

With so much of the box consisting of music that's typically billed as Terje Rypdal's Skywards Trio, It would be easy to think of Very Much Alive as belonging to the guitarist. Rypdal is, indeed, the primary composer and titular bandleader, but what emerges from the five-and-a-half-hours of Very Much Alive is the spirit of a true collective, where each member is key to shaping music that may have familiar signposts, yet is completely different with each and every performance. Were it not for Vinaccia's commitment to first recording these and many other shows, and then sifting through and selecting the best music to create this collection, the only documentation of this vital and longstanding group would be its two ECM recordings—which, as strong as they are, only tell part of the story. Instead, rather than appearing to be a very occasional group, this essential box—its title referring as much to the group as it is Vinaccia's thankfully better physical state—positions the Skywards Trio and its drummer as, indeed, and thankfully, Very Much Alive.

Track Listing

CD1 (Fredrikstad 2002): Tough Enough; Happy Ryp; Skywald; Mystery Man; The Curse; Last Night; Paolissimo; Dare Devil.

CD2 (Sarajevo 2001): Skywards; Mystery Man; The Curse; But Then Again; Memory Lane; The Return of Per Ulv; Easy Now; Last Night; Paolissimo; The Chaser.

CD3 (Berlin 2000): Skyward; Elvin; Mystery Man; Dare Devil; The Curse; The Chaser.

CD4 (Sundalsøra 2002): The Curse; Last Night; Living Metal; Paolissimo; Memory Lane; Dare Devil; The Return of Per Ulv.

CD5 (Arendal 2005): Arendal Overture; Terje Aren 1; Terje Aren 2; Storm; Paolissimo; Memory Lane.

CD6 (Bonus Tracks): Moving Metal; Budapest; Bugge 1; Bugge Amsterdam; Paolos Sister Sang.


Paolo Vinaccia: drums, percussion; Terje Rypdal: guitar (CD1-5, CD6#1-2, CD6#5); Ståle Storløkken: keyboards (CD1-5, CD6#1-2, CD6#5); Palle Mikkelborg: trumpet (CD5); Bugge Wesseltoft: keyboards (CD6#3-4); Marius Reksjø: bass (CD6#3-4); Jonas Lønnå: vinyl and sampling (CD6#3-4).

Album information

Title: Very Much Alive | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Jazzland Recordings

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