Piero Umiliani

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This record represents the first opportunity for an Italian jazz composer and arranger to express himself with complete freedom. Up to now it seems to me that Italian jazz has been focused almost entirely on the figure of the soloist, with the obvious result that — when they adopt American themes and arrangements — the Italian version pales in comparison with the original.

On the other hand, when the execution is left entirely to the imagination of the musician, it’s inevitable that for the duration of the record we are entirely at the mercy of the variable quality of the soloist’s inspiration.

So, what better setting for a jazz musician than a new arrangement of the original, supporting him in the solos and alternating the ensemble writing with individual improvisation? It helps him coordinate his ideas, develop them — and catch his breath!

Jazz today is going through a particularly happy period, both commercially and stylistically. It seems to be back to the golden age of swing!

With the end of the long period of renewal, controversy and research — ranging  from the first bop to the Cool of Tristano and the experiments of Kenton — musicians today are living in a period of intense creative activity. They are working in a language that, while it doesn’t ignore the teachings of modern symphonic music, puts more emphasis on the eternal fundamentals of jazz — rhythm, swing and modality.

Even in these arrangements I tried to express myself in a way which was contemporary but classic, without experimental pretensions, focusing on a good sound and effective rhythm. The pieces, all written by me and arranged especially for this recording, were performed on March 25th and 27th, 1957.

The theme of Da Roma a New York (‘From Rome to New York’) is played first by the sax, then repeated by the bass and trombone in unison, then repeated again with the trumpet playing a contrapuntal counter-melody. In the riff, the theme is taken up by the horns, playing a fourth higher. In the second refrain the rhythmic idea of the fifth bar of the theme is developed in a new key, and supports the tenor’s improvisation. The second refrain returns to the original theme, picking up the key of the riff and developing freely, ‘in divertimento’.

After a brief alto solo, the trumpet improvises, accompanied by the entire brass section. A contrapuntal progression starts from the bass and reaches the trumpet, leading eventually to the baritone solo which closes this fourth refrain.

Back to the initial phrase after a very short interlude, here there is an inversion for that with trumpet and contralto playing the theme while tenor and baritone contrast it.

In La fanciulla dai Capelli di Nylon (‘The Girl with the Nylon Hair’, a play on Claude Debussy’s ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’), the clarinet rephrases the well known prelude written by Debussy, performing a melodic pattern of blues, which after a solo progression is played in ensemble by the whole brass section. It is important to notice how the trumpet’s improvisation following the 24 bar long exposition is incredibly well blended with the other instruments and constitutes a complex but homogeneous whole. Eventually the fragment of the theme played by the baritone is joined by the trombone, tenor and then contralto. And then the trumpet as well.

Soraya is a slow ballad with two refrains, the first one revealed in ensemble, while the second features the contralto (with variations) and the piano. At the end we return to the initial fragment of the theme.

Blues for Tony Sciacca is dedicated to the amazing Tony Scott, whose real name reveals his undeniably Italian origin. The two clarinets mutually alternate in exposing the theme as the classic canon requires. The score is played identically at the end, with a few instrumental variations: the trumpet and contralto play in unison the part of the first clarinet while the tenors play the second one (not the trombonist in this part).

In Kon-Tiki the counterpoint of the sax and trombone creates a vaguely South American rhythm that accompanies the trumpet, which presents the theme. The second refrain displays several unison sections and after riffing improvisation by the contralto and the trumpet, the initial theme is played again.

I think that the style of jazz we are playing nowadays has a characteristic quality distinct from the first wave of Cool: the re-evaluation of vital elements of vintage jazz. Rather than looking far and wide for new inspirations, like chamber music of the 18th century, twelve-tone technique, or Cuban folklore, here today we recall the authentic tradition, going back to the roots of our music. And since in jazz nothing is more jazz than the blues, here’s a new set of blues in the style of Shorty Rogers. Vasi a Samo (‘Vessels to Samos’ — the Italian equivalent of ‘Coals to Newcastle’; the implication being of something taken to where it is least needed) belongs to this set. The theme, played by the piano and then by unison saxes, goes through a series of variations and solos until it is reprised by the horn section, first as a canon and then together in harmony.

The playful title of the piece was suggested to me by the fact that this LP was intended by RCA, not so much for the Italian public, but for the American market, which seems to me to be “Bringing coals to Newcastle”!

On Canzonetta (‘Jingle’) I experimented with some smooth counterpoint effects based on the slow melodic line. The tenor resumes the riff solo, with the intervention of the piano breaking the monotone of the brass.

Sic et simpliciter (‘Simply So’) is the perfect model of a harmonic progression: I deliberately avoided any melodic idea, even during the riff which is built with predominantly rhythmic elements based on a progression of high chords. The theme, as introduced by the piano in the first refrain, is then played by the horns in the last one.

In Aria di danza (‘Air Dance’) it is the melodic idea stated at the outset by the trombone which sets the whole piece in motion. The riff indeed is the same phrase, with variations at the end played by the trumpet in the key of the subdominant.

Le sette virtù (‘The Seven Virtues’) — that’s the name I wanted to give to the final composition of this set, built on the harmony of a well known American ballad (very commonly used, since the time of bop). But instead, since the piece is dedicated to its seven soloists, I jokingly suggested a change of title. So here we have I Sette Peccati (‘The Seven Deadly Sins’): these names are well known in the highest reaches of Italian jazz and need no introduction. Who among fans doesn’t know Giulio Libano (trumpet player, later arranger and conductor of Chet Baker’s sessions in Milan), Glauco Masetti (alto sax and clarinet), Eraldo Volontè (tenor sax and clarinet), Mario Midana (trombonist, who later worked with Armando Trovajoli’s orchestra), Sandro Bagalini (baritone sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, tenor sax), Alceo Guatelli (double bassist and later a distinguished composer) and Gilberto ‘Gil’ Cuppini (drummer), for their many concerts, frequent recordings and radio broadcasts?

Some of them are themselves leaders of orchestras, for instance Masetti, Volontè, Cuppini — the latter has recorded a LP which has also been released in the USA on RCA Victor — Around the World in Jazz : Italy by Gil Cuppini and his Stars.

All my gratitude to them for their friendly and willing collaboration, which was essential for the success of these recordings. A special thank goes to the maestro Alberto Angelini who supervised the recordings, made in Milan for RCA Italiana.

Piero Umiliani