Enrico Rava: On the Dance Floor (ECM 2293)

On the Dance Floor

Enrico Rava
Parco della Musica Jazz Lab
On the Dance Floor

Enrico Rava trumpet
Andrea Tofanelli trumpet, flugelhorn
Claudio Corvini trumpet, flugelhorn
Mauro Ottolini trombone, tuba
Daniele Tittarelli alto saxophone, flute
Dan Kinzelman tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Franz Bazzani keyboard
Giovanni Guidi piano, Fender Rhodes, toy piano
Dario Deidda bass
Marcello Giannini electric guitar
Zeno de Rossi drums
Ernesto Lopez Maturell percussion
Recorded live 20 May and 30 November 2011 at Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome by Massimiliano Cervini and Roberto Lioli, respectively
Mixed by Stefano Amerio, Enrico Rava, Mauro Ottolini, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The story of On the Dance Floor is destined to be a highlight of ECM apocrypha. Following the extensive media coverage of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Enrico Rava immersed himself in the King of Pop’s unparalleled songbook. “It became clear to me that for years I had ignored one of the great protagonists of 20th-century music and dance,” says the Italian jazz trumpeter. “A total artist, a perfectionist, a genius.” Going against the grain of mainstream opinion, he discovered an affinity for the relatively recent albums, notably HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001). All of which makes this set of whimsical arrangements by Mauro Ottolini that much more heartfelt for being rough around the edges and, at times, obscurely chosen. Gone are the autotuned drones of studio-only memorials. In their place is an incendiary performance, recorded live at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, from which Rava’s backing band gets its name. And in this respect we have something more than a tribute. Indeed, it is a cannonball dive into the popular pool.

Rava“I felt the necessity to delve deeper into Jackson’s music
by adding something of myself to it.”

There is a telling sequence in Spike Lee’s 2012 documentary, Bad 25, during which one interviewee after another is moved to wordless tears when asked about MJ’s sudden passing. It is this poignancy, this inability to express an overwhelming sadness, that keys us into the importance of one man’s contributions to musical art. In light of this, what better way to begin the Rava program than with “Speechless”? The almost funereal piano intro would seem to indicate as much and gives us some moments to reflect on the legacy we are about to encounter, albeit in big band form. Somber horns weave a floating pyre, from which Rava sounds his dedication, accompanied only by harp before Dario Deidda’s bass draws a pliant line of tenderness. Gorgeous, breathy alto work from Daniele Tittarelli forms the lifeblood of a song that in its original form begins and ends with MJ alone:

Your love is magical, that’s how I feel
But I have not the words here to explain
Gone is the grace for expressions of passion
But there are worlds and worlds of ways to explain

Ottolini’s present version dutifully preserves these bookends, only now as a web of brass. This is followed by a sparkling rendition of “They Don’t Care About Us” (also off HIStory), which begins like an Art Ensemble of Chicago excursion before sliding into the Double Dutch chants that so distinctly mark the original. It brings a range of sounds to fruition, from an airy, orchestral sensibility via synth strings (which allude briefly to “Who Is It” from 1991’s Dangerous, otherwise unrepresented) to Dan Kinzelman’s spate of enraptured tenor discourse, and all of it threaded by Rava’s triumphant charge in a steep of delightful Reggae flavor.

From an icily evocative opening, “Privacy” (Invincible) launches into a potent chord progression that recalls Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and flows with a swanky grittiness around a thread of electric guitar. The latter provides pulse and vocality to “Blood On The Dance Floor,” from the eponymous 1997 remix album. Yet here is where the project begins to reveal its true character in the lightness of approach, which at moments detracts from the feelings with which seasoned fans will be readily familiar. The rather straight-laced syncopations also eject a few nuances from the original song. Another curious thing happens with “Little Susie,” which, to one who doesn’t know the original, might seem a slow but nevertheless swinging tune, all the while missing out on both its lyrical power and controversial artist Gottfried Helnwein’s accompanying image in the HIStory CD booklet:

Little Susie

Somebody killed little Susie
The girl with the tune
Who sings in the daytime at noon
She was there screaming
Beating her voice in her doom
But nobody came to her soon…

Hints of this tragedy remain in the music box intro before giving way to Rava’s caramel tone, which unleashes washes of sepia and bleeding watercolor. Despite the gothic waltz-like qualities and sensitive subject matter, it breathes here with a far more positive life. Its pairing with “Blood On The Dance Floor” is a clever one, for both feature a Susie as protagonist. In one, she is victim; in the other, she is predator. The obligatory nod to “Thriller” suffers from a similar lack of context, while also acting as a prime vehicle for Rava’s superbly considered acrobatics. The fluidity of his virtuosity—at age 72, no less—is a wonder to behold, as is the trombone solo from the arranger himself. And one can’t help but revel in the free-for-all that erupts before the fanfare.

A surprising turn comes in Deidda’s solo bass rendition of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” This intimate yet playfully inflected look at a classic tune from 1987’s Bad is remarkable, if abbreviated (it elides the middle 8), and paves the on-ramp to a rollicking “Smooth Criminal.” As the song that finally won Rava over to the MJ ethos, it delivers vitality in the soloing, yet one is hard-pressed to explain the blatant note change in the chorus. “History” provides a fitting summation, leaving us with a pleasant aftertaste as we go our separate ways to the tune of Rava’s impassioned extroversion.

Nestled among all of these is his favorite: the Charlie Chaplin-esque “Smile,” which finds the trumpeter at peak soul. One can almost feel the grain of black and white, its old-time charm lifting from the screen in a nostalgic dance. This tune works best of all, if only because it and its source pay homage to something that is beyond them both.

Although I grew up with Thriller in my veins, I concede to Rava insofar as MJ’s later work is far better than it is often made out to be. That being said, it is difficult to oust Bad from the throne it occupies in my listening heart. For lifelong fans like myself, Rava’s redux requires a few spins in order to take the album on its own terms, if only because the originals are so ingrained into our very DNA through years, and countless more to come, of experiential listening. Here one must encounter them anew.

It’s easy for us to talk about artists who lived long ago as if they were somehow among us. And yet, how do we evoke an artist whose absence is still fresh, whose life and work continues to intersect with so many millions of others? With all the MJ tribute albums already out there and those sure to come, drawing compilations of his preexisting or unfinished work, this one takes a newfound love for what drove him and turns it into something passionate and fun.

In the end, On the Dance Floor lacks the voice. By this I mean not only MJ’s phenomenal pipes, but also the words behind them. What distinguishes his later work is its mounting critique against an unforgiving media that searched for every possible opportunity to lambaste one of the most important artists of our time, as well as a more daring interest and insight into the darker corners of the human psyche (“Little Susie” being a prime example). By the same token, in spite of the many tributes which, ethically or not, have capitalized on his passing, here we have something joyous, uplifting, affirmative.

One can therefore see these as translations of a vibrant canon. Like translations, they are enjoyable enough on their own terms, yet how fortunate that the originals are accessible beyond all language barriers, for MJ will forever be a language unto himself.

(To hear samples of On the Dance Floor, click here.)

R.I.P. (1958-2009)

Enrico Rava/Dino Saluzzi Quintet: Volver


Enrico Rava
Dino Saluzzi

Enrico Rava trumpet
Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Harry Pepl guitar
Furio Di Castri bass
Bruce Ditmas drums
Recorded October 1986 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Before the title of Volver (Spanish: to return; to come back) graced Pedro Almodóvar’s colorful 2006 film, it found a home two decades previously on the cover of this most intriguing date from bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi, who joins the roving Enrico Rava Quartet. Harry Pepl starts things off right with a plaintive guitar in “Le But Du Souffle,” providing a yielding surface for Saluzzi to carve his ethereal shapes. Add to this the earthbound bass of Furio Di Castri and Rava’s heavenly blowing, and you get a formula for pure sonic bliss. This typically rubato ECM intro smoothes into the jaunty territories of “Minguito,” which form a unique sound brought to fervent life by Bruce Ditmas at the kit. After a killer thesis statement, Rava draws from a single note an ever-flitting butterfly of a solo. Pepl follows in his wake with effervescence, plowing that same field of perpetual energy before Saluzzi arcs forward with the album’s most resplendent solo. The rhythm section builds to fervor underneath him, as if pointing fingers skyward in want of flight. “Luna-Volver” is a lilting piece for bandoneón alone, which in this resonant space develops like a sepia-tinted photograph, a tender prelude to the ecstatic expression of audible love in “Tiempos De Ausencias.” A slab of free jazz awaits us in “Ballantine For Valentine,” which from a wrenching Bill Frisell-like guitar throws delicious textures to the wind before the dark spiral of “Visions” catches the light of finality as if on a glassine edge.

The band gives plenty of space to contemplate each section, taking long, deep breaths between solos. Like a tree, the results maintain rootedness, no matter how high they climb. Rava is the sap through its veins, Saluzzi the sunlight in the branches. The two make for quite a pair, and it’s a shame they never conversed more often. My only caveat is the mid-heavy production. While normally I like being drowned in reverb, in this case it’s just a bit too plush for its own good. It obscures some of the finer gradations of the musicianship and forces a final fadeout into premature silence.

Enrico Rava and Thomas Stöwsand (ECM 1166 & 1224)

On October 5, 2006, the audible world lost a tireless champion. Thomas Stöwsand was a musician and journalist by trade when he joined forces with Manfred Eicher in 1970. Over the next decade he helped lay earth for the secluded pantheon that the label would soon become. From early on he believed that the best way to promote ECM’s quickly growing scene was to bring it directly to the consumer. The crowning achievement of his efforts was the booking agency Saudades Tourneen, which he founded in 1983. Consequently, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny found themselves touring for the first time before European audiences. A healthy chunk of Stöwsand’s complete roster reads like an ECM hall of fame: John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Towner, Paul Motian, Dave Holland and many others all had the great fortune of being sucked into his whirlwind of passion. “I know he loved their music,” observes Nonesuch’s Bob Hurwitz, “but I think Thomas loved them as people even more.” This was, as Hurwitz goes on to say, a part of his legacy. I imagine it is also part of the legacies of every musician he represented. These were the people he surrounded himself with, the ones who fanned a flame much too extroverted to contain. Stöwsand lived fast, drove fast, and seems to have made connections as easily as one might breathe. His personal touch was felt, and still is felt, worldwide, as Saudades carries on his mission through the pioneering forces of John Zorn, the Kronos Quartet, Fred Frith, and the many others who funnel decades of close working relationships with the man into their unquenchable creative thirsts.

Yet behind his acute business acumen, infectious personality, and resounding laugh, Stöwsand was also quietly producing a fascinating catalogue of albums. Nearly all of these were available only on JAPO, though thankfully a gleaming handful of Manfred Schoof material has since been reissued on CD. There were two albums, however, that dropped needles directly to flagship vinyl. Both were recorded with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava’s fledgling quartet at the famed Tonstudio Bauer and were the only two Rava albums not produced by Eicher. The first of these, the curiously titled >>Ah<< (released 1980), featured bassist Giovanni Tommaso and drummer Bruce Ditmas, while 1982’s Opening Night placed Rava alongside bassist Furio Di Castri and the great Aldo Romano on drums. Both feature Franco D’Adrea, whose pianism lights up even the darkest corners. Bafflingly, neither album has felt the touch of a laser, and so, for what it’s worth, here’s a play-by-play.

ECM 1166

Enrico Rava Quartet
>>Ah<< (ECM 1166)

Enrico Rava trumpet
Franco D’Andrea piano
Giovanni Tommaso bass
Bruce Ditmas drums
Recorded December 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

Feeling a little under the weather? Then open up and say Ah, because Doctor Rava is in! This warm rainy day session is the perfect sonic elixir for what ails you. The sumptuous diagnostics of “Lulu” lay their pianistic hands upon us first, and with them the album’s leitmotif. Rava and D’Andrea are in fine conversational form here, as they ever are, cracking open a Pandora’s Box of free improv before re-attuning to a smoldering vamp. Rava starts us off strongly in “Outsider,” in which he swings his rhythm section around and around like children holding hands in a field. A swift kick from Ditmas brings us solid thematic closure. “Small Talk” allows Tommaso his just airtime in what is by far the highlight of the examination. Rava checks our pulse in the groovier “Rose Selavy,” breezes wistfully through the title track, and gives way to “Trombonauta,” the album’s brief yet impactful ballad, before ending “At The Movies.” This eclectic ode breathes with the magic of Cinema Paradiso while threatening to topple from the weight of its own remembrance.

<< Gary Peacock: Shift In The Wind (ECM 1165)
>> Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM 1167)

… . …

ECM 1224

Enrico Rava Quartet
Opening Night

Enrico Rava trumpet, fluegelhorn
Franco D’Andrea piano
Furio Di Castri double bass
Aldo Romano drums, guitar
Recorded December 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” welcomes us with open arms as Rava skips, keens, wails, and laughs his way along this journey filled with nostalgia and multilingual communication. D’Andrea is downright ecstatic as he stumbles into a teaser of an ending. The title track is the album’s showpiece, unraveling from its languorous intro into an urgent stretch of virtuosity. Rava brings unwavering life to his playing, always playful, always present. “Diva,” on the other hand, is far mellower and arches its back across dusky skies.

Side B kicks off with a “Grrr.” Aside from being perhaps the greatest title in the Rava catalogue, it also ignites D’Andrea as he runs through prickly fields with supremely targeted chording. “F. Express” brings some pop to the album’s snap and crackle, further accentuated by unstoppable antics at the piano, while “Venise” again turns down the lights to a comforting level of solitude. “Thank You, Come Again” brings some rat-a-tat-tat platitudes to bear upon one of Rava’s catchiest tunes. Replete with cascading pianism and downright transportive trumpeting, this is as good as it gets.

This diptych shows off Rava at his liveliest and hones noticeable edges in the freer passages. For this listener, however, D’Andrea nails the spotlight every time he puts his fingers to those black-and-whites, leaving us with two exciting dates that are beyond ripe for reissue, and which are a vibrant testament to a producer, promoter, and friend whose indelible fingerprints continue to glow in even the darkest ignorance.

<< Jan Garbarek: Paths, Prints (ECM 1223)
>> Dewey Redman Quartet: The Struggle Continues (ECM 1225)

Enrico Rava Quartet: s/t (ECM 1122)

ECM 1122

Enrico Rava Quartet

Enrico Rava trumpet
Roswell Rudd trombone
Jean-François Jenny-Clark bass
Aldo Romano drums
Recorded March 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Enrico Rava, one of the trumpet’s unsung heroes, unearthed a gem in this self-titled quartet offering from 1978. Although one can always expect an expertly realized variety in any Rava project, what makes this date so special is the assembly of its players. The Italian virtuoso’s hit-you-in-the-chest lyricism—matched perhaps only by label mate Kenny Wheeler—is foiled beautifully by trombonist Roswell Rudd, a free jazz specialist and Archie Shepp go-to whom ECM enthusiasts will recall from Michael Mantler’s CONCERTOS and a smattering of Carla Bley releases on Watt. Rudd’s fluid undertow brings our leader’s more incisive melodic lines to vivid light, gently laying down long thematic carpets upon which every improvisatory step leaves behind an indelible print.

The opening chunk of “Lavori Casalinghi” doesn’t so much kick things off as pull the curtains to reveal a slow sunrise. The drumming of Aldo Romano sets off a spate of powerful statements from the two brassmen, each linked by a chain of highly charged relays. The rhythm section never lags, and even spawns a nimble-fingered turn from bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark before sliding back into the mournful twists with which it began. This is one of two substantial cuts, the other being “Tramps,” a fifteen-and-a-half-minute swell of sometimes frenzied proportions. Rava and Rudd draw each other into ecstatic exchanges, their playing at its most soaring. Wilder moments are short-lived, but always tasteful. Romano shows off one of the most fluid snare rolls in the business here, flanked by rousing phrasings from Rava and Rudd both. “The Fearless Five” is the first of three shorter numbers that flesh out this balanced effort. A bit of Monk creeps in, foreshadowing the well-worn “Round About Midnight,” which the crew buffs to like-new shine. Finally, the upbeat intro of “Blackmail” leads into some prime playtime for Rava. And as he skips his way across the sky, we take comfort in the somber closure into which he lays his final rest.

All in all, a fine session bubbling with personality and heft, and one well worth owning for the Rava newbie and veteran alike.

<< Ralph Towner: Batik (ECM 1121)
>> Barre Phillips: Three Day Moon (ECM 1123)

Enrico Rava: The Plot (ECM 1078)

ECM 1078 CD

Enrico Rava
The Plot

Enrico Rava trumpet
John Abercrombie electric and accoustic guitars
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded August, 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Like its cover, Enrico Rava’s The Plot is a storybook with much to delight our hungry eyes and ears. Its dramatis personae will be familiar to the ECM enthusiast: John Abercrombie as the guitarist, Palle Danielsson as the bassist, Jon Christensen as the drummer, and Rava himself as the trumpeter who leads them on a profoundly satisfying adventure. Our tale begins with the airy bass line of “Tribe.” Abercrombie’s restrained wails and Christensen’s splashing cymbals spread their arms wide in a loose net across the page. Rava spins outward from its center like a spider, checking every tether to make sure it is securely fastened to the surrounding flora. Only then does he jump off, held by a single lifeline, almost invisible in the air, as he soars in his improvised freefall. Rava then takes us “On The Red Side Of The Street,” where focused solos and curiosity comingle incognito. What begins as erratic reverie in “Amici” turns into a protracted groove in which Rava unleashes a most potent narrative omniscience. To this, Abercrombie adds own staccato punctuation. The next chapter introduces us to “Dr. Ra And Mr. Va.” These mysterious alter egos paint a world of black and white, but describe it with the most colorful language at their disposal. Rava’s brassy pirouettes bring lively energy to the climax, instigating an ecstatic call and response with Abercrombie. We then come to a sepia illustration, Rava’s “Foto Di Famiglia,” a duet for acoustic guitar and trumpet. A plaintive stroll through half-remembered places long since transformed by the passage of time and gentrification, it is the counterpart to “Parks” on 1975’s The Pilgrim And The Stars. A brief interlude, it is usurped by the 15-minute epilogue, from which the album gets its name. It eases into our hearts with a somber yet soulful trumpet solo against an awakening rhythm section. The synergy builds to a non-abrasive intensity, threaded by Abercrombie’s hieroglyphic chords before shifting to his fuzz box sound, careening through the night like some cosmic wayfarer whose only guides are the sounds of Rava’s winding paths. And as the final page turns to reveal its blank reverse, we want nothing more than to reread this forgotten classic immediately.

<< Edward Vesala: Nan Madol (ECM 1077)
>> Jack DeJohnette: Pictures (ECM 1079)

Enrico Rava: The Pilgrim And The Stars (1063)

ECM 1063

Enrico Rava
The Pilgrim And The Stars

Enrico Rava trumpet
John Abercrombie guitar
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded June 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In today’s wealth of commercially visible jazz trumpeters, one pines for vintage brass at the lips of musicians for whom “creativity” is more than just a brand. And while I’m the first to admit to having a soft spot for the likes of Chris Botti, there’s nothing like an Enrico Rava experience to wipe your slate of appreciation clean and start you on a fresh path. From the striking cover to the synergistic musicianship, Rava’s ECM debut is an album to return to time and again. Joined by a dream team of John Abercrombie on guitar, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums, Rava reaches for the sky with this one, and succeeds.

The title track brings the album to life in raspy exhalation. This whisper turns into full-blown speech as Abercrombie takes the rhythmic wheel. He steers us into “Parks,” in which we find Rava at his most incisive. In a lively duet with acoustic guitar, he lays down a smooth melody filled with a nostalgia you never knew you had. This is a fantastic track, and one of Rava’s brightest moments. Next is “Bella,” which lays down a gentle groove before Rava flexes his lungs like wings, setting every note to flight. Christensen brings on the frenzy, to which Rava adds his own, yet with a delicacy that never leaves him. An intense guitar solo of soaring and piercing clarity follows. A rare whoop from Christensen knocks things up a rung or two, and a very present Danielsson cuts to the quick before ending on a glorious reinstatement of the theme from Rava. The lead melody of “Pesce Naufrago” coalesces out of the slow-motion big bangs that birth much of the band’s gravity. “Surprise Hotel” is a wilder affair, with energetic runs all around in a confined space. “By The Sea” offers wonderful reinforcement in the bass as Abercrombie circles overhead with distant cries. We end with “Blancasnow,” in which Rava floats his trumpet in the murky waters of his rhythm section. After a free and easy introduction, he pulls us toward even greater melodic destinations.

What’s amazing about these musicians in that they conduct so much creative electricity from such quiet musical circuits. Rava is, as per usual, variously a raging fire and a delicate flicker, straying as far from the wick as possible while remaining tethered by the thinnest of flames. The band is miked in a nice full spread, drums and trumpet at center, bass in the mid-right channel, and guitar anchored hard left. This leaves plenty of room for us to walk among them and enjoy the sounds as if they were our own.

<< Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)
>> Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert (ECM 1064/65)