Carla Bley: The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (WATT/34)

TLC Find Paolo Fresu

Carla Bley
The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu

Paolo Fresu trumpet
Andy Sheppard soprano and tenor saxophones
Carla Bley piano
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums
Recorded May 19/20 and mixed and mastered August 19-21, 2007 at La Buissonne Studio, Pernes Les Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: October 26, 2007

The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu is one of those rare albums that not only tells but also demonstrates a story through deft self-presentation. The CD booklet is a journey in and of itself, laying down the music’s backstory to the point of admirable absurdity.

WATT-34-booklet- 7

When we first encounter the quartet of Carla Bley (piano), Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones), Steve Swallow (bass), and Billy Drummond (drums), they’ve just been traveling south of the American border, when they hear tell of Paolo Fresu, who has been teaching and playing nearby. So begins a search for the elusive trumpeter that takes them to Central America:

Costa Rica

In the wake of all that drama, they learn that Fresu is in Rome, and off they go to the Italian capital by way of Paris, while on tour, to find him at last:

WATT-34-booklet-8

The interpretations that emerge from this seemingly fated alignment of signatures are as variegated as the mythology that binds them. “The Banana Quintet” is a six-part suite in quintessential Bley style. Fresu opens by extending an invitation to Sheppard’s tenor before Drummond’s brushes prime the canvas for every stroke that follows. The many allusions contained therein, spanning the gamut from the Beatles to the blues, parallel the tonal combinations that comprise them. And while the mood is gentle at heart, peaks of expression arise where needed. Fresu knows how to handle these with grace, and gives them a retrospective cogency to balance the wit at hand. Whether in the wryly peeled “Three Banana” or the melodically sophisticated “Four,” the quintet knows where it’s going at every interval. Some of the most rhapsodic textures come across in “Five Banana,” in which dovetailed bass and drums allow Sheppard’s tenor to leap with ecstasis and Fresu’s trumpet to unravel a spectrum’s worth of tonal colors. Indeed, Fresu shows himself to be close in spirit to Enrico Rava when it comes to lyrical approach. Sheppard gives over to beauties of his own, mind-melding with Fresu along lines of emotional timbre.

“Death Of Superman / Dream Sequence #1 – Flying,” written in memory of Christopher Reeve, spins pianistic thermals for Swallow’s outstretched wings. Delicate cymbals streak like clouds in flyby, a muted trumpet stringing chains of memory in their wake. The band bows out with a reading of Bley’s classic “Ad Infinitum” that, while relatively straightforward in arrangement, elicits particular grit from Sheppard as Drummond adds sunset gradations.

Pristinely recorded at La Buissonne Studio in Pernes Les Fontaines, with Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard engineering, the effect of all this is so spacious and fluid, it might just as easily have been released on ECM, and ranks among my Top 3 WATT albums of all time.

Paolo Fresu: Mistico Mediterraneo (ECM 2203)

Mistico Mediterraneo

Paolo Fresu
A Filetta
Daniele di Bonaventura
Mistico Mediterraneo

Paolo Fresu trumpet, flugelhorn
Daniele di Bonaventura bandoneón
A Filetta
Jean-Claude Acquaviva seconda
Paul Giansily terza
Jean-Luc Geronimi seconda
José Filippi bassu
Jean Sicurani bassu
Maxime Vuillamier bassu
Ceccè Acquaviva bassu
Recorded January 2010, ArteSuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed June 2010 by Manfred Eicher, Paolo Fresu, and Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Paolo Fresu

My first encounter with Corsican chant was the wondrous Chant Corse, released in 1994 on Harmonia Mundi. Its Rubik’s cube of harmonies, burlap-textured singing, and precise intonation left indelible impressions that lay dormant until Mistico Mediterraneo graced my ears with its irresistible fusion. This phenomenal new project from Paolo Fresu casts the trumpeter’s rounded improvisations into the wind of bandoneón player Daniele di Bonaventura and the all-male Corsican singing group A Filetta. The name means “bracken” in Corsican, referring to a hardy fern that grows along the island and standing in this context as a symbol for the traditions it preserves. A Filetta’s recording career began in 1981, long before Harmonia Mundi introduced Corsican chant to a wider audience, and hopefully awareness and listenership will expand by influence of this groundbreaking ECM production.

The song cycle documented here is the result of four years’ refinement following an initial meeting in 2006. In his liner text, Steve Lake astutely notes the similarity between it and the collaborations between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. He makes this comparison not only because of the crossover, but also because it forges a living, as opposed to revived, music. As such, it represents much more than a balancing act of the old and the new. Rather, it upends the scale in favor of a highly enmeshed sound from which one can no longer tease apart one influence from another.

Mistico performance
(Photo credit: Andrea Boccalini)

The Corsican strains of Mistico are written in an indigenous style of polyphony and originate mostly in the pen of singer Jean-Claude Acquaviva, who joined A Filetta in 1978 at the age of 13. His “Rex tremendae” sets parameters with its seamless combination of voices, drone, and electronic sheen. In tandem with di Bonaventura’s dreamy filigree, Fresu’s lines push roots through the rolling earth, churned to consistency of prayer. Offerings from other composers sprinkled throughout put such sanctities into bright relief. Bruno Coulais’s “Le lac” is among the album’s more ethereal, while his rhythmic ingenuities evoke African religious song in his setting of the “Gloria” (noteworthy also for Fresu’s flanged inlaying) and give the instrumentalists a fronted stage in “La folie du Cardinal.” These last three were originally written for film, as was Acquaviva’s “Liberata,” and as autonomous pieces open the possibility for fresh imagery. Three pieces by Jean-Michele Gannelli include the oceanic “Da tè à mè,” which perhaps best highlights the singers’ kaleidoscopic profundity, which in the braided “Dies irae” are the illumination to Fresu’s cellular imaginings.

At points, elements diverge for sessions of focus. “Corale,” for instance, establishes a flowing atmosphere without voices. “Figliolu d’ella” begins with that same duet of bandoneón and trumpet and bleeds into voices alone before welcoming both forces into a resonant finish. “Gradualis” features bandoneón and singers only, the concluding high note of which is an unforgettable color shift and leaves the credit roll of di Bonvaventura’s “Sanctus” to sail us out toward misty horizons. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that no English translations are provided to help navigate those waters. On the other, the words burrow so deeply into us that linguistic signs cease to matter altogether.

None of this would be so if not for Stefano Amerio’s brilliant engineering, which draws out a code so fundamental that it can only be written on the surface of direct experience.

(To hear samples of Mistico Mediterraneo, click here.)

Ralph Towner/Paolo Fresu: Chiaroscuro (ECM 2085)

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro

Ralph Towner classical, 12-string and baritone guitars
Paolo Fresu trumpet, flugelhorn
Recorded October 2008 at Artesuono Recording Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ralph Towner describes his first encounter with Paolo Fresu at a festival in Sardinia: “I didn’t know him at all then, but from the very first phrase that he played, I thought: This guy really understands melodies!” Surely, we can say the same about both musicians once the first bars of “Wistful Thinking” lay the corner pieces of the ensuing puzzle, establishing with them a language of tasteful ornament. If the overall effect feels nostalgic, it’s because the track reprises material from Open Letter, an even more unusual pairing that found Towner in the company of drummer Peter Erskine. Another, “Zephyr,” was last heard on Oregon’s Ecotopia and shows in this duo version an even barer creative process at work.

Towner and Fresu

More to the point, Chiaroscuro is an album of balanced architecture, each tune an archway held strong by a melodic keystone. The title track, for one, turns like a windmill in April, sprouting with fractal energy that integrates the musicians in the same way that light and shadow dance in the cover photograph. There is always something of one in the other, even in the solo passages. Whether navigating Miles Davis’s undying “Blue In Green” (the only non-Towner piece of the program) or the propulsive “Punta Giara,” the dance of Towner’s earth tones and Fresu’s hints of sunrise maintains a robust meridian.

The guitarist’s rhythms are so compact that it’s refreshing to hear a partner drawing melodic threads through them without getting buried. In “Doubled Up” especially, Towner’s busy fingerwork would seem to shelter no room for interpretation, yet finds harmony in the trumpeter’s muted approach. Deeper still are the contrasts of “Sacred Place,” a chromatic solo piece from Towner that finds haunting reprise with Fresu’s unforced elaborations. These three tracks also make use of the baritone guitar, a low-tuned instrument new to Towner’s toolkit.

For balance (in both content and form), a dash of improvisations rounds out the session, slinging Fresu high above Towner’s incandescent 12-string. Pliant yet unflinching in its integrity, this is music that is organic by design.