Simone Guiducci and the Gramelot Ensemble
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cd cover Simone Guiducci and the Gramelot Ensemble
Chorale (2002)
Dancin' Roots (2004)
Storie di fiume (2006)
All titles via Felmay (www.felmay.it)

The gypsy swing of the Hot Club de Paris may have been the first distinctive jazz idiom to emerge outside the United States, but jazz took root earlier in Italy.

During the 1920s musicians such as Arturo Agazzi and his Syncopated Orchestra won widespread popularity playing their versions of African American "hot" music. The Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini condemned jazz as "barbaric Negro anti-music" and tried to censor it, but by then Italians were already hooked. The supposed cultural contamination the dictator tried to prevent reached into his own household, with his son Romano catching the bug. After the war Romano Mussolini, an accomplished pianist, led one of Italy's most popular jazz bands and toured with Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Chet Baker.

Jazz really took off in Italy in the post-war years, with musicians playing in every American style, from bebop to avant garde to fusion. Unlike America, where jazz artists today face a shortage of decent venues, Italy boasts jazz clubs up and down the peninsula and on the islands. Each year Italy offers dozens of festivals, from modest, small-town affairs to major events in Pescara, Umbria, and Rome that attract audiences from all over Europe and beyond.

Most Italian jazz musicians don't get to play outside Italy or Europe but some of best have become internationally known. First-rank artists include trumpeters Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu, pianists Enrico Pieranunzi, Salvatore Bonafede, Stefano Bollani and Danilo Rea, saxophonists Gianluigi Trovesi, Mauro Negri (who also play clarinet) and Stefano di Battista, clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi, bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and percussionists Michele Rabbia, and Aldo Romano.

Most of these musicians play straight-up American styles, but they often ground their improvisations in specifically Italian sources, whether the film themes of Nino Rota, operatic arias, folk music, or Neapolitan canzone. Gianluigi Trovesi, perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most innovative of Italian jazz musicians, set the bar very high indeed with his brilliant synthesis of European classical music, Italian folk materials and free jazz improvisation.

Ritmia, a group led by the Tuscan organetto master Riccardo Tesi, fused northern Italian folk melodies and jazz on their classic 1986 recording, Forse il Mare. The Sicilian violinist Enzo Rao and his band Shamal have crafted a jazz style that incorporates elements of the island's folk music and Arab influences. The Neapolitan saxophonist Daniele Sepe has created a unique idiom from local materials, particularly southern Italian tarantella and tammurriata, and imported elements, especially reggae, and the innovations of Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Gato Barbieri.

Simone Guiducci, an acoustic guitarist from Turin, is another Italian who has developed an individual style through fusion or "contaminazione," the non-pejorative term for musical hybridization favored by the more adventurous Italian players. His band's name, the Gramelot Ensemble, signifies his intent, as "gramelot" is Italian playwright Dario Fo's name for the made-up language he uses in his works, a compound of various Italian dialects, words taken from other languages and some Fo invented.

Guiducci first appeared on the Italian jazz scene in the early 1990s, playing with Mauro Negri and Gianluigi Trovesi. But he didn't really make his mark as a recording artist until 2000, with the release of Cantador, his first album on the Italian label Felmay. Since then, he has released in rapid succession the three CDs Chorale, Dancin' Roots, and Storie di Fiume.

The accomplished and versatile Guiducci draws upon Northern Italian and other European folk musics, as well as Middle Eastern influences. His folk-jazz fusion, however, sometimes sounds less like jazz than bal musette, a French popular music with affinities to jazz that emerged in Parisian dancehalls during the late 19th century and reached its peak popularity in the mid-1940s. Italian musicians, and particularly accordionists, who had migrated to France, played a major role in the development of the style. The core of Gramelot - accordionist Fausto Beccalossi, Guiducci, and clarinetist Achille Succi - is typical of the frontline of a bal musette ensemble. Minor keys, jaunty melodies, and extroverted playing further link the Gramelot sound to the Parisian idiom.

The genre-hopping favored by Guiducci and other like-minded musicians has its pitfalls. As the klezmer scholar-musician Henry Sapoznik once remarked, sometimes fusion just results in confusion. Guiducci and the Gramelot Ensemble at times fall prey to this hazard, producing unsatisfying pastiche instead of a seamless synthesis of folk melodies and jazz improvisation. Flashy but empty virtuosity also mars some of the band's work. "Canzone per Miranda" and "Chorale No. 2," from Dancin' Roots, are two cases in point; each has its moments but both suffer from Guiducci's showy finger-picking and chromatic runs, which can recall Pat Metheny at his most self-indulgent. His penchant for accompanying his fretboard exertions with Keith Jarrett-esque hums and groans doesn't help, either.

Listen
"Gramelot in 6/8"
A typical Guiducci stratagem is to alternate melodic passages with torrid improvisational sections. When this works, the results can be remarkable. On "Gramelot in 6/8," from Chorale, the band is at its cohesive, dynamic and soulful best. The gifted Italian American trumpeter Ralph Alessi (who also appears on Dancin' Roots) drives the track, soaring skyward as the band reaches a full boil. "La Tur dal Sucar," from Dancin' Roots, features Guiducci's flamenco-infused soloing, supported at first by percussionist Roberto Dani's hand drums and Achille Succi's bass clarinet, followed by polyphonic ensemble playing of thrilling intensity.

Two tracks from Dancin' Roots, "Nedah" and "Maestro dei sogni," depart from the folk-jazz/bal musette ambiance, providing some of the album's most impressive, and surprising moments. The latter features buoyant interplay between Alessi, Guiducci, and Dani on traps. On "Nedah," Alessi's trumpet purrs and flutters in counterpoint to Beccalossi's distinctive, and non-Mediterranean, accordion lines and wordless vocal.

Chorale's quintet of guest artists includes, besides Alessi, cellist Erik Friedlander (a standout soloist on "La sigagna"), vocalist Maria Pia De Vito, clarinetist Chris Speed (his "Kompa" deftly blends klezmer and Arab motifs) and soprano saxist Nicolas Simion. All provide solid contributions, but Alessi makes the strongest impression.

Don Byron, the exploratory clarinet virtuoso from Brooklyn, joins Gramelot on Dancin' Roots, and he's one of the best things about the album, integrated smoothly into the ensemble yet no less a vividly idiosyncratic presence. On "Gramelot Dance" he delights with a twisty, effervescent solo that quotes from "Peter and The Wolf."

Guiducci didn't invite any guests to join him on his latest release, Storie di Fiume (River Stories), and this private party is a decidedly low-key affair that eschews the pyrotechnics of his previous albums. The focus is entirely on Guiducci's compositions and the interaction between him and the four other Gramelots.

Comprising only five tracks that total a little over 40 minutes, it's also his least expansive recording. The music is meant to evoke the ebb and flow of the Po River which cuts through the plains of northern Italy, as well as its placid tributaries. Guiducci remarks in the CD notes that the river transports not only boats and people but also languages, culture, tradition.

It's a nice metaphor, but the music, though impeccably played, for the most part isn't especially compelling. Achille Succi, on bass clarinet, and Beccalossi shine on "Confluenze," and Guiducci overall avoids his tendency to showboat. If you're in the mood for contemplative and refined folk-jazz, Storie di Fiume may be just the thing. Me, I would have preferred a little more turbulence on this river excursion. - George De Stefano

The artist's web site: www.simoneguiducci.com

Gramelot CDs are available from cdRoots

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