Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lello's Italian Job, Volume 2

I love the "Intermezzo Sinfonico" from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. It's in my absolute top five when it comes to short classical pieces. No, it doesn't have anything to do with Raging Bull, although that's the first time I heard this gentle, romantic ode that always succeeds in giving me goosebumps with its grand, gorgeous melody. To me it just sounds like the soundtrack for a stroll through the Tuscan countryside, cypress trees dotting the the rolling hills in the distance, or perhaps walking through the narrow streets of a small village. You can really get my attention when you play this piece in my presence. Adapt it for a jazz ensemble, however, and I might think you're nuts.

Jazz bassist and composer Lello Molinari has done it. In his new album, Lello's Italian Job Vol. 2, he and drummer Marcello Pellitteri, sax player Dino Govoni and guitarist Sal DiFusco have tackled some of the most Italian compositions you can think of and committed these memorable tunes to a contemporary sensibility. We're talking Respighi's The Pines of Rome, another personal favorite. We're talking Luigi Canoro's "Tra Veglia e Sonno." And "Lidio Napoletano." And "Tu 'si 'na Cosa Grande." Molinari, who's been performing professionally since the mid 1980s, started the Italian Job project (yes, there is a Volume One) so he could "enjoy a simple structure, a simple melody--Lello's Italian Job lets me do both, reinterpreting this old material from a new, contemporary point of view."

What's surprising here is how Lello and his crew approach each of these classics from a different direction each and every time so that the Italian connection isn't obvious--unless you're really familiar with these melodies or know the theme in advance. Sure my ears pricked up when I heard the opening notes of "Intermezzo Sinfonico," and this track is where the group stays closest to the song's origin. It's still somber and lovely, albeit lightened up a bit by Govoni's EWI (Electric Wind Instrument). I've heard EWIs used in jazz a few times and it always results in a meshing of jazz style and '80s New Wave in my head, but not so much this time. That original melody comes through intact.

If you're a jazz fan, I suspect that you'll love the way this quartet plays. They're loose and fun and they can break free and stare into the abyss of free jazz once in a while without creating too much tension. DiFusco's electric guitar occasional turns rabid and throws everything into an acid rock mode, further defying expectations. But in their inimitable Italian way, these musicians understand the concepts of lush romanticism and musical beauty. If you're an Italian fan of jazz or, like me, someone who dreams of walking around and exploring the Mediterranean coast one day, Lello's Italian Job might send you to the moon and back.

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