Brasserie Trio,
Musique Mecanique
(Leo, 1999)

This is a trio for whom "fun" is the operative word. That's nothing new in Italian jazz; the Instabile Orchestra, of which Carlo Actis Dato and Lauro Rossi are both erstwhile members, has long drawn on the circus and the festival in their search for performance models, rather than the staid world of the classical concert hall. Accordingly, the Brasserie Trio have performed in all kinds of odd places -- their all-acoustic lineup being neatly portable -- and always, it would appear, with theatrical gusto.

It's tempting to classify Dato (bass clarinet, tenor and baritone sax, and voice), at least, as a "free jazz" musician, but the distinction between "free" and composed music seems to be drawn less sharply in Italy than it is in Northern Europe. Here, there's a lot of composition and many pieces have two or three different sections which crop up throughout, in contrast to the more familiar head-solos-head arrangement.

It's frequently said that Dato's influences are from the folk musics of a wide range of nations, and Alberto Mandarini (trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion and voice) seems similarly catholic in his tastes. There seems to be a genuinely integrationist approach taken by these musicians -- and most others drawn from the Instabile Orchestra -- which, rather than polarising an "avant garde" with popular forms, instead sees the avant garde as something which grows within tradition. It's just that, at the end of the 20th century, you have to invent your own tradition first, that's all.

All three men play beautifully. The level of interaction here is very high, whether during solo-plus-comping sections or group improvisations. Mandarini has a wonderfully salacious wha-wha and Rossi (trombone and voice) slides gracefully through a whole gamut of sleazy vaudeville timbres; from this core sound, they each stretch out to encompass straight playing on the one hand and "noise" techniques on the other. What they seem to enjoy most, though, is playing the tunes, because these are inevitably embellished and, if you will, jazzed up as they go along. Dato is much less of a commanding presence than on other sessions; instead, he takes an ensemble role which he contributes wonderfully.

There's not much intelligent jazz fusing composition, traditional methods, tunes you can hum and avant garde sensibilities around at the moment, and most of it seems to be coming out of Italy. Dato's Delhi Mambo and Geremia's Tre Cose of last year were wonderful documents of a kind of music-making which it's easy to forget about. Not cutting-edge, not hard-line, but hardly mainstream either, this is masterful music with a serious edge and a grin all over its face. The best comparison might be Zorn's News for Lulu project: fun and serious, tonal and free, composed and improvised, melodic and crazy.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]