Marco Colonna and Filippo Vignato Among Homegrown Heroes At Novara Jazz, Italy


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A ritual accompanies the end of every concert at this enchanting event. Artistic director Corrado Beldi ambles on to the stage with glasses of wine for the artists to propose a toast to both their present endeavours and the future of a festival that places music in the context of Italian culture in the widest possible sense. This essentially means that the art of the improvisation is accompanied by the kind of high-grade gastronomy for which BBC producers and British comedians hooked on long, lazy, sun-dried table talk would surely lick their lips.

Trivialised as the term 'lifestyle' has become, it is what the wily programmers have woven into Novara Jazz. Gigs take place in the squares, gardens and galleries of this florid city west of Milan, and culminate in musicians and audience mingling over the glorious local bounty of cheese, ham and risotto, a dish whose provenance is signposted by the paddy fields that girdle the roads from Novara to neighbouring towns. Lasting the best part of three weeks, the festival has an adventurous line-up that strikes a judicious balance between national and international names, and of all the Italian musicians on the bill the one who becomes a striking presence on the weekend of my attendance is Marco Colonna. The virtuoso multi-reed player impresses in very different settings, the first of which underlines a certain Europhile perspective: a trio with Norwegian drummer-percussionist Thomas Strønen and Italian keyboardist Alessandro Giachero. Founded on an advanced empathy and artistic intelligence that sees the musicians exercise restraint as well as spontaneity this is an engrossing encounter, as the conversation drifts organically from ambient balladry to explosive groove, always framed by novel sounds.

Secondly, Colonna performs solo at the Croce Di Malto brewery and has the audience entirely rapt as it hears his clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone up close and personal. His sound on each is as big and bulbous as the vats, entwining tubes and taps that form the backdrop to the set. As was the case with the trio gig, Colonna proves restlessly inventive in the use of his horns, above all his flights into Rahsaan-style multiphonics by way of simultaneous blowing into the clarinet mouthpiece and bass clarinet, changing his embouchure to evoke the breathy draughts of a shakuhachi flute and manipulating timbre by placing a plastic bottle in the bell of his alto.

Colonna also makes an appearance with saxophonist Dimitri Grechi Espinoza's Dinamitri Jazz Folklore on the main stage of the Broletto courtyard. Drawing liberally on a wide range of African and Italian music, both traditional and modern, the band brings a punchy dance sensibility to bear on its material, but the energy levels are raised considerably as soon as Colonna enters the fray to play a long and scintillating clarinet solo. Espinoza, who leads the octet confidently, is an able improviser and his solo performance at the majestic Basilica of San Gaudenzio, crowning glory of the 19th century architect Alessandro Antonelli, highlights his careful handling of the rich natural reverberations of the edifice that is crowded with ornate sculptures and vivid frescoes. Though he could have refrained from arranging each piece as a call and response between high melody and low bass line, Espinoza excels on a reprise of Monk's 'Round Midnight' in which the theme is re-harmonised and phrased with tantalising new rests on the pulse. Which is something he also did with John Coltrane's 'Naima' in an impromptu rehearsal the previous day.

The final solo performance is that of double-bassist Roberto Bonati and, much like Colonna, he shows great imagination in his desire to push the sonic envelope on his instrument. Bonati thus uses two timpani sticks to hit the body, bridge and strings in a percussive attack that has a strong flavour of African marimba or balaphone, before going on to play fine arco and fretted pieces that display a solid grounding in classical music as well as zestful improvisatory skills, particularly when deconstructing lyrical themes. Less successful is Mirko Pedrotti's middling fusion and Purple Whales' Jimi Hendrix project, which is a frankly underwhelming deployment of young Italian talents such as drummer Stefano Tamborrino as well as the aforementioned Espinoza. They never really get a handle on the iconic source material, in the worst case lowering the all important blues quotient so as to neuter Jimi's vivid storytelling.

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But a historical meeting of an altogether life enhancing character does take place when Louis Moholo-Moholo and Enrico Rava take to the stage in one of the most highly anticipated events of the festival. They are the surviving members of Steve Lacy's landmark The Forest And The Zoo band, and if 1967 is rightly pinpointed as the year Coltrane died then it is also worth noting that it was the year that quartet was birthing an otherworldly sound down Buenos Aires way.
Fifty years on South African drummer Moholo-Moholo and Italian trumpeter Rava remain capable of creating as much sturm und drang as heat and light when they come together. Moholo-Moholo's minimal kit serves a style built on clarity and finely-judged nuance, whereby his near constant percolation on the snare creates swells of sound, moving blocks that become shaded by the most discreet of rhythmic displacements and cymbal taps that are like whispers to the long controlled holler of the drums. Rava is absolutely imperious, playing only flugelhorn, perhaps to offset the lighter sound of his partner with velvety, bassy purrs as well as wonderfully articulated piercing trills. He has a truly bell like clarity. The constant heartbeat provided by Moholo-Moholo often eases into march time but his knowing skips and swerves funktify any overly military undercurrent, while the cymbal punctuations make an impact precisely because they come so infrequently, following passages where both musicians create a bracing echo chamber for each other's lines.

Moholo-Moholo also joins two pianists, Alexander Hawkins (from his 4 Biokes band) and Giovanni Guidi, along with trombonist Gianluca Petrella in the pulsating Magmatic Quartet, a group that skilfully blends wistful melody and a hard-edged attack which makes the most of the mighty low-end provided by the two baby grands and horn. The drummer is very much the centrifugal force, bubbling away and prompting dynamic responses by way of his own changes of tack, none more so than the moments when he swaps his lighter 'hot rods' for heavier sticks.

Another Italian, trombonist Filippo Vignato also leads an interesting international trio comprising French keyboardist Yannick Lestra and Hungarian drummer Attila Gyarfas. Though the players make a slightly tentative start, feeling their way into the set, once they hit their stride the blend of freewheeling harmony and tight rhythms are enjoyable, especially when a veil of distortion flutters around the keys and brass and Lestra supplements his Rhodes with heavy sub-bass. To a certain extent, the appearance of both Vignato and Rava on the same bill provides a strong symbol of the heritage and legacy of Italian jazz. But the real value of a festival such as Novara is the distinct ambiance of inclusiveness it provides, the sense that the music is part of a larger fabric of socialising that fully engages the whole city.

Concerts and talks, a highlight being Daniela Veronesi's presentation of Lawrence D. 'Butch' Morris' Conduction Workbook, are free, and attendances are high. Novara has put jazz well and truly on the local map, from piazzas to shop windows, where traders are invited to represent the music as imaginatively as possible. Finely-tailored models are graced by trumpets and saxophones as well as zegna and barberis.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Emanuele Meschini