You are browsing in your local bookstore. Serendipitously you are drawn to a book in a section you don’t usually venture into. You leaf through the book, and it captivates you. You buy a skinny latte and settle down in an easy chair just to check that it is a good read. An hour later, you realize that this is a genre that has completely passed you by. From this moment on, it will consume many of your waking hours. Contemporary European mainstream jazz is just such a byway down which few of us travel, in part because the opportunities to hear it are rare. All this has changed with the introduction by Sunnyside Records of recordings from the Italian label "CamJazz" onto the North American scene.
The pianoless quartet has always had a special place in modern jazz the original Sonny Rollins Quartet with Don Cherry, Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker, and even Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy. Without guitar or piano to provide the chordal underpinnings, the sound of these bands is spare and spacey. The harmonies of a piece are implied, not stated explicitly. Often such a quartet moves into free jazz territory, with its potential for losing touch with the theme in the incessant search for new sounds. Italian Enrico Rava, trumpet & flugelhorn, has assembled a pianoless quartet which is melodic and mainstream. Although it hearkens back to the pairing of Mulligan and Baker forty years earlier, there is also something distinctively fresh about the album, Full of Life. The eleven pieces include only three standards, together with five new compositions by Rava himself and three by Girotto.
The opening track, "Recuerdos" (Memories), is full of Latin softness, the percussion leads off, followed by Rava's trumpet, then the muted baritone sax, a bass solo, and a very tuneful soprano sax solo.
In "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic pony and cart clip-clop standard from "Oklahoma," the melody is played with intriguing missing notes that the mind in-fills, stated first by the Rava's flugelhorn, then by Girotto's baritone sax, interweaving around the simple tune. It’s played at an upbeat tempo, with witty improvisation on the theme by Rava, and a delicate tracery of brushwork by Sferra in a supporting role, the suitably gentle bass line provided by Tavolazzi.
On the standard, "Moonlight in Vermont," the theme is stated very slowly and oh-so delicately by the duo in close harmony. Then, a trumpet solo is punctuated by well-chosen notes on the baritone sax, with fluttery brushwork from Sferra. After that the roles reverse, all the while Tavolazzi's bass giving solid support below the bell-like clarity of Rava’s vibrato-less trumpet.
The quartet flexes its collective and solo chops on the curiously titled "Happiness" piece. Yet again, this is Rava with a Latin beat. Girotto sets a great dance tempo at the start and plays a musical spoof with the saxophonist's equivalent of "triple tonguing" on the baritone sax. Tavolazzi plays a multi-string fast-paced response on the bass. Sferra performs some clever stick work on drums, tom tom and hi-hat. Everything is so muted but paradoxically swinging like crazy with a sweet trumpet sound with no rasp. Tavolazzi takes his bass for a fast walk uphill and down before the ensemble’s final chorus. The image is of Carmen Miranda in a fifties Hollywood musical, the exoticism and outrageous costumes of Brazil, and a sensuality bordering on caricature.
On the title track, "Full of Life," Rava maintains the martial beat set by the percussion, then a powerful and perfect unison statement of the theme is played by Rava & Girotto. It assuredly warrants its title. It’s so vital and played at the fastest tempo in the shortest time on the album. This is a superb recording. There is a an obvious symbiosis between the two horn players but the rhythm section isn't held to a subsidiary role. We are privileged to eavesdrop on a four-way conversation between close friends, who remind us of their mainstream roots, but point to sounds and ideas that belong in a new millennium.