Guitarist Simone Guiducci's music defines its own world, but it also reflects the one in which we live. Like playwright-actor Dario Fo, whose literary gramelot, Mistero Buffo, mixes old dialects and modern language to rework medieval mystery plays, Guiducci's Gramelot Ensemble synthesizes ancient and modern musical languages-the folk music of northern Italy and jazz. In both cases, the result is art whose truths transcend time and define our humanity. Accordionist Gina Coscia (with whom Guiducci has recorded) calls musical fusions such as Guiducci's-"imaginary folklore." Imaginary folk music acknowledges the beauty and truth of a culture's folk traditions while allowing the modern imagination to take liberties with forms that, by nature, change slowly. Whatever you call it, Guiducci's music blends the best elements of a collectively defined regional culture with the individual expression of jazz.
Guiducci's career has equipped him well to navigate the confluents of influences that flow into his music. He's worked with such leading exponents of the fusion of Italy folkloric music and jazz as Gianluigi Trovesi and Coscia. He's also sharpened his jazz skills with veterans such as Enrico Rava, Andrea Centazzo and Paolo Fresu. In addition, he acknowledges two important teachers-American guitarist Mick Goodrick, a master of lyrical and harmonically sophisticated jazz improvisation, and bassist Dave Holland, whose elegant approach to odd meters clearly has relevance to blending jazz and traditional dance styles.
What Guiducci learned from these experiences informs his own personal voice on the guitar. Each note he plays is full and carefully shaped, with a bright leading edge and a round polished finish. An inner glow lights his tone, as if a small flame burned in the center of each note. A song-like thread runs through all his solos. Even his delicate decorative elements accentuate, rather than obscure, the melodic arc of his lines. He knows how to use silence to offset phrases so they stand out as individual statements, but he extends and develops them, and links them together into fully unified solos like the ones on "Voccuccia de no Piérzeco," "Filastrocca per Martina," and the title track. His chords are often dark and full of the harmonic and emotional ambiguities. Listen to the way he fleshes out Ralph Alessi's solo on "Gramelot in 6/8" or the sudden dissonant chord he springs on Chris Speed at the opening of his solo on "Kompa." He's a superb listener, too, as you can hear in his interplay with bassist Salvatore Maiore in the opening moments of "Last Chorale and Dance" and during the collective improvisation that ends it.
At the core of Guiducci's music lies the human voice lifted in song, for songs, in their simplicity, have a seemingly limitless capacity to embody our deepest feelings. He composes by singing at the guitar (a technique he picked up from guitarist Mick Goodrick), and sometimes sings as he solos. Because the folk music of northern Italy is so much a part of him, what comes out is not pure folk song, nor simple pastiche, but original melodies couched in the vocabulary of folk music and shaped by the most contemporary of idioms-jazz improvisation. This intertwining of folk and jazz produces tuneful, sophisticated pieces such as the carefree and elegant "Gramelot in 6/8," which mixes musical dialects from all over northern Italy, and "Filastrocca per Martina," which is inspired by a traditional song for children.
He's put together a perfectly balanced group to play his lovely pieces. The Gramelot Ensemble get a beautifully transparent collective sound that lets the sonorities of the individual instruments shine through-a community of sound. They are all attentive listeners, so that on "Last Chorale and Dance" their collective improvising is multilayered yet orderly. They work together, deliberately building the drama of "Gramelot in 6/8" and they breathe as one on "Chorale." Achille Succi and Guido Bombardieri's limpid clarinets flows through the ensemble, but can also jump out for piquant solos. Accordionist Fausto Beccalossi is also a luminous presence within the ensemble. He can fade back to a subliminal presence or balloon up to envelop the group in a soft, reedy cloud of notes. Bassist Salvatore Maiore anchors a wide variety of dance rhythms, odd meters, and swinging jazz with seeming ease. He has the playful, lyrical, and openhearted approach that the music demands. Drummer Roberto Dani, using regular trap kit components as well as frame drums of his own construction, weds the folkloric to modern jazz with great wit and a rich, resonant sound.
The appearance of several guests does nothing to disturb the group's delicate dynamic; in fact, they enrich and expand it. Trumpeter Ralph Alexis solos on "Gramelot in 6/8" and the title track are intimate and inventive, and his soft-edged tone sits well within the ensembles. On "La " and "The After Hours," cellist Erik Friedlander brings a special poise to the music, a sensibility informed by classical, jazz, and music of the Jewish diaspora. On the ravishing "Voccuccia de no Piérzeco," Maria Pia de Vito sings with great sensitivity for traditional music, with a sensuous, caressing voice that embraces both the heartbreak and beauty of love. Clarinetist Chris Speed is a natural fit here, since his own work in Pachora and as a leader blends jazz and the music of Eastern and Central Europe in ways that closely parallel Guiducci's. Transylvanian-born saxophonist Nicolas Simion is likewise an investigator of the intersection of native folk traditions and jazz, who has mined the music of his native Roumania in his Balkan jazz group and other bands.
For Simone Guiducci, folk music offers a direct connection to basic human feelings and jazz is the means to give these feelings contemporary form. In many ways the world that gave us his music's folk elements is gone, it can only exist in the imagination. But the feelings and aspirations that the older music expresses-love, community, joy, sadness-endure in the music of Simone Guiducci and the Gramelot Ensemble.