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Tommaso Starace - Harmony Less Quartet “Narrow Escape” and Quintet “Eleuthera All That Jazz”.


by Ian Mann

February 19, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys two very different albums recorded in 2018 by the Italian born, London based saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace.

Tommaso Starace

Harmony Less Quartet “Narrow Escape” (Music Center Records BA 409 CD)

Quintet “Eleuthera All That Jazz” (Music Center Records BA 406 CD)

I’m indebted to Tommaso Starace for forwarding me the above albums, his two latest releases, both recorded during 2018.

The Italian born London based saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages in recent years. Since moving to England he has become a hugely popular figure among UK jazz audiences thanks to the quality of his live performances. These have always combined a high standard of musicianship with a relaxed and witty presenting style that has consistently charmed British jazz fans.

Equally proficient on the alto and soprano versions of his chosen instrument Starace is also a skilled composer and the exciting quality of his live shows has been backed up by an impressive catalogue of recordings, many of these structured around an overall concept or theme.

A common thread running through Starace’s work has been his love of photography, cinema and the visual arts..  Several albums have been inspired by the works of notable photographers and have have included “Blood & Champagne” (2010) which was inspired by the work of the war photographer Robert Capa and “Italian Short Stories” (2014) which drew its inspiration from the work of the Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin . An earlier (2006) release, made with a British line up, featured original compositions inspired by the work of the celebrated photographer Elliott Erwhit.

Starace has also been inspired by the work of other musicians. His 2013 album “Simply Marvellous!” paid homage to the late, great French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani (1962-99) in a programme comprised entirely of arrangements of Petrucciani compositions. Starace also pays tribute to other past jazz greats by the regular inclusion of standard material both in live performance and on album, where the standards rub shoulders with Starace’s impressive original compositions. It’s an approach that features on both of these two new recordings.

“Narrow Escape”

Starace has always worked regularly with musicians from both the UK and Italy and has consistently operated concurrent British and Italian quartets. His latest album, “Narrow Escape”, brings the two strands together in a Harmony Less Quartet which combines Starace’s alto in a twin saxophone front-line with Brit Dave O’Higgins’ tenor. Meanwhile Starace’s fellow Italians Davide Liberti (bass) and Ruben Bellavia (drums) form a dynamic and very impressive rhythm section.

“Narrow Escape” features five original pieces by Starace with a further four tunes coming from the pens of outside composers, the jazz giants Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and the great ‘American Songbook’ writer Jimmy Van Heusen.

I assume that the inspiration for the “Narrow Escape” project initially came from the various ‘piano less’ quartets pioneered by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in the 1950s. Of course, the absence of a chordal instrument such as a piano or guitar isn’t exactly news in 2019, but neither is it entirely common either. Starace has worked closely with pianists in the past, notably his compatriot Michele Di Toro with whom he has recorded in a duo format (the 2016 album “From a Distant Past”) , so this new Harmony Less Quartet represents something of a departure for him. In this respect it could be said to be his most adventurous album to date.

Despite the presence of a clutch of jazz standards Starace and his colleagues adopt an agreeably contemporary approach to the project. Yes, there are traces of Mulligan’s methods in the music but there are also echoes of Ornette Coleman’s more radical approach to the chordless format too; and to these ears there are also hints of drummer Seb Rochford’s group Polar Bear with its twin tenor front line.

The album commences with the Starace original “Touch and Go”, which possesses an edgy, nervous energy that reminded me of Ornette Coleman. Pecked, skittering saxophone phrases distinguish the opening section with bass and drums locked in perfect synchronicity. The two reeds then stretch out more expansively on individual solos that are both fluent and highly inventive, Starace going first, later followed by O’Higgins. The rhythm section support the soloists brilliantly, the playing of both Liberti and Bellavia combines dynamism with invention and suppleness. Each is fully in tune with what the reeds are doing but each has plenty to say on their own account, as evidenced by Liberti’s solo, which convincingly commands the listener’s attention.

It’s Liberti’s bass that introduces “Medusa’s Charm”, another Starace original, but this time with a more languid and atmospheric feel that sometimes recalls Polar Bear. Wispy sax melodies are underscored by richly resonant double bass while Bellavia adopts more of a colourist’s role, with his mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers adding much to the atmosphere of the piece. This time the sax solos smoulder rather than burn as O’Higgins and Starace probe subtly but deeply.

Starace’s “Fugue in EB-” introduces a classical element to the proceedings with the two saxes working in tandem, alto and tenor blending sublimely above a subtly colourful rhythmic backdrop. Bassist Liberti takes the first solo, combining great dexterity with a strong melodic sensibility as Bellavia provides deft, delightfully nuanced drum commentary. The momentum increases with the subsequent sax solos from Starace and O’Higgins, both typically fluent, the latter really stretching out as the rhythm team up the energy levels. The piece then resolves itself with further variations on the main theme, the two reeds dovetailing beautifully.

The beguiling sounds of Liberti’s unaccompanied bass introduce the Starace composed title track. In time the bassist establishes the groove motif around which the track is centred as he and Bellavia combine to provide the platform for the beguiling saxophone interplay of Starace and O’Higgins, the pair dovetailing in mercurial fashion before embarking on thrilling individual solos. There’s also a drum feature for the excellent Bellavia who circumnavigates the kit with the support of Liberti’s underpinning bass pulse. The track resolves itself with twin saxophonists exchanging phrases on the outro.

After hearing four Starace originals back to back we now embark on a sequence of four ‘outside’ pieces commencing with Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle”. With Liberti again providing the anchor and with Bellavia supplying a bright and colourful drum commentary the two saxophonists enjoy a spirited dialogue in this playful and joyous group performance before once again embarking on their individual solos. There’s also a lively series of exchanges between the reeds and drummer Bellavia in an arrangement that stays true to Monk’s spirit,  embodying the composer’s quintessential quirkiness and impishness.

Next up is John Coltrane’s “Grand Central” which is also approached with gusto, the saxophonists exchanging loquacious solos and darting phrases above the agile accompaniment of Liberti’s rapid bass walk and the chatter of Bellavia’s drums.

The quartet adopt a similarly playful approach on Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love”, which features an extended solo from the consistently impressive Liberti. Meanwhile the two saxophonists enjoy a series of lithe exchanges and equally lissom solos above the crisp and colourful drum patterns laid down by Bellavia.

The last of the outside items is Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be Bop” which is introduced by Bellavia at the kit and is tackled in suitably boppish fashion with a series of ebullient saxophone exchanges followed by vivacious individual solos punctuated by a series of vigorously brushed drum breaks.

The album closes with Starace’s own “Pass a Good Time”, which exhibits a Monkish playfulness, and maybe a hint Mingus too as Starace and O’Higgins tussle above a meaty bass line and colourful, busy drum groove. Each saxophonist also takes the chance to stretch out on his own with both players delivering thrilling solos. There’s a thoroughly absorbing bass feature from Liberti, too.

Featuring some excellent original writing in addition to skilful arrangements of well chosen standards “Narrow Escape” is a hugely enjoyable album from a very well balanced quintet. Starace and O’Higgins are a world class front line who complement each other well, whether working in tandem or making fluent individual statements. There’s always the sense that the saxophonists are part of a team, despite their strong individual identities, these tightly knit performances are from being ‘cutting contests’.

But there’s no sense of the quartet just being about the two reed men, Liberti and Bellavia are very much equal partners, fulfilling their rhythmic duties superbly while bringing plenty more to the party. Both are vital components of the group sound in a perfectly integrated quartet.

Starace’s own summing up of the album in his liner notes says it all;
“I’m extremely grateful to the incredible musicianship of Dave O’Higgins, Davide Liberti and Ruben Bellavia. Thanks to their brilliant performances and hard work this album has the virtuosity, musicality and energy that I wanted to bring alive in each of these compositions”.

Amen to that!

“Eleuthera All That Jazz”

Also recorded in 2018 “Eleuthera” is a very different type of album recorded with a very different band.

“Eleuthera All That Jazz” is an annual jazz festival held on the island of Eleuthera on the Atlantic edge of the Bahamas archipelago. It’s a fairly new festival, having been founded in 2013 by its chairwoman Patricia Oakes Leigh-Wood to help raise funds for the island’s historic Haynes Library. She supplies the album’s liner notes.

Reading between the lines it would seem that Starace has appeared at the Festival on a number of occasions and he is currently its musical director.

Although playing with numerous other musicians at the Festival Starace has established a regular Eleutheran quintet featuring Massimo Colombo on Fender Rhodes, Adrian D’Aguilar on bass, Kevin Dean on drums and Lamont Gibson on trumpet.  Colombo is from Italy, the other three are leading Bahamian musicians. Their album was recorded at a Nassau studio and features three compositions each from Starace and Colombo,  all written specifically for the Festival, plus arrangements of standards by Billy Strayhorn and Bud Powell.

The album is less intense than its companion and generally espouses a more straightforward approach, but with the electric piano and electric bass also bringing a hint of fusion, Latin and other elements to the proceedings. Things kick off with Starace’s lively, hard bop flavoured “Never Stop” which incorporates solos from the leader on alto and Colombo at the keyboard.

D’Aguilar’s bass introduces Colombo’s slyly playful Latin tinged composition “Colibri” which includes solos from Starace on alto and the composer on electric piano, plus something of a feature for Dean at the drums.

Starace’s “Blues for Eleuthera” is a genuine blues, punchy, funky and hard hitting with succinct solos from Gibson, who impresses on his first major outing, plus D’Aguilar and Starace.

Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is given a tender ballad reading with Gibson on muted trumpet and Colombo on shimmering electric piano. D’Aguilar and Dean provide suitably sympathetic rhythmic accompaniment while Starace features on gently sinuous soprano sax. Gibson briefly removes the mute to solo, but without disrupting the essential mood of the piece.

Colombo’s “Yellow Tune” presents a further example of the composer’s Latin flavoured funkiness. It’s another playful piece and one that features his own keyboards extensively alongside Gibson’s trumpet and Dean’s colourful drums and percussion.

Pianist Bud Powell’s much covered composition “Parisian Thoroughfare” is the album’s second standard and is treated to a lively bebop flavoured arrangement featuring Gibson’s fluent, agile trumpet soloing, quickly followed by Starace who displays similar qualities. The rhythm section negotiate the twists and turns of Powell’s composition with great skill and aplomb.

Colombo’s final offering with the pen is the ballad “Julie” which includes features for D’Aguilar’s languidly liquid electric bass and Starace’s gently incisive alto. The composer also solos on softly trilling Fender Rhodes.

The final piece is Starace’s “Cocodimama”, a joyously celebratory piece embracing African and Caribbean flavours and incorporating lively solos from Starace on alto,  Gibson on trumpet and Colombo at the keyboard. There is also something of a drum feature for the impressive Dean.

There is much to enjoy on the “Eleuthera” album and the recording is an excellent advertisement for, and celebration of, the Eleuthera All That Jazz Festival.

I have to admit to missing the sound of an acoustic piano, although one suspects that such instruments, especially good quality ones, are in rather short supply in the Bahamas.

Ultimately the “Eleuthera” album is a less essential listen than the excellent, and more tightly focussed, “Narrow Escape” but it does have its moments, particularly from Starace himself.

Starace will be returning to Eleuthera in 2019. Let’s hope he can get the Harmony Less Quartet out on the road in Britain, too. I’d love to see Starace and O’Higgins performing together in this format live.

Ian’s Star Ratings;

“Narrow Escape” 4 Stars, Recommended

“Eleuthera All That Jazz” 3.5 Stars

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