Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

July 14, 2020


The high standards of the writing, the playing and the production ensure that “Totem” represents an excellent leadership début from Romano, and a remarkably mature one.

Ferdinando Romano


(Losen Records LOS 242-2)

Ferdinando Romano – double bass, Simone Alessandrini – alto & soprano sax, Nazareno Caputo – vibraphone & Marimba, Manuel Magrini – piano, Giovanni Paolo Liguori – drums, percussion
Ralph Alessi – trumpet (tracks 1,3.4, 5,6,8), Tommaso Iacoviello – flugelhorn (tracks 1,3,7)

This recording is a truly international affair, a set of compositions by the Italian bass player and bandleader Ferdinando Romano, played by a group of leading Italian musicians with substantial contributions from the great American trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The album appears on the enterprising Norwegian label, Losen Records.

Romano is a classically trained musician who has performed with leading classical soloists and orchestras as well as pursuing a jazz career. As a composer he has written for chamber music groups and for full orchestras as well as for jazz ensembles.

As a jazz artist Romano’s projects include a quintet featuring featuring tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and pianist Simona Premazzi, alongside drummer Liguori and trumpeter Iacoviello from the Totem group. He has also recorded with Tandem, his duo with guitarist Marco Poggiolesi, a project that also features the use of live looping and other electronics.

Romano is also a member of the Arcadia Trio, led by saxophonist Leonardo Raddicchi, a group that is sometimes augmented by the American trombonist Robin Eubanks.

Romano has worked with many leading Italian jazz musicians and also with Americans such as trombonist Glenn Ferris and saxophonists Benny Golson and Logan Richardson. He has also collaborated with the Scottish pianist Alan Benzie.

“Totem”, the title has since also been adopted as a band name, places a strong emphasis on Romano as a composer. All eight pieces are composed by Romano and place a strong emphasis on melodic development. It represents Romano’s first work as a sole leader and represents a blend of jazz, classical and contemporary music influences. His album notes also cite the inspiration of such works as Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and the painting “The Dance”, by the artist Henri Matisse.

Romano says of the album title;
“A totem is a symbol that represents a natural or spiritual entity which has a particular meaning for a single person, or even for a large group of people. In an artistic sense each of us has got his own Totems, they are our references, our lighthouses, and also the people we met and whom we shared artistic and musical experiences with. However the single Totems can give life to a much bigger one, something that is much more than the sum of the parts and that represents the creative synthesis of our musical personality, giving birth to something new.”

To this the Italian writer Federico Fini has added;
“Totem is a sort of narration in music of the monolith made of memories, convictions and roots that we dance around all our life”. These words were written after witnessing the band performing live.

Of his compositional processes Romano states;
“In composing, I have given particular attention to the form of the tunes, making large use of development and avoiding more classical forms. The melodies stated at the beginning of the tune don’t always come back at the end, and when they do it is always in a different way than before, with a different arrangement or even in the form of another melodic line which is the full development of the original one”.

These principles are demonstrated during the course of the impressive opening track “The Gecko”, which commences with the leader’s insistent bass pedal, the font from which the harmonies flow, with guest trumpeter Alessi taking the first solo and displaying his characteristic fluency and inventiveness. As the music develops the trumpeter is joined in a rich blend of horns by the alto of Alessandrini and the flugel of Iacoviello. Meanwhile the introductory motif continues to expand and develop - “keeping the regularity of the rhythmic cell, but evolving the bass line, the harmonies and the melodies”, as Romano puts it. This acts as the platform for a brief cameo at the piano from Magrini and a more extended vibraphone solo from the impressive Caputo, his sound here warm, relaxed and fluid. Magrini then returns to solo more expansively at the keyboard, his playing also captivating the listener. The leader’s bass selflessly remains at the heart of the music throughout on a piece inspired by an animal that represents “perseverance, tenacity and regeneration, combined with tranquillity”. This last quality finds expression in a gentle, loosely structured coda featuring the soft rustle of Liguori’s percussion.

The brief “Evocation” and the following “Wolf Totem” are thematically linked, both being inspired by the novel “Wolf Totem”, written by the Chinese author Jiang Rong and later turned into a film the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.
“Evocation”, a one and a half minute passage of solo plucked and strummed double bass from the leader, acts as the curtain raiser for the near eight minute “Wolf Totem”. Romano’s notes give a brief synopsis of the plot of the novel, which is set in Mongolia, and the composition itself is correspondingly episodic, developing in organic and unhurried fashion, with the leader’s bass again at the heart of the music. The rich and colourful horn voicings this time feature Alessandrini on soprano, while more extended solos come from Magrini on piano, gradually moving up through the gears, and Alessi on trumpet.  Alessi’s solo combines power with fluency, growing in intensity in a musical depiction of the “final arrival of the wolf”. The American has established an impressive international reputation following a series of solo recordings with ECM. He has also performed frequently with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, while British audiences will have fond memories of his collaboration with vibraphonist Jim Hart and the Cloudmakers trio.

The ballad “Curly” is introduced solo by Magrini at the piano, subsequently joined by Caputo on vibes. Romano eventually enters to deliver a melodic double bass solo, accompanied by piano, vibes and the delicate brush work of Liguori. In a piece where the individual musicians join in stages Alessi is next to appear, contributing a poignant solo on muted trumpet that has prompted comparisons with the playing of Miles Davis.

Romano views the two part “Sea Crossing” as a kind of suite. It depicts an image of a ship at sea,  at the mercy of the waves, and utilises techniques borrowed from serial composition. The series is stated at the beginning of “Part One” and “immediately divides into two parallel lines that move in two different tonalities, finding consonance only in a careful use of counterpoint”. This makes for a music that is rhythmically complex, but still quintessentially melodic, even in its most dissonant moments. Romano’s lines then break up again into a series of improvisations, led by Alessi’s brooding trumpet solo and with Liguori’s off kilter drumming giving expression to the tempest battering Romano’s imaginary ship. In time Alessi gives way to Alessandrini’s alto as the music becomes even more turbulent and loosely structured.
Calm is eventually restored via a passage of unaccompanied piano, this providing the bridge into “Part Two”, with Magrini eventually joined by Alessi’s mournful trumpet and the shimmer of Liguori’s percussion. The music then regains its earlier turbulence with a dazzling vibes solo from Caputo underpinned by an insistent piano vamp and a propulsive bass and drum groove. Sax and trumpet then intertwine as the counterpoint of Part One returns, the piece resolving itself in a staccato piano figure.

Considered by many reviewers to be something of a high watermark “Memories Reprise” is a re-working of an old composition, of which Romano comments;
“The tune has a more orchestral conception and has connections with the Italian sound of the Mediterranean melodies”.
It commences with the sound of the composer flourishing the bow, his melancholy, cello like sound complemented by Magrini’s piano and Liguori’s evocative drum colourations. Alessandrini’s soprano sax subsequently takes over the melody as the sound becomes more lush and pastoral with the further addition of flugel and vibes. Alessandrini subsequently stretches out further with an airy soprano solo, his explorations seeming to float gently on the Mediterranean breeze. Magrini follows, delivering some of his most lyrical playing of the set. The combination of soprano and flugel is particularly beguiling, with Iacoviello finally taking his opportunity as a soloist towards the close. A regular member of Romano’s quintet and of the Totem sextet he does enough here to suggest that he’s a musician well worth keeping an ear on.

The Romantic mood extends into the closing “Mirrors”, which commences with the delicate, sounds of Caputo’s unaccompanied vibes and marimba. Romano then adds his bass to the tuned percussion, with the rest of the group subsequently entering the fray as the composition continues to develop, moving through a freely structured passage featuring vibes, drums and bowed bass. Piano, trumpet and sax subsequently return to the conversation as a more formal framework returns, with the captivating, and increasingly garrulous series, of exchanges between Alessandrini and Alessi becoming the main focus. But melody is never far away in Romano’s compositions and returns with a mellifluous cameo from Alessi that marks the passage into the next section, with bass, drums and percolating tuned percussion setting up an insistent groove that is surfed by the horns, with piano and vibes occasionally breaking cover.

“Totem” was recorded at the famous Italian studio Artesuono by the celebrated recording engineer Staefano Amerio. The studio is a favourite for many leading European jazz musicians and is frequently utilised by ECM. Such is the quality of the sound on “Totem” that it could easily pass for an ECM recording. Amerio’s mix is rich in terms of colour, texture and detail, with an immaculate instrumental balance that ensures that every musician is heard at his best. The quality of the sound also serves to enhance the quality of Romano’s writing.

The high standards of the writing, the playing and the production ensure that “Totem” represents an excellent leadership début from Romano, and a remarkably mature one. Alessi is excellent throughout and his contribution represents the icing on the cake, but one suspects that all of Romano’s projects will be well worth hearing. On the evidence of this recording, which has garnered universally positive reviews, we should be hearing a lot more from this talented young Italian bassist and composer and his similarly impressive colleagues.

blog comments powered by Disqus