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Tommaso Starace Quartet

Italian Short Stories - Plays The Photos of Gianni Berengo Gardin


by Ian Mann

November 10, 2014


An evocative series of soundtracks that complement Gardin's visual imagery perfectly, a near perfect marriage of the sonic and visual art forms.

Tommaso Starace Quartet

“Italian Short Stories -plays the photos of Gianni Berengo Gardin”

(Universal Classics & Jazz)

The Italian alto saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace divides his time between the UK and his homeland. Having maintained a base in London for over twenty years Starace has become a popular figure on the British jazz circuit and leads a quartet featuring pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Laurence Cottle and drummer Chris Nickolls. 

He also runs an Italian counterpart that includes the talents of pianist Michele Di Toro, bassist Attilio Zanchi and drummer Tommy Bradascio. Both groups are highly accomplished and Starace has recorded with each. I’ve been fortunate enough to see him leading a London based group on a couple of occasions and enjoyed having the opportunity to review his 2010 album “Blood & Champagne”, recorded with his British quartet.

A common thread running through Starace’s work has been his love of photography, cinema and the visual arts. “Blood & Champagne” featured a composition that paid tribute to the war photographer Robert Capa.  An earlier (2006) release, also recorded with a British line up, featured original compositions inspired by the work of the celebrated photographer Elliott Erwhit.

This latest project is thus the second in Starace’s “plays the photos of” series. Gianni Berengo Gardin (born 1930) is arguably Italy’s greatest living photographer, professionally active since 1954, and he co-operated fully with Starace with regard to the making of this album. The lavish packaging includes reproductions of the black and white images that inspired the fourteen compositions plus more contemporary photographs of the personnel involved.  The album was recorded in Italy by the quartet featuring Di Toro, Zanchi and Bradascio and with the celebrated Sicilian Paolo Fresu guesting on trumpet and flugelhorn. The brilliant Fresu who has collaborated with Carla Bley, Ralph Towner and others is a plus on any recording and the illustrious guest is in excellent form here.

The album’s comprehensive notes include a brief statement from Starace on the inspirations behind the project, a short biography of Gardin listing his phenomenal achievements including two hundred published volumes, three hundred solo exhibitions, an impressive clutch of prizes and awards, and most staggering of all an archive of some 1.5 million photographs, mainly black and white and covering seemingly every aspect of human activity. There’s also an informative and thought provoking essay by Robert Mutti that serves as a more conventional liner note.

Starace explains that the project was initially inspired by a nostalgia for the Italy of his childhood, and this allied to his well documented admiration for the visual arts made this collaboration with Gardin a very natural progression. The musician and the photographer met up in Milan and eventually chose the fourteen images that subsequently inspired the compositions. Di Toro, Zanchi and Bradascio also became involved in the writing process and contributed a tune each. There is also a Starace arrangement of a piece by Maurice Ravel. Starace has stated that he has deliberately aimed to keep the compositions melodic and concise and hopes that the music will appeal to audiences beyond the usual jazz demographic. Live performances will include Gardin’s photographic images projected onto a screen behind the musicians. Comments Starace - “imagine a Fellini movie done as a jazz project…that’s the direction I’m aiming for!”

At seven and a half minutes the opening track “Recollection” was inspired by an image of a couple dancing to the sound of a wind up gramophone at the Lido of Venice in 1958. Unfortunately there seems to be a problem with this piece on my promo copy of the album. I have two CD players in the house but neither will read this opening track. I therefore cannot comment on the music itself.

On then to “The Bubble Vendor”, photographed by Gardin in Venice in 1960. Starace’s lightly dancing soprano is teamed with Di Toro’s piano in a delightful duo performance that perfectly captures the lighter than air feel of the bubbles in the illustration.

Gardin’s picture “Motion in Stillness” was photographed in Milan in 1950. Here the theme is of contrast, an elderly man, possibly a priest, stands motionless before a rapidly revolving child’s roundabout, the young revellers clinging on to it little more than a blur. Starace captures that frantic motion in the music with a series of breezily energetic unison passages, the folk tinged melodies reminiscent of the innocent pleasures of a simpler time. His soprano solo skips along energetically and there’s a real joyousness about Di Toro’s piano solo. Essentially the music concentrates on the roundabout and the fun of the frolicsome children but occasionally the rounded tones of Zanchi’s bass hint at the gravitas of the more senior figure in the photo.

The photograph of a couple kissing was taken in the cloisters of the Puorto Nuovo in Venice in 1959. Again there seems to be a problem with the disc itself which starts to skip just after the lush piano intro. However the visual imagery and the use of the word “waltz” in the title (the piece actually comes from the pen of Zanchi)  are enough to give a pretty clear indication of what I should have been hearing.

“Let The Magic Begin” is a more recent photograph, the depiction of adult revellers on a fairground ride taken in Alatri in 2000. This track features the muted trumpet of guest Fresu on a piece that, in musical terms at least, is a less obvious depiction of frenetic circular motion than the earlier “roundabout piece”. Fresu is in imperious form and shares the soloing duties with Starace’s soprano. The saxophonist specialises on the straight horn for much of the album, giving many of the pieces a characteristic light and airy feel. The two horn men are given excellent support by the consistently impressive Di Toro.

“Olivetti’s Touch” is a picture of masked children playing taken in 1974. Musically it’s a second saxophone/piano duet, essentially light hearted and joyous with Di Toro seeming to draw inspiration from the influence of ragtime. Very occasionally there are hints at the darkness that sometimes exists behind such masks but this is a quality that is normally assigned to adult wearers. Essentially this piece is about the joy of children playing.

Photographed in Naples in 1997 “Jamme!” depicts two young adults and a child riding through the streets on a motor cycle, the young boy at the controls. The music is frenzied and frenetic with racing double bass lines as saxophone and trumpet replicate the sounds of traffic noise with Di Toro dropping in elements of wilful dissonance. Fresu on trumpet and Starace on alto share the solos and also engage in a series of spiritedly playful exchanges. Great fun.

As the title suggests “Interius Tranquillitas” is very different, the picture a depiction of a robed monk with his back to camera photographed in Siena in 1973. There’s an appropriately hymn like quality about the music which features Zanchi’s bass as the predominate instrument. His solo is highly melodic and richly affecting. Di Toro impresses with his pianistic lyricism and Bradsascio’s delicate brushwork is a delight throughout. Starace sketches the melody at the beginning and end of the piece but essentially fulfils a supporting role. 

“Nothing Must Change” depicts the sea and harbour wall against a backdrop of distant mountains at Genoa in 2002. The title hints at environmental concerns and Di Toro’s tune evokes a serenity that should not be disturbed, the vaguely modal composition featuring feathery, almost flute like soprano sax and a lyrical but expansive pianism. 

“The Amused Gypsy Girl” was taken in Palermo in 1966 and shows a child looking through the window into a small family car in which four sheep are being transported. Musically it’s another of those joyful, life affirming pieces with darting, playful motifs but there’s a greater element of Starace’s love of bebop forms and styles here, particularly on his alto solo and in Di Toro’s rollicking piano solo.

“Sensually Deranged” was taken in Florence in 1998 and depicts a woman stretched out and sleeping fully clothed in front of a radiator on two uncomfortable looking plastic “stacker” style chairs.  The room might be a waiting room or a down at heel café, nothing is explicit. The music is sympathetic and thoughtful, unfolding slowly through expansive solos on alto and piano. It expresses something of the sadness and ennui implicit in the photograph rather than being the kind of edgy thrash the title “Sensually Deranged” might suggest.   

“Adagio Assai from Piano Concerto in G Major” is Starace’s unhurried arrangement of a piece by Maurice Ravel, initially played sensitively by Di Toro on solo piano before the rest of the band come in. The group playing is similarly elegant with tasteful solos from both Starace and Fresu, the latter on flugel. It was selected in response to Gardin’s aerial photograph of a lone woman crossing a square in Venice in 1960 and merging in the photograph with the flock of birds, presumably pigeons, circling above her. It’s also the image chosen for the album cover.   

“Back To My Roots” is a Bradascio composition inspired by a rural scene in Tuscany in 1958 , another aerial shot this time featuring a solitary farmer with his horse and plough in a patchwork landscape. There are jazz roots here too with some delightful interplay between the horns of Starace and Fresu, eloquent solos from both and also from Di Toro, the whole subtly propelled by the composer’s crisp but sympathetic drumming.

1958 was obviously a particularly fertile year for Gardin with no fewer than four photographs for this project being chosen from that year. “Echoes of Naples” depicts a street scene with an earnest looking schoolboy staring directly at the camera while the two needle women in the background hunched over their sewing machines seem oblivious to the photographer’s presence. Sampled street noise is a constant throughout the track, an evocative solo saxophone performance by Starace.

Despite the technical difficulties I was able to enjoy enough of the music on this album to be very impressed with Starace’s achievements. Together with his colleagues he has created an evocative series of soundtracks that complement Gardin’s visual imagery perfectly, a near perfect marriage of sonic and visual art forms.

Starace is currently touring this material with an Anglo/Italian quartet featuring Bradascio (drums), Frank harrison (piano) and Nic Breakspear (bass). Dates include an EFG London Jazz Festival appearance. Schedule below sourced from

NOVEMBER 14, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 16, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 19, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 20, 2014
Tommaso Starace Quartet @ London Jazz Festival:

NOVEMBER 21, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ London Jazz Festival:

NOVEMBER 22, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 25, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 27, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 28, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 29, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

NOVEMBER 30, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

DECEMBER 5, 2014
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

DECEMBER 6, 2014
Tommaso Starace Quartet @

DECEMBER 14, 2014
Tommaso Starace with Rob Palmer @

FEBRUARY 3, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ St Ives Jazz Club/ Cornwall Tour

FEBRUARY 4, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ Cornwall Tour

FEBRUARY 5, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ Cornwall Tour

FEBRUARY 6, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ Devon location

FEBRUARY 7, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ Devon location

FEBRUARY 8, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ Devon location

MARCH 14, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

APRIL 4, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @ /

APRIL 23, 2015
Tommaso Starace Qrt @

OCTOBER 6, 2015
Tommaso Starace QRT @

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