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Robert Castelli

Live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna


by Ian Mann

December 24, 2010


His music is unpretentious and fun and unashamedly groove orientated but there's an underlying musical intelligence and a subtlety that is sometimes masked by his down to earth approach.

Robert Castelli Boom Quartet

“Live at Porgy & Bess Vienna”

Robert Castelli is an American drummer, band-leader and composer of Italian descent. He currently lives in Europe and this latest recording by his Boom Quartet documents a live show given in April 2010 at Austria’s premier jazz club, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. It’s a different line up to the one that appeared on the 2007 “Boom Quartet” studio album and the material on this live date all comes from the pen of Castelli; the compositional duties on the studio album were distributed around the band. “Live” is thus a good showcase for Castelli’s writing skills as well as his abilities as a performer. There is even the unexpected bonus of hearing Castelli’s not inconsiderable abilities as a guitarist.

Joining Castelli in the latest incarnation of the Boom Quartet are saxophonist Sebastian Grimus, guitarist Roland Stonek and bassist Hannes Steif. The material is largely in Castelli’s trademark jazz funk style, hard hitting, unpretentious and unashamedly about the groove.

I first encountered Castelli at the 2010 Brecon Jazz Festival where he appeared with his UK edition of the group featuring guitarist Nicolas Meier, saxophonist Dave O’Higgins and electric bassist Patrick Bettison. This was an enjoyable gig but not the definitive Boom Quartet performance with much of the material played having been written by Meier. Castelli has expressed a wish to return to the festival in 2011 and to stamp more of his own personality on the proceedings.

“Live” features six lengthy workouts, mainly in the jazz/funk vein with only the closing “African Dance” remaining from the studio album. A staple of Castelli’s live appearances this infectious tune was also featured at Brecon where, as here, it constituted the closing number.

The live set kicks off with the almost reggae like groove of “Gokalina Song”, a tune with an instantly catchy hook. Castelli drives the group with his powerful drumming and Grimus’ earthy sax forms the principal instrumental voice in the early stages. The tune goes through several tempo changes without ever losing its essential simplicity and as the piece gathers momentum Stonek delivers a dazzling guitar solo that adds a distinctly African flavour to the equation. Castelli fills in any gaps with some brief drum cameos and the good natured feel of the piece makes it an attention grabbing opener that goes down well with the Viennese crowd.

The sunny atmosphere continues into the following “Brazibbean Barbecue”, another lively crowd pleasing piece that not surprisingly combines Brazilian and Caribbean flavourings. Castelli’s crisply propulsive drumming is again right on the money and acts the spur for solos from the gruff r’n'b inflected saxophone of Grimus and the agile, highly individualistic guitar of the excellent Stonek. Although Castelli serves the groove faithfully there’s also plenty of rhythmic and textural detail in his drumming. This is music that contains a good deal more subtlety than may be immediately apparent.

Castelli’s fascination with global rhythms and musics extends into the Spanish influenced “Corazon Dellanto” which features Castelli on flamenco flavoured acoustic guitar in what I assume to be a duet with regular guitarist Stonek. It’s exciting, frequently dazzling stuff and acts as an effective palette cleanser between the bouts of more groove orientated music. The piece certainly gets a great reception from the Austrian crowd.

“Hustle & Bustle” lives up to its title, a bruising piece of low down and dirty funk allied to expansive, sometimes rock influenced, improvisation. Weighing in at just under nine minutes it’s the lengthiest cut on the album and features some dynamic drumming from the leader, belligerent, sometimes electronically enhanced saxophone from Grimus and searing rock influenced guitar from Stonek. It’s powerful stuff, but again, not without subtlety.

“Like A Dream” offers another quiet interlude and again showcases Castelli’s acoustic guitar skills. This time he’s in duet with Grimus who also demonstrates another aspect of his playing- his light, airy tone exhibits considerable tenderness and represents a considerable contrast to the toughness he displays elsewhere.

The album concludes with the perennially popular “African Dance”. The infectious tune and rhythms are hard to resist and it’s no wonder the piece is a big crowd pleaser. This version incorporates confident solos from Grimus and Stonek, the latter again showing a strong rock influence. There’s also a lengthy solo interlude from Castelli himself which gives the leader the opportunity to demonstrate his technical abilities.

“Live” is a another good example of Castelli’s qualities as a writer, leader and drummer. His music is unpretentious and fun and unashamedly groove orientated but there’s an underlying musical intelligence and a subtlety that is sometimes masked by his down to earth approach. This is a well programmed set with two refreshing duets to leaven the effect of the more heavy duty groove driven material. Castelli’s music is eminently enjoyable. The expatriate American is a more than welcome presence on the European jazz scene.

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