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Tommaso Starace with Michele Di Toro

Tommaso Starace / Michele Di Toro Duo, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 17/09/2016.

Photography: Photograph ofTommaso Starace from the Shrewsbury Jazz Network website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

September 19, 2016


A superb performance from both musicians and another triumph for Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

Tommaso Starace / Michele Di Toro Duo, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 17/09/2016.

The Italian born saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace has been a consistent presence on the Jazzmann web pages since 2010 when I first saw him perform at the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival.

Predominately based in London Starace divides his time between the UK and his native land and runs working bands in both countries. His English quartet features a core of pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Laurence Cottle and drummer Chris Nickolls while his Italian group includes long standing associate Michele Di Toro on piano together with bassist Attilio Zanchi and drummer Tommy Bradascio. Starace has recorded with both line ups and has also worked with musicians such as trumpeters Paolo Fresu and Fabrizio Bosso, vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, guitarist Kristian Borring and bassist Will Collier.

A common thread running through Starace’s work has been his love of photography, cinema and the visual arts.  The album “Blood & Champagne” (2010), recorded with his British quartet, included a composition that paid tribute to the war photographer Robert Capa.  An earlier (2006) release, also   made with a British line up, featured original compositions inspired by the work of the celebrated photographer Elliott Erwhit.

In 2014 Starace released “Italian Short Stories”, the second album in his “plays the photos of”
series, this time inspired by the work of arguably Italy’s greatest living photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin (born 1930) . This recording featured Starace’s Italian quartet with guest contributions from Fresu and the saxophonist later toured the music in the UK with an Anglo Italian band featuring Harrison, Bradascio and bassist Nic Breakspear, the musicians playing in front of projections of Gardin’s photographs to create a full audio/visual experience. That tour included an appearance at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival plus a performance at The Hive, Starace’s second visit to Shrewsbury after leading a London based quartet at the same venue in 2011. Starace’s Italian quartet also recorded the album “Simply Marvellous!”, a homage to the great French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani.

A combination of superb musicianship and excellent compositional skills allied to an old fashioned Italian charm have made Starace a popular presence on the UK live circuit. Despite the pared down line up this third expedition to the Hive was pleasingly well attended with the Shrewsbury jazz public giving the duo a terrific reception.

The majority of the material was sourced from the duo’s recent album “From A Distant Past”, a collection of largely original material with the focus very much on melody but still with plenty of room allowed for rigorous improvisation. Once again the album draws much of its inspiration from the world of the visual arts, most notably Starace’s “Perseus and Andromeda”, inspired by Titian’s painting of the same name which is housed at the Wallace Collection in London and is reproduced on the album’s front cover.

Tonight’s performance began with the album track “A Trust Betrayed”, a Starace composition featuring its writer on soprano saxophone alongside Di Toro’s Yamaha electric keyboard. A ballad with a typically beautiful, if somewhat melancholy melody, the piece represented a beguiling blend of chamber elegance and jazz heat, Starace’s soprano swooping and soaring effectively around Di Toro’s classically honed pianism.

Starace changed horns for the aforementioned “Perseus and Andromeda”, this dramatic musical depiction of Titian’s painting commencing with the menacing rumble of Di Toro’s low end piano figures and the slap tonguing techniques and harsh, multiphonic rasps of Starace’s alto. The saxophonist’s solo above Di Toro’s percussive and densely rhythmic piano impressed in terms of both its virtuoso technique and its dramatic impact. The music lost none of its intensity during a lengthy passage of unaccompanied piano as an animated Starace urged his compatriot on with shouts of encouragement from the sidelines. The piece ended as it began with Starace’s further deployment of avant garde saxophone techniques. Starace’s main focus may be melody but he’s not afraid of the rough edges of the improvisational process.

Unaccompanied alto ushered in the first non-original tune of the evening, a version of “In Walked Bud”, Thelonious Monk’s tribute to fellow pianist Bud Powell. Monk’s tunes are always fertile ground for improvisers and Starace and Di Toro had great fun with this piece, both soloing at length before concluding the piece with a lively series of sax and piano exchanges. Although initially classically trained Di Toro has a thorough commend of jazz piano styles as he demonstrated with a lively stride piano pastiche in the middle of his compelling solo.

Initially inspired by the Alpine landscapes of Northern Italy Starace’s “Where the Mountain Meets The Moon” put the focus firmly back on melody and conjured up some suitably visual imagery. But these visions were not just of Europe, but also of America’s Deep South with the bluesy inflections of Di Toro’s piano playing and the Bechet like timbres of Starace’s soprano on a sparkling series of sax and piano exchanges.

Starace remained on soprano for the duo’s version of Chick Corea’s “Children’s Song No. 6”, a piece that also appears on the duo’s album. Introduced by Di Toro at the piano the duo’s version offered a compelling blend of florid, classically inspired piano and Moorish sounding saxophone inflections. “It may sound simple, but it’s actually a bit of a bitch to play” Starace informed us.

Another outside tune that appears on the album is Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune”, sourced from the film “Awakenings” starring Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and yes, Dexter Gordon. Newman’s piece has the smoky, nostalgic feel of a jazz standard, qualities that Starace and Di Toro delivered beautifully here with the former’s gently melodic sax playing well served by the pianist’s sympathetic accompaniment.

The first half finished on an energetic note with “Dis ‘Ere”, written by pianist Bobby Timmons for Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, the latter one of Starace’s all time alto sax heroes. Liberally infused with blues and gospel influences the tune proved to be a great vehicle for the duo with some rousing sax playing from Starace and a rollicking piano solo from Di Toro capped by a series of vivacious exchanges between the pair. Just the kind of thing guaranteed to send the audience smiling into the interval.

Set two began with Starace on alto and the duo’s playful deconstruction of the Kurt Weill standard “Mack The Knife”, not quite as radical as the young pianist Elliott Galvin’s recent interpretation, but still interesting, effective and fun. There was an element of humour here with Starace snapping his fingers in time to Di Toro’s solo before the duo rounded things off with another vigorous series of instrumental exchanges.

Starace’s composition “Soundtrack” was originally recorded on the “Blood & Champagne” album before being re-worked for the duo and “From a Distant Past”. Again the title hints at Starace’s love of the cinema and tonight’s tango style duo arrangement exhibited a strong narrative arc, growing from pensive beginnings towards something more dynamic and passionate as Di Toro’s piano shadowed the rise and fall of Starace’s soprano.

Di Toro’s “Jump for Joy” was suitably delightful with the composer’s sparkling piano work, inspired by Bach and the baroque combining well with Starace’s more obviously jazz inspired alto. Intense but joyful this piece was a superb illustration of Di Toro’s superb piano technique.

The second set concluded in a burst of energy with Starace’s “The Court Jester” which opened with a stunning passage of solo alto sax that must surely have been inspired by another of Starace’s alto heroes, the late, great Charlie Parker. With its fiendishly complex chart the piece was said by Starace to represent “the chaotic craziness of the court jester” and the duo certainly entered into the spirit of the piece with Di Toro tossing a Flintstones quote into his rollicking, bar room style piano solo.

The audience loved it and the enthusiasm of their reaction saw the duo quickly returning for a well deserved encore. This proved to be Di Toro’s lovely “La Favola Continua” (“The Story Continues”) with Starace now on soprano. Melodic, lyrical and elegant this was an achingly beautiful performance.

Still the audience wouldn’t let them go and the pair turned again to the Adderley back catalogue for a gospel tinged romp through “Mercy Mercy Mercy”with Di Toro attempting to derail his leader mid solo by temporarily switching his keyboard setting to Fender Rhodes mode. It was a good example of the humour and bonhomie that underpins all their performances.

This was a terrific duo performance that was rapturously received by the Shrewsbury crowd. Any doubts that anybody might have harboured about the suitability of a duo show at this venue had been quickly dispelled by the sheer virtuosity of the musicians. With Starace varying his playing position by moving around the hall and performing from different positions to different sections of the audience there was even a hint of theatricality about the performance, a quality enhanced by Starace’s warm, informative and humorous presenting style – resident in London for many years his English is impeccable.

His companion by way of contrast spoke very little English and was on a very rare visit to the UK. Instead Di Toro let his playing do the talking, I’d only heard him on record before and didn’t fully appreciate until this evening just how rhythmic a player he is with a phenomenal left hand technique to match his right hand melodicism. Some listeners did reflect upon how he would have sounded even better on an acoustic piano but he still impressed hugely on the electric. Sometimes I’m inclined to dock half a star in reviews of live performances due to the unavailability of a ‘proper’ piano but the brilliance of Di Toro’s playing tonight negated this.

Of course Starace was brilliant too, but UK audiences are more familiar with his playing by now and would expect nothing less. A superb performance from both musicians and another triumph for Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

My thanks to Tommaso for talking with me afterwards and to Michele for the gift of his 2014 solo piano album “Comepromesso”, a beautiful solo piano recording from 2014 featuring a selection of jazz standards, film music (Ennio Morricone), classical compositions (Mozart) and more, played in a variety of styles and including a beautiful version of the exquisite “La Favola Continua”, the only original piece on the record. 

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