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Tommaso Starace Quartet

Blood & Champagne


by Ian Mann

September 29, 2010


A highly accomplished album performed by a very talented quartet.

Tommaso Starace Quartet

“Blood & Champagne”

Tommaso Starace is an Italian saxophonist and composer now based in London. Earlier this year I saw his quartet give an excellent performance in sweltering conditions at the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival. A review of that performance can be found in our festival coverage in the “Features” section of this site.

Much of the material played at Lichfield turns up on this new studio album, recorded in England at Derek Nash’s Clowns Pocket Studio. The album features Starace’s British quartet with Frank Harrison on piano, Chris Nickolls at the drums and Laurence Cottle on electric bass (Will Collier filled in for Cottle at Lichfield). Starace himself plays alto and soprano saxophones and is the composer of four of the album’s nine tracks. The outside material comes from a varied list of composers and avoids the most obvious chestnuts. These pieces are given imaginative arrangements by Starace and the album flows very nicely as a whole with some fine playing from all four musicians.

Starace’s own writing is often inspired by visual stimuli. One of his previous albums took its inspiration from the photographs of Elliott Erwitt and the title track here is a tribute to another photographer, Robert Capa. When he composes Starace is very much a “musical story teller” and his writing has a strong narrative quality. This is exemplified by the opening “Il Tunnel della Liberta” (or “The Tunnel Of Freedom”), a piece played at Lichfield and inspired by the true story of two expatriate Italians living in West Berlin who dug a tunnel under the wall to the East side and liberated some forty odd family and friends without detection. Starace’s urgent, biting soprano recounts the tale with excellent support from the quartet with Cottle’s vibrant electric bass lines providing the springboard for sparkling solos from Starace and Harrison. I’m not always a fan of electric bass in otherwise acoustic line-ups but Cottle sounds good throughout and shines here on a solo of his own. Although conventionally structured in jazz terms with a drum feature for Nickolls towards the end the briskness and urgency of the quartet’s playing neatly encapsulates the fraught atmosphere surrounding the tunnel venture. A good start.

Next up is another Starace composition “Soundtrack”, doubtless also inspired by the Italian’s passion for cinema and the visual arts. He describes it as “evocative and melodic” and it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. Harrison, known mainly for his work with Gilad Atzmon and also as the leader of his own trio contributes a perfectly judged solo followed by Starace’s lyrical but exploratory soprano.

“Soundtrack” was played at Lichfield as was the following piece, a Starace arrangement bringing together Chopin’s “C Minor Prelude Opus 28 No.20” and Michel Petrucciani’s joyous “Only Mice Dance” from his album “Marvellous” recorded with Dave Holland and the late Tony Williams. The French jazz pianist’s tune was inspired by Chopin’s work prompting Starace to bring the two pieces together. The classically schooled Harrison delivers the “Prelude” fairly straight on solo piano before the group come in for Petrucciani’s lovely waltz-time piece with Starace this time featuring on alto and with Harrison and Cottle also making significant contributions.  As I observed in my review of the Lichfield show it’s ironic that Petrucciani ( 1962-99), the victim of an obscure bone disease that stunted his growth, should die so young after having penned such a beautiful celebration of life itself. 

A playful take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately” features Starace on slippery soprano and the dazzling Harrison at the piano. At Lichfield the tune was segued with Ennio Morricone’s theme from “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” and the evocative film music comes next here also. This features Starace and Harrison at their most lyrical, sympathetically supported by Cottle and Nickolls as the quartet expound on the famous melody, a long term favourite with many jazz improvisers.

The third in a sequence of standards is a good natured take on Henry Mancini’s “Days Of Wine And Roses” with Starace on slightly acerbic alto and with Cottle and Nickolls providing energetic support as Harrison sits out. There’s a stunning solo from Cottle on electric bass and a feature for Nickolls as the temporary saxophone trio demonstrate their considerable chops.

Starace’s own “Intercalare” is based on a repeating two bar phrase, the musical equivalent of a “verbal tic”. It’s forms the basis for a typically lively and intriguing Starace composition that incorporates another singing solo from Cottle plus expansive and eloquent statements from Harrison on piano and Starace on dancing soprano.

The final standard is “The Party’s Over” introduced by a lengthy passage of solo alto saxophone by Starace, further evidence of just how good this guy is. At Lichfield he gave the best instrumental performance of the whole weekend, excelling on both soprano and alto. Here the tune eventually settles into ballad mode with Harrison adding a typically limpid solo with Cottle liquid and purring on the bass and Nickolls economic at the drums. Overall the quartet combine to provide music that is both lush and sumptuous.

Starace’s alto also introduces the closing title track, his dedication to the war photographer Robert Capa. Starace describes the piece as a portrayal of Capa’s “dangerous life and adventurous character” and the urgency of the music certainly encapsulates this, not least in the impassioned, biting nature of Starace’s own playing, full of darting, mercurial, scuttling phrases. Harrison’s piano solo is a little less abandoned but introduces a dark edge before gradually building in intensity with Starace eventually taking over again to take things storming out.

“Blood & Champagne” is a highly accomplished album performed by a very talented quartet. Besides being impressed by the standard of musicianship I was also impressed by Starace’s qualities as a writer. All four of his compositions are interesting and descriptive and I’d have liked to have heard a few more originals. Nevertheless this is a fine album overall and deserves to bring Starace to greater attention. The saxophonist is a welcome addition to the British jazz scene and the quartet hope to tour with this material in 2011 with the support of Jazz Services. The dates will be posted on our news pages as soon as we have them. See also


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