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Tommaso Starace Quartet

Tommaso Starace Quartet, The Hive, Shrewsbury. 10/09/2011.

by Ian Mann

September 13, 2011


It would seem that whatever the combination of instruments Starace chooses to put together the resultant music is going to be colourful and full of interest.

Tommaso Starace Quartet, The Hive, Shrewsbury, 10/09/2011.

I first encountered the music of Tommaso Starace, an Italian saxophonist and composer now based in London, at the 2010 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival. Starace proved to be one of the festival’s outstanding soloists and I was subsequently very impressed by his latest recording, “Blood & Champagne”, which also demonstrated his considerable compositional abilities. The album was recorded with the same line up that appeared at Lichfield with Starace on alto and soprano saxophones, Frank Harrison on piano, Laurence Cottle on electric bass and Chris Nickolls at the drums. Reviews of both the album and the Lichfield live appearance can be found elsewhere on this site.

Given how much I had enjoyed Starace’s music I jumped at the opportunity to see him again in the intimate confines of Shrewsbury’s The Hive Arts Centre. True to the jazz spirit Starace has already moved on from when I saw him last. “Blood & Champagne” contained “Even Mice Dance” a composition by the late French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani which Starace had ingeniously combined with Frederic Chopin’s “Prelude No. 20 in C minor Opus 28”. This provided the springboard for Starace’s latest project, an extended homage to Petrucciani featuring Harrison, Cottle and Nickolls plus vibes player Roger Beaujolais which he hopes to release on a major European jazz label, he’s still looking for a deal at present. Consequently much of the material featured at Shrewsbury came from the pen of Petrucciani and his enduring compositions were superbly played by a quartet consisting of Starace, Cottle and Nickolls with Harrison’s place being taken by the London based Dane Kristian Borring on guitar. This represented an enforced change, Harrison is currently touring with Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble, but Borring fitted in superbly and proved to be an excellent and highly distinctive soloist. Initially it seemed a strange premise to bring a guitarist into a group that was paying tribute to a piano player but Borring slotted in brilliantly and brought a whole new perspective to Petrucciani’s music.

Before moving on to the concert itself it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about Michel Petrucciani. This remarkable musician was born with a rare bone disease and was only about three feet tall. He had to be lifted onto the piano stool but was a superb pianist and a prolific composer who was hugely popular in his own country. He played with a host of European and American jazz stars among them Charles Lloyd, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Tony Williams and lived and worked in the US for a while. He died tragically young at the age of just thirty seven in 1999 but left behind a legacy of excellent recordings and top quality compositions. Despite his physical problems Petrucciani was both cheerful and resourceful and much of his material is bright and optimistic. For me it’s still a source of some regret that I never got to see him perform live.

Starace and his colleagues began with “Looking Up”, a Petrucciani composition with a title that was intended as a wry reflection on his lack of physical stature, “always looking up” as Starace put it. After a beginning featuring Cottle’s bass and Starace’s spoken introduction the leader subsequently picked out the theme on alto before embarking on a lengthy solo that was a good reminder of his fluency as an improviser. Borring followed with a highly original contribution of his own. Borring is a difficult guitarist to pigeonhole, he doesn’t sound like Metheny, Scofield or Frisell and with his distinctive left configurations he brought something very much his own to the proceedings. More recent figures such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Adam Rogers seemed to me to be more discernible influences. Cottle is a master of the electric bass and if anyone can be said to be a British Steve Swallow it has to be him. On his five string bass he’s a hugely melodic soloist, one of the most musical bassists around , and an effortlessly funky accompanist. 

The breezy and optimistic “September 2nd” originally appeared on an album recorded by Petrucciani in the company of drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Anthony Jackson. Introduced once more by Cottle at the bass the piece featured further cogent soloing from Borring on guitar and Starace on alto.

“Even Mice Dance”, originally recorded by Petrucciani with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Tony Williams and the Graffiti String Quartet was the only selection from “Blood & Champagne”. Starace revealed that Petrucciani was hugely influenced by Chopin (whose “Prelude” acts as an introduction to the piece as you’ve already read) and that Petrucciani lies buried in an adjoining plot to the classical composer. With Borring in the group this piece was substantially different to the “Blood & Champagne” version but still retained the lyrical qualities of the original with solos coming from Starace on alto, Borring and Cottle.

“Guadaloupe” represented Petrucciani’s excursion into bossa nova territory with Starace stating the theme before handing over to Borring. Starace’s later alto solo probed darkly, an intriguing counterpoint to the sunniness of the underlying rhythms.

Petrucciani’s “Little Peace In C For V” began with an exquisite dialogue featuring just soprano sax and guitar. Starace’s later solo above Cottle’s springy bass walk was an excellent demonstration of the Italian’s ability on the smaller horn and Cottle’s string bending bass solo was also mightily impressive. Borring’s slowed down guitar solo offered an effective contrast before a spirited bop inspired finish saw the hitherto economical Nickolls cutting loose for the first time. Nickolls is an unfussy drummer but his in the pocket playing is just right for this quartet.

The first half ended on a high note with Perucciani’s gospel flavoured tune “Simply Bop” during which the personable Starace encouraged the audience to clap along before going walkabout in the audience during his alto solo. A respectably sized crowd (fifty plus I’d say) just loved this and gave the group a great reception. The combination of Starace’s personal charm, Petrucciani’s rich and varied compositions and superb musicianship all round had made for a highly effective and enjoyable first half. Even so the quartet were nearly upstaged by Norman The Cat, the handsome ginger tom from next door who made a leisurely tour of the auditorium, including the bandstand, during the interval charming everybody in the process. Tommaso was quick to recognise Norman as a fellow “cool cat”.

Possibly reacting to audience comments at the interval the quartet opened the second half with an interesting arrangement of the jazz standard, “Bye Bye Blackbird” introduced with an alto/bass duet
with subsequent solos coming from Starace, Borring and Cottle plus a further series of drum breaks from Nicholls. 

Starace’s waltz “Marvellous” takes its title from Petrucciani’s album of that name, the one with Williams, Holland and the Graffiti String Quartet. Lovingly crafted the piece here featured solos from Starace and Borring and was a fitting tribute to the genius of the man behind so much of tonight’s music.

Solo alto ushered in an unannounced ballad. As a lover of original music I’ll readily admit to not knowing my standards as well as I should. However I suspect that this may have been Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”. Petrucciani was a huge admirer of Ellington and once recorded a solo piano album for Blue Note entitled “Promenade With Duke”. This featured an exceptional solo from Borring and a hugely musical statement from the consistently excellent Cottle.

Another waltz, “Rachid”, followed, a dedication from Petrucciani for his daughter with Starace switching to soprano, arguably an instrument he should deploy more often given his ability on the straight horn. Interestingly the arrangement included a colourful closing drum feature with Nickolls circumnavigating his kit to a back drop of Borring’s sympathetic guitar chording and Starace’s circling sax lines.

Petrucciani’s “My Bebop Tune” was a frenetic closer which set out doing exactly what it says on the tin with Starace’s hurtling, stream of consciousness alto shadowed by Cottle’s fast, springy bass lines, Borring’s intricate guitar chording and the restless chatter of Nickolls’ drums. The second part of the tune slowed the pace a little but this was still an exhilarating end to a superb evening of music. An encore was inevitable with Starace and the group remaining on stage for a good natured romp through Petrucciani’s “Cantabile”. To be honest I stopped taking notes at this stage and just sat back and enjoyed the music.

It would seem that whatever the combination of instruments Starace chooses to put together the resultant music is going to be colourful and full of interest. Factor in Starace’s warm personality and you have a live act that combines entertainment and accessibility with a consistently high standard of musicianship. A word of praise too for Laurence Cottle who took time out to chat to the youngest member of the audience, an eight year old girl seated in the front row who had clearly been enthralled throughout. Dressed very glamorously for the occasion it turned out that she was an aspiring flute player. Let’s hope the encouragement of Cottle and Starace will help to inspire a star of the future. This accessibility and the atmosphere of mutual respect that exists between musicians and audiences are among the things that make jazz such a great music. 

I’ve now seen two very different concerts by Starace and without hesitation would recommend him as an excellent live act. The reaction of the Hive crowd suggested that they would fully concur with the above statement.               

After the gig I treated myself to a copy of Starace’s acclaimed 2005 album “Plays The Photos Of Elliott Erwitt”, a set of original compositions that reflects Starace’s fascination with photography and cinema. Starace’s tunes have a cinematic quality of their own, a characteristic that can also be heard on the later “Blood & Champagne”. “Plays The Photos” teams him with an inspired British band featuring Roger Beaujolias (vibes), Liam Noble (piano) and Julian Bury (bass) with   Jim Hart, best known these days as a vibraphone player, turning in a rare (but very good) performance at the drums. Like its successor “Plays The Photos” is strongly recommended.                 

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