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Tommaso Starace

The Power of Three

by Ian Mann

February 05, 2021


There’s a strong collective rapport allied to some superb individual contributions. This is the sound of a trio having ‘serious fun’, & that sense of enjoyment readily transmits itself to the listener

Tommaso Starace

“The Power of Three”

(Music Center BA 420 CD)

Tommaso Starace – alto & soprano saxophones,  Jim Watson -piano, Laurence Cottle – electric bass

The Italian born, London based saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for over a decade. I first enjoyed seeing him perform back in 2010 at the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival.

Born in Milan Starace first came to the UK in 1995 to study jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire, before undertaking post graduate studies at the Guildhall in London. Since settling more or less permanently in the UK the personable Starace has become a firm favourite with British jazz promoters and audiences alike.

Starace is a musician that I have witnessed performing live on a number of occasions and he is an artist who can always be relied upon to deliver, regardless of the group line up or the instrumental format. Reviews of some of these shows can be found elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

Although primarily based in the UK Starace has maintained strong links with his homeland and he has led working bands in both Britain and Italy and has recorded albums with both.

Starace’s recorded output has also been featured on The Jazzmann with the quartet albums “Blood & Champagne” (2010), “Simply Marvellous!” (2013) and “Italian Short Stories” (2014) all reviewed elsewhere on this site. “Blood & Champagne” features an all British line up, the other two Starace’s Italian Quartet, with “Simply Marvellous!” representing Starace’s tribute to the genius of the late French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani.

“Songs From A Distant Past” (2016) is a melodic and intimate duo recording made with Michele Di Toro, the pianist with Starace’s Italian quartet.

In 2018 Starace released two contrasting albums, “Narrow Escape”, recorded by a Harmony Less Quartet comprised of both English and Italian musicians, an exploration of the piano less format with Starace’s alto teamed in the front line with Dave O’Higgins’ tenor.
Meanwhile “Eleuthera All That Jazz” documented a live performance by a one off quintet at a jazz festival in the Bahamas.
These two recordings are the subject of a Jazzmann feature here;

As a composer Starace frequently draws inspiration from the worlds of photography and cinema. The title track of “Blood & Champagne” is inspired by the story of the war photographer Frank Capa while “Italian Short Stories” is a concept album inspired by the work of Italy’s greatest living photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin (born 1930), who actively collaborated with Starace on the project. An earlier album from 2006, the first of Starace’s “Plays the Photos of” series, was recorded by a British line up and was inspired by the work of Elliott Erwhit.

These recordings revealed Starace to be a highly accomplished original composer, whose love of the visual arts helped to give his writing a strong narrative, almost cinematic quality.

In addition to his own skills as a composer Starace has always enjoyed performing the music of others and he draws considerable inspiration from the jazz tradition. In addition to his Petrucciani project he has also toured with a show paying tribute to his fellow alto player Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. Other saxophonists from whom he has drawn inspiration include Charlie Parker (almost inevitably) and Joshua Redman.

With exception of the Petrucciani project Starace’s albums, including his eponymous début from 2002 and “Don’t Forget”, from 2009, have largely placed the emphasis on original music, albeit with outside material sometimes woven in alongside.

This latest offering is different, featuring only one new original tune as Starace concentrates on getting back to basics, with the recording representing something of a return to roots, as he explains in his album liner notes;
I wanted to explore a more intimate setting and also perform with two musicians whose playing I enjoy very much, Laurence Cottle on bass and Jim Watson on piano. I had the pleasure of recording and playing alongside Laurence on my fourth album Blood & Champagne, but this was my first time recording with Jim. In this particular album the trio setting allowed all instruments to be lead players, stretching out and aiming to be more adventurous in improvisation.”

Starace goes on to explain that the nature of the recording itself is very different to that of his previous projects;
“In contrast to my previous recordings I also wanted to create a ‘live’ recording where we were all together in one room, facing each other and without separations. I wanted to treat this project like a jam session by including some of my favourite tunes that I have performed over the last few years. This method of recording was the norm in the old days, allowing greater interaction between the musicians and avoiding the use of the dreaded headphones, something that personally I still don’t enjoy. It’s so liberating to hear the sound of my own saxophones and of the piano and bass in the way that they really are, exploiting the acoustics of the hall we recorded in. So what you hear is what was played in that session with hardly any editing or mixing. Needless to say by adopting this method of recording we were able to complete the session in about five hours, the whole process is speeded up both in the recording and in the mixing and mastering stages”.

The hall of which Starace speaks is at the Chapel Arts Gallery in Cheltenham, a large space that offered the three instruments what Starace describes as;
“A big resonant sound and a more ‘a cappella’ style as a result, quite the opposite of a recording studio, where separate insulated rooms produce a drier sound that is consequently artificially enhanced through the mixing process”.

Starace was introduced to Chapel Arts by his friend, the Cheltenham based pianist Alex Steele. Ian James, the director of Chapel Arts subsequently got fully behind the project, while Steele organised a concert for the trio in the same performance space on the day following the recording, which was made in October 2019. Both Steele and James, stalwarts of the cultural scene in Cheltenham, receive due acknowledgement in the album notes.

Of the trio’s choice of material Starace comments;
“The choice of music was also important to me. I wanted to include a variety of styles from past to present composers, as well as music not confined to the jazz tradition.”

Among the composers featured is the late Ennio Morricone, who passed away on 6th July 2020 and to whom Starace dedicates this album.

The trio commence with a lengthy exploration of Stevie Wonder’s “Lighting Up The Candles”, with Starace featuring on alto. With Cottle providing the pulse and with the bass allied to the rhythmic functions of the piano the absence of drums is barely noticed. For what is notionally a ‘chamber jazz’ ensemble the trio is surprisingly warm, vibrant and rhythmic.
Starace opens the solos, playing with great flair and fluency. He’s followed by Watson on the venue’s C5 Yamaha Grand Piano. After hearing several recordings on which Watson has featured as a Hammond organist it’s good to be reminded of just how good an acoustic pianist he is. Next we hear from Cottle on electric bass, his liquid, fluent style drawing inspiration from that of the great Steve Swallow.

Next up is a genuine jazz standard, a vibrant version of the old war horse “Del Sasser”, written by Sam Jones. The trio tear through this with great élan, with Starace, on alto, exchanging lively solos with Watson, who truly sparkles at the piano. Cottle supplies the necessary rhythmic propulsion before shining towards the close with a series of exchanges with his colleagues that replicate the process of a drummer ‘trading fours’.

There’s no let up in the energy levels on the next piece as the trio deliver a spirited version of Bobby Timmons’ “This Here”. Both Starace, again on alto, and Watson bring an appropriate blues / gospel element to the proceedings as each solos effectively. Watson also combines with Cottle to bring an impressive rhythmic drive to the performance. Finally the bassist cuts loose with a fleet fingered, virtuoso solo as the others temporarily drop out.

An unaccompanied alto sax cadenza introduces the trio’s version of Chick Corea’s “Got a Match?”, a tune from the composer’s Elektrik Band repertoire, but here delivered as a thrilling acoustic performance with Cottle stepping into John Patitucci’s shoes with a dazzling electric bass solo. The solos from Watson and Starace are equally iridescent, with Cottle’s driving bass lines propelling their exchanges to new heights.

The only original tune on the album is “Nina”, Starace’s delightful dedication to his five year old niece. This features the composer on soprano sax and the ballad has an appropriately child like charm about it, with Watson making a particularly lyrical contribution at the piano.

As previously alluded to Starace’s love of the visual arts finds expression in the trio’s interpretation of Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”. This is introduced by a passage of solo piano from Watson, subsequently joined by Cottle on bass and Starace back on alto. Watson later stretches out more expansively, his pianistic flights of fancy supported by Cottle’s buoyant bass lines. Starace then pays homage to one of his heroes with an emotive, but fluent, alto solo.

“Brazilian Like” represents another dip into the repertoire of Michel Petrucciani and is a composition that didn’t find its way onto the “Simply Marvellous!” album. Nevertheless it’s one of Petrucciani’s most popular compositions and represents a perfect vehicle for this trio with its memorable melody and Brazilian style rhythmic cadences. Starace features extensively on alto, while Cottle is at his most Swallow like with a stunning electric bass solo. Watson also impresses when he takes over at the piano,  as does the overall collective performance.

A flurry of notes from Starace’s alto heralds the arrival of Charlie Parker’s “Segment”, a bebop tour de force that sees the trio negotiating its complex twists and turns with genuine brio as the leader’s alto takes flight. Cottle’s supple but propulsive bass lines also spur Watson to fresh heights, before the bassist himself cuts loose once more in a series of dazzling exchanges with the piano and sax, with Starace even introducing a little slap tonguing.

The album concludes with “Napule e”, written by the late Italian guitarist and singer-songwriter Pino Daniele (1955 – 2015).  Performed as a jazz ballad this features Starace on wistful, pure toned,  gracefully swooping soprano and Cottle on liquid electric bass.  Daniele’s memorable melody is also the vehicle for Watson’s piano lyricism as the trio sign off the album on a gently elegiac note.

Starace can always be relied upon to ‘deliver the goods’, whatever the musical context and whatever the instrumental format. This drummer-less trio performs this largely standards based set with an energy and confidence not normally associated with ‘chamber jazz’. The word ‘intimate’ is normally applied in this context to refer to something fragile and almost self consciously beautiful, but there’s nothing remotely ‘precious’ about this recording.

The playing is ‘intimate’ in that it is highly democratic and interactive,  but Starace, Watson and Cottle create a genuine spark and bounce ideas off each other in a manner that is anything but passive. There’s a strong collective rapport allied to some superb individual contributions as the three protagonists push each other to new heights. There’s an urgency about Starace’s playing, and an incisiveness to his tone, that encourages his colleagues to reply in kind. Many of these performances crackle with energy, but there are moments of genuine beauty too, notably the two soprano ballads, “Nina” and Napule e’”,  plus Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”.

This is the sound of a trio having ‘serious fun’, and that sense of enjoyment readily transmits itself to the listener.


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