by Ian Mann
June 13, 2016
Starace is an increasingly individual musician, a highly accomplished technician with a gift for melody but with an additional facility to see 'the big picture' .
Tommaso Starace with Michele Di Toro
“From a Distant Past”
(Universal Classics & Jazz 0602547716156)
Tommaso Starace is an Italian born saxophonist and composer now living in London. A welcome and popular presence on the UK jazz scene Starace has worked and recorded with both British and Italian musicians and the first album of his that I heard, 2011’s excellent “Blood & Champagne”, featured an all British line-up of Frank Harrison (piano), Laurence Cottle (bass) and Chris Nickolls (drums).
In 2013 Starace celebrated the music of the late French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani on the album “Simply Marvellous”, a highly enjoyable and uplifting album that he recorded with his ‘Italian Quartet’ featuring Michele Di Toro on piano, Attilio Zanchi on bass and Tommy Bradsacio at the drums. The album also included guest appearances from Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and British vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais.
Like many other contemporary jazz musicians Starace the composer has been influenced by both the European classical tradition and the sounds of both American and European jazz. However an even more profound and distinctive influence on his work has been his love of photography, cinema and the visual arts in general. Blood & Champagne” featured a composition that paid tribute to the war photographer Robert Capa. An earlier (2006) release, also recorded with a British line up, featured original compositions inspired by the work of the celebrated photographer Elliott Erwhit.
In 2014 Starace and his ‘Italian Quartet’ released the album “Italian Short Stories”, an elaborately presented recording that celebrated the work of the Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin with each of the fourteen compositions being inspired by a specific Gardin work with each of the black and white images being reproduced in the album’s lavish packaging. Musically the album maintained the characteristically high standards that we have come to expect from Starace and the recording benefited immensely from the contribution of guest Sicilian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, a world class musician who has worked with guitarist Ralph Towner and pianist Carla Bley among others. Starace subsequently toured the work with an Anglo-Italian quartet that included Di Toro and which saw the band performing in front of a backdrop of Gardin’s images. Unfortunately I was unable to attend any of the dates on that particular tour but I have seen Starace play live on two other occasions at Lichfield in 2010 and Shrewsbury in 2011 and can confirm that he is a hugely accomplished and highly engaging live performer.
Starace’s latest release is a duo recording featuring himself on alto and soprano saxophones and Di Toro on piano. Starace describes the album as “a continuation of my work on melody and composing music of a cinematic quality”. The album cover, a reproduction of Titian’s “Perseus and Andromeda” sourced from the Wallace Collection in London also emphasises the influence of the visual arts upon Starace’s work while Flavio Caprera’s somewhat florid sleeve notes compare the duo’s music making to the brush strokes of a painting.
Recorded ‘live in the studio’ during the course of a single day at the Indiehub studio in Milan during September 2015 the programme includes a mixture of original compositions by both Starace and Di Toro plus one piece each by Chick Corea and, rather less predictably, Randy Newman.
Immaculately recorded and with Di Toro playing a Steinway model D-274 piano the album commences with Starace’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon”, the title evoking a suitably visual image. The rapport between the two musicians, established over fifteen years of playing and recording, is immediately obvious with Starace allowing Di Toro plenty of room for self expression, albeit within a largely written framework; this genuinely is a meeting of equals. Starace’s soprano sax is almost clarinet like on this hugely enjoyable opening piece with its allusions to classic American jazz and blues as the pair exchange ideas in highly entertaining fashion.
Also by Starace “Perseus and Andromeda”, inspired by the painting and effectively the title track, is much more intense with its dense piano clusters and incisive saxophone. Starace delivers a stunning solo and he’s followed by a tumultuous passage of solo piano from Di Toro. There’s a sometimes brooding, but always dramatic, quality about this piece which captures the spirit of Titian’s painting perfectly.
Starace’s beautiful ballad “A Trust Betrayed”, is a delightfully melodic piece where the composer’s flawless playing on soprano is complemented by his partner’s classically honed lightness of touch at the piano. Di Toro’s playing is flowingly limpid and lyrical and incorporates a lengthy unaccompanied passage mid tune before Starace returns to restate the melancholic but lovely theme.
At a little under three minutes in length the pair’s version of Chick Corea’s “Children’s Song No. 6” represents a delightful miniature in the context of the rest of the album. Corea’s playful melody with its Italianate flourishes is just perfect for the duo.
Di Toro’s “Jump for Joy” is a good summation of the duo’s approach with Starace’s warm, jazzy alto neatly offset by Di Toro’s classically inspired pianism that draws upon the influence of Bach and the baroque.
Given Starace’s enthusiasm for the cinema his “Soundtrack” has the most apposite of titles and does indeed sound like the accompaniment to a silent film with its strong but atmospheric melodic themes and thoughtful instrumental interplay.
Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune” was featured in the movie “Awakenings” and the duo’s playing here is very much about bringing out the full beauty of Newman’s melody as the pair combine on a warm, lush arrangement deliberately designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia in the listener.
Starace’s audacious “The Court Jester” evokes nostalgia of a very different kind as it conjures up memories of Charlie Parker and the bebop era with its fiendishly complex chart, a technical tour de force that these superlative musicians negotiate with ease. Di Toro’s occasional baroque flourishes help to enable the duo to put their own stamp on a piece that must surely be an audience favourite whenever the duo perform this music live.
The album closes with the gentle lyricism of Di Toro’s “La favola continua”, yet another piece with an achingly beautiful melody which the duo duly caress and embellish with their delightful work on soprano sax and piano.
“From a Distant Past” maintains the high standards we have come to expect from Starace and is a highly personal work that sees him continuing to explore the interface between jazz and classical music while simultaneously looking towards the world of the visual arts for inspiration. It’s the combination of these elements and influences that serve to make Starace an increasingly individual musician, a highly accomplished technician with a gift for melody but with an additional facility to see ‘the big picture’ and the possibilities of connections between the various art forms that fascinate him.
That said “From a Distant Past” is a satisfying listening experience in its own right, something that is greatly encouraged by the presence of Di Toro, a superlative pianist who also made a major contribution to the “Italian Short Stories” album. Some jazz listeners may cite a lack of truly improvised content but by Starace’s own admission his chief focus here is on melody rather than improvisational ‘nitty gritty’. On its own terms “From a Distant Past” succeeds brilliantly and the intentionally melodic approach of the duo is likely to win them plenty of admirers.
Starace and Di Toro will be touring this music in the Autumn of 2016 and I’m already looking forward to seeing them when they visit The Hive Music & Media Centre in Shrewsbury on September 17th. For details of this and other dates please visit http://www.tommasostarace.com