|One of Italy's most accomplished jazz composers, Varese-born pianist/keyboardist Riccardo Fassi, 48, divides his time between teaching, composing film scores, small combo work and his own big band, the Tankio Band, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Tugged every which way by commitments, he's like certain of his North American counterparts who bring an admirable professionalism to many projects, but seem to lack a fervent commitment to music's transcendent power. In the end a job is a job. This is apparent on these discs which features the pianist in different settings with committed American saxophonists.
Brand new, Dummy, matches Fassi's trio -- filled out by bassist Gianluca Renzi and drummer Ettore Fioravanti -- improvising alongside soprano saxophone master Steve Lacy. Il Principe, the reissue of a 1989 disc by the 10-piece Tankio Band plus guests, features tenor and soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman, an Italian favorite. But be warned, the session is very much of its time.
That time seems to be the dying days of jazz-rock fusion. Despite the album's dedication to Neapolitan comedic improviser Totò, the emphasis appears to be on the larger projects of fusion pioneers like pianist Chick Corea and Grossman's old boss Miles Davis, not to mention more traditional big jazz bandstrying to lower their demographic appeal like Thad Jones -Mel Lewis' and Maynard Ferguson's.
Thus a few of the tunes are near throwaways, including "Rosso," which sounds like it could have been written by Lalo Schifrin for a TV show, and comes complete with wiggy, disco-style percussion, a thumb-popping electric bass solo, endless conga drumming, synthesizer and electric piano immersions. Here Grossman sounds like he's merely going through the motions, and guest flutist Riccardo Luppi's attempts at a grittier tone are buried by the synthesizer and congas. Unexceptional too is "Aquamarina," a low-energy bossa nova where the pleasant vocals of Joy Garrison merely add to the balladic fluffiness advanced by shaken bell tree, low frequency harp-like arpeggios from the piano and muted trumpet lines.
Grossman, whose checkered career has encompassed engagements with Davis, drummers Elvin Jones and Art Taylor and pianist Michel Petrucciani, as well as prolongued stints in Europe and South America, has never really rerouted the sophisticated musical heights of his one-time Davis and Jones sax partner Dave Liebman. Yet his soprano solo work on "Lu's Illuminations" resembles Liebman's more refined, legato curving lines. Although at times the band vamps like a merely competent studio group, his tenor solos on the same piece are exceptional, filled with slurs, honks and double-tonguing, and reaching a climax when he trades fours with drummer Massimo D'Agostino.
Even better is the rock-inflected first tune, a real foot tapper in the Jones-Lewis tradition that allows the tenor man to flaunt his harsh, powerful mid-period-Trane-influenced work. Fassi's electric piano comping serves its purpose here, though the overactive electric bassist should have been reined in. Sadly longtime avant-gardist Gincarlo Schiffini's bleats and rumbles from both tuba and trombone apparently exist in their own space on the title tune. At least Fassi's ET-like synth colors, Sandro Satta's squeaky Dave Sanborn-like alto work and someone's imitation Ferguson stratospheric trumpeting don't connect to what Schiffini is doing. Satta redeems himself with an unaccompanied cadenza in the final minutes, however, though the constantly moving orchestral backdrop can't seem to settle on any one style. Thelonious Monk's "Skippy" is the bonus track added to the reissue. But while the band -- especially baritone man Torquato Sdrucia -- attack it with gusto, the Swing- style wah-wah brass and underrecording don't help matters.
One of the world's acknowledged Monk specialists -- Lacy -- gets the pianist and company onto the jazz track on the other disc as early as the first number, written by Fassi for the saxman. It's stretched harmonies and bittersweet tone easily suggests Monk, especially when Lacy solos.
Divided among themes written by each band member and one group improvisation,\ this "dummy" appears more "princely" than the other session. But while the jazz bona fides can't be questioned, the CD is still a little too much of a busman's holiday for studio musicians. As good as they are, there's really no reason outside of the guest's politeness for each musician to solo on nearly every tune.
Highlights include "Together" the instant composition where Lacy's tart, mewling tone gets into sopranino territory as he doubletongues and pitchslides into discordant sounds; and the title track, where Fassi's inventiveness in the middle range provides solid strumming backing for the reedist's bouncing, crooked time frame. The pianist's final turnaround redefines the pieces, though Fioravanti, who also regularly plays with trumpeter Paolo Fresu and saxist Eugenio Colombo is a little too busy in response.
Still, the drummer's finest moments come on his own "Mon Ami Attila", a modern freebop theme that features Lacy slipsliding, followed every step of the way by walking bass and the pianist's rolling octaves. Then there's "Esteem," Lacy's tribute to Johnny Hodges, who sometimes played soprano saxophone as well as his more common alto in Duke Ellington's band. Although Lacy produces an updated Rabbit punch, moving up the scale to a steady allegro homage after a few cadenzas, Fassi, though dramatic, doesn't try to be the Duke, but merely keeps metronomic time with steady right handed swing. Fioravanti sticks to brushes and Renzi's unspectacular bass solo passes before the theme is reintroduced.
Strangely -- or perhaps appropriately -- the bassist replicates Slam Stewart's humming and bowing octaves apart in his solo on Fassi's "Replicate," whereas the pianist moves from a double-timed Monkish stride to Keith Jarrett-like emphasized right handed runs and glissandos. Lacy is himself.
Perhaps this individuality is the clue to the weaknesses of these discs, as swinging and technically proficient as they may be. Anything Lacy is featured on is worth owning because he has spent years establishing a singular persona. But Fassi still has to make a major individual statement to move into that same league.