Crafting a musically cohesive, uncongested free improvisation with a small group is hard enough. It become much more difficult the larger the ensemble. Some large groups—the Variable Geometry Orchestra comes to mind—have been able to manage this nicely. Add to their number the Setola di Maiale Unit, an ensemble headed by percussionist Stefano Giust.
The Setola di Maiale Unit is a free improvisation group whose membership isn’t fixed. Many of the players are artists on the Setola di Maiale label, which Giust heads. For their appearance at the 2018 AngelicA Festival in Bologna the group, in addition to Giust, consisted of Marco Colonna on clarinets; Martin Mayes on horn and alphorn; Patrizia Oliva on voice and electronics; Alberto Novello on analog electronics; Giorgio Pacorig on piano; and Michele Anelli on double bass. Special guest Evan Parker sat in on tenor and soprano saxophones, while composer Philip Corner and dancer Phoebe Neville dropped to play a brief introduction on gongs. The performance was in part a celebration of label’s twenty-fifth anniversary—an auspicious landmark, and a fittingly fine set to commemorate it.
The hour-long improvisation is tracked into five sections prefaced by Corner and Neville’s introduction. Each section highlights some aspect of the group’s work, usually on the basis of the many subgroupings that emerge over the course of the set. What’s remarkable is that there was no conducting or direction; the changes in dynamics and density and the frequent interludes for solos, duos, and trios were arrived at spontaneously. Each player has some time as a leading voice if not a soloist; there are beautiful soliloquies for piano and drums, and instances of impromptu polyphony breaking out among the horns. It’s exactly the kind of playing one would expect from some of Europe’s most sensitive improvisers, and a happy anniversary indeed.