Although very different in sound and inspiration, these two new releases from the Amirani label have something in common: both are homages to creative figures.
Mario Mariotti’s Blues for Boris was inspired by Boris Vian, a writer associated with the Sartre circle in postwar Paris. Vian also was a trumpet player who was active in Paris’ hot jazz scene. Mariotti combines both sides of Vian’s creative life by basing the album’s music on oblique, often deliberately indecipherable reworkings of the melody to Mood Indigo as well as on pages of Vian’s 1946 novel L’Écume des jours (translated into English as Froth on the Daydream)–one of whose characters is a certain Jean-Sol Partre. Although Mariotti takes Duke Ellington as his starting point, he pushes the music beyond its roots in swing and into the territory of contemporary composition, playing techniques and orchestration, giving the sound a unique mix of melody and abstraction, of monophony and polyphony, of freedom and constraint. Also unique is the configuration of the ensemble put together for the recording which includes, besides Mariotti’s cornet, soprano saxophone, clarinet/bass clarinet, bass flute, tenor saxophone, and cello.
In contrast to the nearly lush orchestration of Blues for Boris, the sound of Township Nocturne is crafted from the rather more sparse trio of soprano saxophone, double bass and drums. The guiding spirit behind the recording is the late and much-missed pianist Gianni Lenoci, whose love of 1960s and ‘70s television detective series and noir fiction inspired the music. And there’s a certain moodiness to these pieces, whose conciseness and sometimes outright funkiness recalls the themes to those old programs, as refracted through a contemporary sensibility. It’s all well-played by the whimsically named Lenox Brothers—soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, who also appears on Blues for Boris; double bassist Pierpaolo Martino; and drummer Francesco Cusa. The recording gives all three instruments an egalitarian salience that puts the listener right in the middle of the session—as if seated in the living room, in front of an imaginary television set playing images of a 1977 Plymouth Fury chasing a fugitive through the polyester urban night.
The Nothing of the title of this third collaborative release from Gianni Lenoci and Franco Degrassi is the supposed nothing of an ostensibly empty audio space. But as 4’33” famously demonstrated, empty audio space is anything but empty.
Degrassi is an acousmatic composer and electroacoustic improviser from Bari, Italy; Lenoci, who died in September, 2019, was a pianist fluent in the languages of jazz and contemporary art music. For this recording, which was made in Lenoci’s hometown of Monopli the summer before his death, Lenoci’s playing is at its most abstract.
As might be imagined, the sound of the room in which the two long improvisations on this two-CD set were recorded plays a prominent role whether indirectly, in adding resonance to Leonoci’s piano and the “sonorous bodies” both he and Degrassi play, or directly, in the form of ambient or incidental sounds. Sounds and environment combine into a holistic, if largely sparse, tissue of the audio traces of events and non-events transpiring in the studio. In addition to the sparingly placed notes and other sounds from the piano, there is the sound of footsteps restlessly moving back and forth in the room, electronic interventions, and vocalizations.
The subtitle of pianist Gianni Lenoci’s A Few Steps Beyond is The Very Last Concert, which it sadly turned out to have been. Lenoci’s performance took place at the Pinocateca d’Arte Moderna in Ruvo di Puglia on 4 September 2019; on 30 September he died at age 56. Lenoci was called “L’anima jazz della Puglia” but he was also an inspired interpreter of the experimental and open-form compositions of postwar avant-garde art music as shown by, for example, the recordings he made of the music of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Sylvano Bussotti. Both sides of his musical personality—the jazz side and the avant-garde “classical” side—are apparent in the six performances on A Few Steps Beyond, which as luck would have it were captured by the small recorder Lenoci happened to place under the piano.
Lenoci’s inventiveness and capacity to recast preexisting structures as open forms are on full display in his performance of, of all things, the old standard All the Things You Are. It’s no easy thing to make of this overly familiar tune an exciting and unpredictable piece of music, but this he does. Lenoci starts with highly elastic and oblique allusions to the song’s harmonic cycles, which he proceeds to drive into increasingly convoluted and inward-turning musical territory. Just when the tension of anticipation—underscored by the urgent rhythm Lenoci maintains throughout—becomes nearly unbearable, a straight reading of the song breaks through, recognition of which registers as a shock after all that came before. Lenoci’s interpretation of Carla Bley’s Ida Lupino is less radical but still demonstrates his ability to transform standing structures in original ways. Working largely through variations on the basic melody, he moves in and out of form by subjecting that main theme to a kind of Cubist presentation from all perspectives, while maintaining it as the piece’s (deliberately flexible) backbone.
A Few Steps Beyond also contains Lenoci’s interpretations of Ornette Coleman’s Lorraine and Latin Genetics, as well as Paul Bley’s Blues Waltz and–in a bit of unintended irony–Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye. On these performances no less than on the others, Lenoci’s inspired pianism offers a view into a unique musical sensibility that was all-too-soon gone. We are fortunate to have this final concert as a part of his recorded legacy.
When pianist/composer Gianni Lenoci died last year at age 56, improvised music lost a major voice. Lenoci earned conservatory degrees in piano performance and electronic music, but he also studied improvisation with pianists Mal Waldron and Paul Bley. He played with many of the great improvisers, among whom were Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Markus Stockhausen, Enrico Rava, and John Tchicai, but the improviser with whom he had perhaps the deepest connection was soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. On The Whole Thing, the uncanny chemistry Lenoci and Mimmo shared manifests itself in a single, fifty minute-long improvisation recorded in May 2019 in Lenoci’s hometown of Monopoli, Apulia.
The excellent rapport between Lenoci and Mimmo is apparent from the first note. The music is always assured and imbued with purpose—and even though it was completely improvised, it moves with an implicit sense of structure that always seems to know exactly where it needs to go next. The two voices range over a variety of ambiences including an extroverted expressionism, the reserved abstraction of a dynamically controlled atonality, and a quiet introspection. Both Lenoci and Mimmo are fluent in the two major modern musical languages of the postwar classical and jazz avant-gardes. Lenoci’s pianism is highly chromatic, often fragmented and always precise. His sound here as elsewhere is permeated by the phrasing and textural sensibility of classical experimentalism—no surprise, since he was a noted interpreter of New York school composers Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, important works of whose he recorded and released. Mimmo’s playing is, as always, liquidly lyrical and marked by a strong sense of melodic continuity and a refined tone.
The Whole Thing ends on a contemplative note that carries a striking poignancy. For, only four months after the recording was made, Lenoci was dead. This album is a remarkable memorial to that remarkable talent.
Pianist/composer Gianni Lenoci died at age 56 on Monday evening, 30 September 2019. The conservatory-trained Lenoci, who obtained degrees in performance and electronic music, taught performance, composition and improvisation at the Conservatorio “Nino Rota” in Monopoli, Apulia, Italy. He was active in improvised music, having studied with Mal Waldron and Paul Bley, and played with many leading figures in jazz and European improvisation among whom were Gianni Mimmo, Markus Stockhausen, John Tchicai, Enrico Rava, Roscoe Mitchell, and Steve Lacy. As a performer of modern and contemporary music he specialized in the work of the New York School composers, particularly Morton Feldman, whose “For Bunita Marcus” he recorded for Amirani Records, and Earle Brown, a selection of whose compositions for piano he also recorded for Amirani. Lenoci’s own 2003 electronic composition “Notturno frattale” won the International Prize of the Società Italiana di Informatica Musicale.
Relative to his New York School associates John Cage and Morton Feldman, Earle Brown (1926-2002) tends to be overlooked both as a composer and as someone who helped reimagine the relationship between composition and performance. But his work with graphic and indeterminate scores, composed in the 1950s, helped define a concept of composition as an open-ended—he liked to use the word “mobile”—process consisting in the dynamic exchange of creative energy between composer and performer. Brown described these scores, exemplified by the FOLIO collection, as “ambiguous but implicitly inclusive” systems which, with the active participation of the performer, would stimulate an engagement with sound through its multiple parameters. Beyond their capacity to elicit a highly creative response from the performer, Brown’s graphic scores—the single-page December 1952 best known among them—are elegant, and elegantly spare, works of visual art in their own right.
The Pugliese pianist Gianni Lenoci has had an interest in Brown’s work for at least a decade, having obtained from the Earle Brown Foundation some scores for study. Like other performers before him, Lenoci, active in jazz and improvised music, was attracted to Brown’s work at least in part because of Brown’s own background as an improvising jazz trumpeter. Unlike a composer like Cage, who long denied the role of improvisation in the interpretation of his own indeterminate scores, Brown fully acknowledged that improvisation was the latent content implicit in his graphic and modular work. Lenoci’s Selected Works for Piano and/or Sound-Producing Media, the recording of which was supported by a grant from the Earle Brown Music Foundation, presents the pianist’s realizations of ten of Brown’s compositions.
Lenoci’s piano performances are exquisite—hearing them, one can imagine sound as the material crystallization of time. The pieces from FOLIO treat sound as consisting in a collection of quanta–a series of brief, discrete points in time defined by their sudden eruption, limited duration, and inevitable dissipation. Moving through the FOLIO sequence these events gradually become longer in phrasing or simply hang in the air, blending into one another—helped, in the case of December 1957 52, by an electronic delay or loop. In contrast to these piano performances, Lenoci’s interpretation of Four Systems is a thicker-textured thing–all electronic scuff and rush. The closing piece, Twenty-Five Pages, is a shimmering kaleidoscope of pianism that never loses momentum throughout its entire twenty-five minute length.
Wet Cats is a single, nearly hour-long improvisation by Italian musicians Gianni Lenoci and Francesco Cusa. Lenoci, whose background includes studies with Paul Bley and Mal Waldron, plays piano and prepared piano and a bit of wood flute at the very end, while Cusa plays drums. Although they are an ensemble of only two, they fill out a broad spectrum of audio space partly by virtue of the nature of their instruments and partly by virtue of their intelligent playing. Lenoci is sensitive to the piano’s percussive qualities as well as its coloristic effects. He’s capable of taking the music into surprising places, shifting smoothly from agitated, abstract atonality to romantic or bluesy implied chord progressions. Cusa’s drumming is energetic when drive is needed and restrained when the music takes a reflective turn. He is as capable of playing a free pulse beyond barlines as he is able to lay down a solid rock beat. The interaction between the two is assured and seamless; given the quality of their collaboration it comes as no surprise that Lenoci and Cusa are able to maintain a taut focus over the entire course of the performance.