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.
Live at L’Horologe, a set of music by the trio of pianist Yoko Miura, soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and percussionist Thierry Waziniak, represents a further installment in the creative work that Miura and Mimmo have done together. The rapport that was apparent between them in their duo album, 2017’s Departure, is abundantly on display in this new release.
The music on Live at L’Horologe was recorded in concert in Tracy le Mont, France, in November 2018. Composition on all nine pieces is credited to Miura, but the excitement and finesse of the music is the product of exemplary playing by all three. Although it isn’t clear how much is written and how much is improvised—an indication in its own right that the set is a success—the music is structurally sound, whether or not these structures are premeditated or spontaneous. The improvisations are built around economical motifs—a handful of notes, a slow trill, a cascading figure—that are developed through variations, transformations, deviations, repetitions, and extensions. Miura’s playing cuts right to the essence of the music and is characterized by a generous sense of space, while Mimmo’s exquisite tone and lyrical sensibility are, as always, a pleasure to listen to. Waziniak’s drumming adds a particularly bracing sense of urgency and intensity.
The pairing of the same or two closely related instruments, when done well, can make the claim of being something like the anti-homeopathy of music. Rather than using like to negate like, as is claimed by homeopathic medicine, the successful duet uses like to enhance like. Each amplifies the effect of each while helping focus the ear on subtle gradations of timbre and, by extension, expressive force.
Ogni Suono, the Cleveland, Ohio saxophone duet of Noa Even and Phil Pierick, opened the 2018 Sonic Circuits DC Festival this past September. Their set was a remarkable, precisely played précis of their album Saxo Voce, a collection of new work they commissioned from several contemporary composers. As its title suggests, Saxo Voce is an album of music for saxophones and voices matched and sorted in a variety of ways. On a piece like Christopher Dietz’s My Manifesto and Me (2016), which alternates recitative and instrumental passages, voice and saxophone occupy distinct spheres that dramatize each other by way of contrast. On Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Chroma (2017) for two soprano saxophones and voice, the instrumental parts—long lines moving past each other in slow glissandi—lie over a substrate of wordless voices hardly distinguishable from the sounds of the instruments. The serene pace of the work belies its on-edge dissonances, afforded by overtones, multiphonics and microtonal collisions. Ogni Suono’s facility with extended techniques is further demonstrated in Vocalise II (2016) by Felipe Lara, which rushes in with the hissing of air notes and is sustained on the drone of a tenor saxophone accompanied by a parallel, hummed line.
In contrast to the composed and meticulously rehearsed pieces on Saxo Voce, Explicit, a recording made in Piacenza, Italy in October 2014, is a foray into free improvisation by American multi-woodwind artist Vinny Golia and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Even so, the sympathy and judiciousness of the interplay make it sound as if it were composed. Golia and Mimmo’s close musical synchronicity is apparent from the very first notes of the opening track and develops further from there. The intricate yet spontaneous coordination of phrasing and dynamics is uncanny, as is Golia and Mimmo’s ability to layer harmonies and even set up cadences on the fly. The longer improvisations are notable for having differentiated but linked sections defined by characteristic tempos, dynamics, thematic material and density of texture: the sound of two voices alone but lacking for nothing.
In October of this year Japanese pianist/composer Satoko Fujii will celebrate her 60th birthday; to mark the occasion she’s decided to release one CD per month for 2018. Two of these releases, each featuring Fujii in a trio setting, are a testament to the diversity of her musical interests and her willingness to take risks at the initiation of what in Japan is celebrated as a new, auspicious stage of life.
The first trio is This Is It!, an ensemble consisting of Fujii along with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and percussionist Takashi Itani. The three have played together for about five years, originally as a quartet with bassist Todd Nicholson and later alone as a trio. For the album 1538—named for the melting point of iron in degrees Celsius—the group improvises around six of Fujii’s compositions. The composed sections are more than just expedient launching points for improvisation—often of very high-energy; they’re compelling in themselves. Fujii frequently writes complex, convoluted melodies across multiple time signatures. It’s very demanding material to play, but play it Tamura and Itani do, and with a tight cohesion. The trio’s unusual instrumentation of trumpet, drums and piano gives the sound an aggressive edge that is perfectly adapted to Fujii’s jagged, stop-and-start lines.
The second trio consists of American double bassist Joe Fonda and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Unlike the standing trio with Tamura and Itani, this trio was put together for the occasion. Fujii and Fonda have a longstanding musical relationship, but Mimmo was a new factor. The set of improvisations was recorded in Milan on 9 October 2017, Fujii’s 59th birthday and the day after the three had played a concert—the latter being the first time they’d played together as a trio. One wouldn’t know it from listening to the music, which coheres as a tight fusion of compatible sensibilities. The three seem to share a sense of improvisation’s ability to trace a quasi-narrative cycle, which here takes the form of a long-term oscillation, consisting in waves of expressionistic intensity dissolving into introspective duets or solos. All five pieces, including the forty-minute-long Birthday Girl, show a remarkable attention to structure; the playing is in the moment, as is all good free improvisation, but every moment also seems to anticipate not only what the next moment will be, but what, given the current state of things, it should be. Fujii is an intuitive pianist who seems to approach improvisation with a composer’s sensitivity; she can fill audio space with cascades of sound or can allow ample breathing room with sparser, quasi-premeditated pitch collections. Mimmo—who was an inspired choice for making the Fujii-Fonda duo a trio–plays with characteristically refined lyricism leavened by timbral experimentation at the edges; his finely etched lines never lose definition, even at extremes of volumes and speed. Fonda’s forceful and often percussive voice provides a solid foundation; even in this free context he conserves the bass’s traditional function as anchor. Occasionally he switches to wood flute, which makes for a surprising, and surprisingly engaging, color contrast.
Defining a paradoxical music of luxuriant austerity, Departure is a beautiful duet for Japanese pianist / composer Yoko Miura and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. The music inclines toward an elegant economy in which no notes are wasted, even during moments of complex development. Although mostly improvised, the music was at least partly composed by Miura, a refreshingly circumspect pianist, whose arpeggios and ostinati provide the harmonic skeleton that Mimmo fleshes out with chromatic, intelligently convoluted lines. Whether through spontaneous chemistry or prior agreement, Miura and Mimmo often converge on unison notes that serve as points of gathering in before pivoting into themes and structural joints for the ongoing flow of sound; the music is analogous to an ink painting that works through implication and subtlety, suggesting much and consequently neglecting little.
These two fine new releases situate soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo in small ensemble encounters with the extraordinary improvisers Garrison Fewell, Martin Mayes and Lawrence Casserley. Flawless Dust sees Mimmo in a duet with the late Fewell, an American-born guitarist who lived and taught in both Europe and America. Recorded in Novara, Italy in October 2014 and dedicated to Fewell’s memory, the music develops through the creative confrontation of two voices along several axes of contrast: Of timbre (Mimmo’s reedy, serpentine lines against Fewell’s prickly points of sound), duration (the breath-carried sustain of the saxophone again the guitar’s short, pizzicato eruptions), and phrasing (the legato of the wind instrument against the staccato of strings). Granularities: A Trialogue is, as the subtitle indicates, a trio date featuring Mimmo with Mayes on French horn, hand horn and alp horn, and Casserley on percussion and granular signal processing, recorded in September, 2010 in the UK. The intersection of the two wind instruments, which often interweave smoothly phrased lines, and the atmospheric interventions of Casserley’s granulations, make for a multifaceted but ultimately integral overall texture that Mimmo in the liner note aptly characterizes as a “complex event.” The constant running through both these rewarding sessions is Mimmo’s distinctive voice, which remains unfailingly lyrical at heart no matter how abstract the surroundings.
Just about ten years after the release of his first solo recording in 2005—a self-produced solo recording from ten years before that isn’t part of the official opus—Gianni Mimmo has come out with Further Considerations, an LP of compositions and improvisations for solo soprano saxophone.
Mimmo takes best advantage of the LP’s format-by-division by devoting the A side to three independent pieces and the B side to an eleven-part suite. The A side opens with Mimmo’s concise interpretation of Steve Lacy’s Cette Fois—Lacy being the natural point of reference for an album of solo soprano saxophone. Life, dedicated to the memory of Mimmo’s friend Gilles Laheurte, also a soprano saxophonist, is improvised, but it retains the memory of structural chord changes that keep it coherent at the global level while remaining playfully unpredictable at the local level. The final track on Side A is Square as Theatre, a relatively brief piece dedicated to Italian 20th century painter Mario Sironi. Mimmo’s wistful, airy melodies jump registers and alternate with strident multiphonics, in the process turning bright timbre against itself to capture the undercurrent of melancholy and aloneness implicit in Sironi’s solid, slab-like forms and muted palette of ochres, umbers and drab olive.
Side B is given over to sections from A Number of Floating Sections for Piet Mondrian, a composition of 1986-1989 for which Mimmo created a graphic score. While Sironi’s paintings captured the volume and solidity of things—the brute facts of matter—Mondrian’s mature work instead attempted to convey eidos through a reduction of form to its basics, his grids and primary colors constituting a neo-Platonism of the perpendicular. Mimmo, too, engages basics with the suite, the relatively brief individual sections of which let him construct cohesive forms in constrained spaces. The shorter of the pieces are epigrammatic, featuring a simplicity of line in which relationships between tones are clearly set out, even through leaps of intervals and interposed pauses. A handful of overdubbed sections, with their intersecting lines, seem to lay out the equivalent in sound of Mondrian’s orthogonal frameworks.
As with all of Mimmo’s work the music here, no matter what its inspiration, is based on balance. Not only the moment-to-moment balance of register, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation, but a larger, more fundamental balance of abstraction and direct lyricism.