Piero Umiliani – Svezia Inferno e Paradiso
(Digibeat. DGBT 001. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)
The success of the 1962 film Mondo Cane set the trend for sensationalist and rather sleazy semi-documentaries emanating from Italy. The 1968 film Svezia Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden — Heaven and Hell, or rather vice versa) was very much in this tradition, a goggle-eyed glance at permissive Swedish culture —they have motorcycle gangs, they go topless, etc. These films are forgettable, their music anything but.
For Mondo Cane the music was by Riz Ortolani and its song was More. Svezia’s composer was the wonderful Piero Umiliani and the song the wordless, infinitely catchy Mah-Nà Mah-Nà which became a worldwide hit and was covered by the Dave Pell Singers and immortalized by the Muppets.
Piero Umiliani was a formidably talented Italian jazz man who paid the bills by making astonishing music for movies and television. The burgeoning lounge (and bachelor pad) movements have led to a welcome revival of his back catalogue. The vinyl release of Il Marchio di Kriminal (REVIEWED HERE) appeared recently and now Beat Records in Rome have reissued the entire score of Svezia Inferno e Paradiso on CD.
The jazz credentials of the players on a Umiliani session are impeccable, but Svezia has a particularly strong line up, including a core combo on several tracks featuring no less a luminary than Gato Barbieri playing tenor sax. The other musicians are Antonello Vannucchi on Hammond organ and vibes, Carlo Pes on guitar, Maurizio Majorana on bass and Roberto Podio on drums. Umiliani plays piano and clavinet as well as operating a kind of early string synthesiser which he built himself, consisting of a 16 track Ampex tape recorder (probably an MM-1000, given the date) with a keyboard of its own. “Violins were recorded on each channel,” recalled Umiliani. “It was a brand new instrument and I had called it, rather incongruously, ‘Sarchiapone’,” — the name of an imaginary animal from a TV comedy.
Vocals are also an important part of the score, and not just the aforementioned Mah-Nà Mah-Nà. That classic song features Alessandro Alessandroni and his wife Giulia Alessandroni. But also appearing on the soundtrack is Edda Dell’Orso, the eerie goddess of Euro vocals. Edda and the two Alessandronis provide the surreal, interwoven vocal soundscapes conjured in Sequenza psichedelica (surely I don’t need to translate) accompanied by Roberto Podio’s hypnotic bongos, Vannucchi’s haunted Hammond and spectral electronica.
The final featured singer is Lydia MacDonald, born in Edinburgh to an Italian mother and a Scottish father, who performs You Tried to Warn Me as well as the lullaby Sleep Now Little One, The latter track provides material for some of the most notable moments on the album. “Gato used the same theme to create a totally different musical situation,” said Umiliani. “So different that we even changed the title.”
This is re-titled instrumental is Solitudine (Loneliness) which opens with nocturnal and bluesy solo sax from a fluent and expressive Barbieri. Only gradually does Giovanni Tommaso’s bass creep in, accompanied by Bruno Biriaco’s shuffling drums. Barbieri soars aloofly over them, a predatory and proud raptor. Then, just when the listener begins to accept it’s going to be a trio piece, we’re treated to the glassy beauty of Antonello Vannucchi’s vibes. The crystalline loveliness of his playing calls to mind Milt Jackson in vintage MJQ recordings, as Vannucchi duets marvellously in conversation with Barbieri.
The appropriately named Free in Minore is a free jazz excursion by Barbieri’s raw, splintering, wheedling tenor in a moody minor sound-world where the only other inhabitant is Giovanni Tommaso’s adroitly minimal bass, whose strumming provides a kind of smudged charcoal background for the silvery sparks of the saxophone. In utter contrast Piano Bossa Nova is a delightfully warm and sensual workout, with Barbieri’s tone reminiscent of his rasping cries of rapture on Last Tango in Paris. This track again features Tommaso on bass and Biriaco on drums while Enzo Grillini replaces Carlo Pes on guitar. Maestro Umiliani plays the eponymous piano in lilting, dancing style.
Stoccolma, My Dear provides a kiss-off for the Swedish capital in the form of Vannucchi’s rapid, ripe Hammond organ, skipping and skirling against the laid back twang of Carlo Pes’s guitar and solid steady-state drumming by Roberto Podio. Notte di mezza estate (Midsummer Night) rides in on a warm tide of vocals from Edda Dell’Orso and Mr and Mrs Alessandroni before Piero Umiliani steps forward and demonstrates his chops on clavinet. It’s a kind of harmonious collision of baroque and bossa.
Nel Cosmo (In the Cosmos) features otherworldly electronic effects brought back down to earth by Podio’s drums, Vannucchi’s Hammond and Carlo Pes’s fuzz guitar. Pes is one of the heroes of Topless Party (that’s the kind of a movie this was), apparently double tracked so that he is playing against himself in a masterful, choppy exchange. This cut is also a showcase for Vannucchi on Hammond. It makes you want to get up and dance — minus your top, naturally — if you can tear yourself away from listening to Alessandro Alessandroni’s virtuosic whistling on La Signora Cameriera (The Lady Waitress).
Beat’s Limited Edition CD gives us for the very first time every note recorded for the film Svezia Inferno e Paradiso. This issue represents not just a defining moment for Umiliani, but for Italian popular music of the 20th Century.