LP Review: Piero Umiliani – I Piaceri Proibiti

Piero Umiliani – I Piaceri Proibiti
(Music on Vinyl MOVLP1007. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Piero Umiliani was a pivotal figure in both jazz and film music in post-war Italy and his work has, if anything, more currency now than then, having lately been championed by the likes of Gilles Peterson. The 1960s were a particularly fertile period for Umiliani and he wrote the soundtracks for numerous films, most of which have been lost to obscurity for years. But the resurgence of small and discriminating record labels has led to revivals of this forgotten music. What’s more, it’s often being released on vinyl, including gems like Il Marchio di Kriminal and Svezia Inferno e Paradiso.The latest example of this highly welcome phenomenon comes from the British label Music on Vinyl. With an unerring eye for the unusual and obscure as well as popular mainstream titles, Music on Vinyl has strong jazz and soundtrack reissue catalogues. Now it’s combined the two with the release of one of Piero Umiliani’s rarest and most sought after scores.

Made in 1963, I Piaceri Proibiti (‘The Forbidden Pleasures’) was a sleazy shock-documentary in much the same genre as Svezia Inferno e Paradiso. Like that movie, I Piaceri Proibiti is now known almost exclusively for the music associated with it. Which is poetic (or musical) justice when you consider the eminence of Umiliani’s score when weighed against the film itself — you can get a pretty clear idea about the picture from an anonymous review in Nuovo Spettatore Cinematografico April 1964 (and you don’t even need to speak Italian): “il genere sexy e i documenti sul vizio e sulla prostituzione… E’ uno squallido prodotto.”

Working with Umiliani on the fine music for this squalid production were outstanding jazz soloists like reed man Gianni Basso and trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini (the Basso-Valdambrini combos were probably the most internationally renowned Italian jazz outfits of all time). Also featured is Nino Culasso who played the unforgettable trumpet on Ennio Morricone’s score for Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western classic For a Few Dollars More.

Indeed, it’s a good guess that Culasso’s trumpet is the plaintive, lamenting horn which opens the album on Storie Proibite (‘Forbidden Stories’), laying down prolonged, lazy brass lines and conjuring nocturnal scenes before being challenged by a second trumpet — I’d wager Valdambrini’s — which gives an impassioned bebop cry, flashing and wailing. It’s this second horn solo which takes a languid, proto-easy listening piece and transforms it, really digging in and raising the game. Then the first trumpet returns for a soothing coda, smoothing out the jagged contours created by the second soloist.

Paparazzo’s Jump is actually a leap back in jazz history, rewinding from bop to the days of swing, and even Dixieland (Umiliani once recorded an album called Dixieland in Naples). It’s a delight, engaging and affable, carrying us through the tune at a relaxed gallop. Unison saxes chase us uphill and down without breaking a sweat and the trumpet, again presumably Valdambrini, is now playing coyly with a mute, but still champing at the bit to break into a bop solo. But it’s the piercing, sweet clarity of the clarinet which really distinguishes the piece and gives it that Dixie feel. Since clarinet was Gianni Basso’s first instrument, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume he’s returned to it here (though another prime suspect might be Baldo Maestri). The clarinet plays the piece out to a precise conclusion.

Paparazzo’s Cha Cha Cha is relaxed and yet limitlessly catchy, a treasure trove of muted trumpet and bustling, busy saxophone all swinging over a deceptively simple cymbal beat. But the high point of Side 1 (this is vinyl, remember) is Notte in Algeria (‘Night in Algeria’), a skirling, smashing number that makes a modest combo sound like a big band and which lives up to its invocation of Dizzy Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia thanks to superb saxophone and trumpet work, both solo and unison (I’m going to thank Basso and Valdambrini), and punchy dynamics.

Beaming in from a different sound world, Night Twist is a lounge music masterpiece, a wordless novelty number which reminds us that this is the man who created Mah-Nà Mah-Nà, as immortalised by the Muppets. It features some particularly fine electric guitar which just might be by Enzo Grillini. And my money is on I Cantori Moderni under the leadership of Alessandro Alessandroni as the singers.

L’Orgia (‘The Orgy’) reminds us just what kind of movie this is, starting melodically and then dismantling itself into turbulent free-jazz with a sinuous, writhing sax solo winding through it over a dark cushion of menacing horns, fighting a desperate rearguard action against the attacking brass section.

An outstanding piece of Italian jazz history, brought back from oblivion courtesy of Music on Vinyl. The initial release is a limited edition on 180g blue vinyl. I’m normally wary of any colour of vinyl other than black, since it can be audibly inferior. But that certainly isn’t the case here. The pressing is excellent, noise free and sonically impressive with a deep, detailed soundstage. The only small criticism I have is that the album cover is a reproduction of a period film poster rather than the photo of a bikini clad stunner which adorned the original CAM release. Still, if anyone wants that, they can always pick it up on the second-hand market for £400…

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