Basso Valdambrini Quintet – Fonit H602-H603
(Rearward RW154LP. Double LP. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
The small groups co-led by tenor sax player Gianni Basso and trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini were the most celebrated jazz units to emerge from Italy in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. First rising to prominence in Milan, under the name The Italian Sextet, Basso actually came from Asti (where they make such damn fine wine) while Valdambrini was born in Turin. They played the San Remo and Lyon jazz festivals and distinguished themselves in Armando Trovajoli’s big band before reverting to their own quintet. Working in a West Coast and hard bop idiom they held a long term residence in Milan which was successful enough to attract Verve Records in the USA, who issued a Basso-Valdambrini album in their International Series in 1959. The following year Basso and Valdambrini released a classic album Walking in the Night on RCA Italy. In 1962, operating as a sextet, they won a contest as ‘The Best Modern Jazz in Italy’ and toured the USA and recorded another RCA album under this banner. All these excellent albums went out of print and became collectors items. But in recent years they have resurfaced, first as Japanese reissues, and then in their native Italy.
While the back catalogue of Basso-Valdambrini’s most famous titles is now in pretty healthy shape, the Rearward/Schema label (based, appropriately enough, in Milan) has pulled off a real coup by unearthing some extremely rare library recordings by the Quintet. Library music, often performed by top musicians, is an anonymous genre designed to be used, uncredited, by TV and radio programs who don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of commissioning bespoke compositions. The recordings here were first released as two vinyl albums on the Milanese Fonit Cetra label, with generic covers and the inscrutable designations H602 and H603. Their subtitles are more enlightening: Stile: Pop-Jazz and Stile: Californiano (the ‘pop jazz’ is actually closer to a soul jazz feel). Recorded in 1970, these sessions are reportedly the last performances of the Basso-Valdambrini Quintet. They are certainly the rarest.
What is most striking about this music is the spirit with which Basso and Valdambrini and their rhythm section approach the project. These anonymous recordings — never, as far as they knew, destined to be linked with their names — are performed with as much conviction as anything they ever did. In fact, they play their hearts out. Plinius is reminiscent of Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth in the horn arrangements and the general balance of the instruments; it’s a tight knit blues vehicle with a driving, rolling beat. Subtle and deceptively complex drum patterns come courtesy of Lionello Bionda while Basso’s sax offers a taut commentary with Valdambrini shadowing him like a Siamese twin.
Maglione (‘Sweater’) also evokes Nelson’s masterwork, with gorgeous hard edged tenor which hands over to Valambrini’s virile trumpet and skirling scales on the piano from Ettore Righello. The abrupt, instant ending is audacious and breathtaking. Invertime pays homage to vintage Miles Davis in Valdambrini’s trumpet approach while on the free jazz outing El Gato (‘The Cat’), Basso conjures the spirit of Coltrane.
In the Stile: Californiano sessions, Gold Mine has a jaunty but laidback Jazz at the Lighthouse atmosphere, a mood which continues with Glaucus in its Chet Baker feel and E’ Molto Facile (‘And Very Easy’). Pick Up provides a bright barrage of trumpet, skipping piano and a Dizzy Gillespie rhythmic riffing. On The Jolly Basso’s tenor is darkly emphatic, with a lovely burnished, glowing tone. Ettore Righello contributes agile, methodical, story-telling piano cushioned by Giorgio Azzolini’s bass until unison sax and trumpet take over, waving the banner of the melody.
Behind this less than alluring title lies an exciting reissue for fans of Italian jazz. What were once impossibly rare and expensive records are available again in a fine sounding double vinyl set which comes complete with a free CD.