Stefano Di Battista – Morricone Stories
(Warner Music 9029504424. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)
Ennio Morricone (1928–2020) composed more than a hundred classical works and more than 400 TV and movie scores, including The Mission (1986) by Roland Joffé, the western classic Il Grande Silenzio (1968) by Sergio Corbucci, and all of the movies of Sergio Leone since A Fistful of Dollars (1964), including Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and – probably most famously – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), the epitome of the spaghetti western movie score whose main theme immediately conjures up images of a cigarillo-chomping Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun.
Little wonder, then, that Morricone’s music has inspired diverse reinterpretations, from riotous big band and sound effects on John Zorn’s genre-shattering The Big Gundown (1985) to Satie-like spaciousness and delicacy on Khatia Buniatishvili’s solo piano performance of Deborah’s Theme on her album Labyrinth (2020). Now it’s inspired an album of neo-bop jazz by an Italian-French quartet led by Stefano Di Battista on soprano and alto sax, with Frédéric Nardin on piano, Daniele Sorrentino on bass and André Ceccarelli on drums.
Di Battista has a strong claim to interpreting Morricone, having worked with him and Morricone having written Flora for him; the tune is named after the saxophonist’s daughter and debuted on Più Sole (2009), an album that Di Battista recorded with his wife the singer Nicky Nicolai. No surprises that it’s reprised on this album; and no surprises either that some of Morricone’s greatest hits are included as well, such as Deborah’s Theme (from Once Upon a Time in America); the theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; and Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), which Di Battista plays on soprano – a reminder of how close in timbre are oboe and soprano sax (perhaps, to make a very nerdy aside, because both have conical bores, unlike the cylindrically bored clarinet).
On both soprano and alto, Di Battista has a lovely tone and a lyrical and fluent style of playing (he reminds me a little of Peter King) – qualities that were evident even on his debut Volare (1997) with its strong echoes of Cannonball Adderley. Other notable earlier albums include Stefano Di Battista (2000) with none other than Elvin Jones on drums; and Parker’s Mood (2004), a powerhouse dedication to Charlie Parker and the only recording on which I’ve heard an altoist nail Bird’s famous lightning-fast alto break on Night in Tunisia. That boppish fluency is much in evidence on this album, especially on Metti, una sera a cena, which opens in breakneck double time (making the tune sound to me rather like Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane’s version of Limehouse Blues) before alternating between a more leisurely pace and double time again.
Across the album Frédéric Nardin turns in some lovely piano solos, while Daniele Sorrentino and André Ceccarelli provide a highly nuanced rhythm section. Ceccarelli in particular is a delight, his drumming complex but with the lightest of touches and never distracting. The elder statesman of the group, he appeared on Battista’s earlier album Round About Roma (2002), has recorded with many big names including Aretha Franklin, Stefane Grappelli, Kenny Wheeler and Dee Dee Bridgewater, and fronted his own albums as early as 1975. So one disappointment is the complete absence of bass or drum solos.
And speaking of missing solos, one curious decision was how to end the final track, a propulsive version of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly that sounds like how the classic John Coltrane Quartet might have interpreted it. We get a stunning solo from Di Battista, the whole band’s roaring ahead, in storms Nardin to start a McCoy Tyner-like solo, then … fadeout! What the hell happened?! First time I heard it I wondered whether I’d accidentally turned down the volume. It felt akin to reading a music review that appears to be building to a climax, to some final grand point that will explode fireworks in the imagination, but instead just …