[29 November 2011]
Trumpeter Enrico Rava, born in Trieste in 1939 and raised in Torino, has had a distinguished and varied career spanning five decades. He has played on nearly 100 recordings and as a leader on 40. Rava commands virtually the entire history of jazz, from classic New Orleans styles – he started out as a Kid Ory-influenced trombonist – to bebop to avant-garde, “free” playing. Rava’s career began in the early 1960s, as a sideman with Leandro “Gato” Barbieri, the Argentine saxophonist of Italian roots. Later in the decade, Rava recorded and performed with many of the leading exponents of the free jazz movement. In New York, he fell in with some of that era’s boldest exploratory musicians: pianist Cecil Taylor, trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonists Archie Shepp and Marion Brown, former John Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Charlie Haden, and trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson. After a brief Italian sojourn, he returned to Manhattan in 1969, where he lived for the next nine years. During this time he joined pianist-composer Carla Bley’s Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, playing on her landmark album, Escalator over the Hill. In 1972, Rava recorded his first album as a leader, Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi, for the Milan-based, avant-garde label, Black Saint. Three years later, he recorded The Pilgrim and the Stars, his debut on ECM records, the German company founded in 1969 by producer Manfred Eicher. From 1975 to 1986, he made a number of outstanding albums for ECM, both as a leader of his own group and in collaboration with the Argentine accordionist Dino Saluzzi and the Italian Instabile Orchestra.
Rava left ECM in 1986, but continued to record prolifically for various small companies while also extensively performing and touring. He returned to ECM in 2003, and over the following four years released several acclaimed recordings: Easy Living (2004), Tati (2005), with pianist Stefano Bollani and drummer Paul Motian, The Third Man (2007) and The Words and the Days (2007). Praised for his warm, lustrous tone—his major early influences were Miles Davis and Chet Baker—Rava exemplifies Italian jazz. His “free” leanings notwithstanding, Rava has always been a melodic and lyrical player. The blues, swing, and free improvisation are in his sound, but so are Italian folk songs, popular music, and opera. One of my favorites of his many recordings is Italian Ballads, a 1996 album whose selections include Nino Rota film themes (“Juliet of the Spirits”), Neapolitan canzone (“Torna a Surriento”), and arias (“Un Bel Di, Vedremo”).
Now, at 72, Rava has made one of the best albums of his career, Tribe, and certainly the best since he returned to ECM. Tribe is both a summation and an extension of his art, a mature work that points to new directions for the veteran player, composer, and bandleader. The album’s mood is, for the most part, contemplative, even dream-like; the tempos mostly run slow to medium. The music rarely breaks a sweat, but is nonetheless compelling. Eichner’s typically crystalline production, with every instrument well defined, perfectly suits Rava’s music, with its emphasis on space and texture.
The trumpeter has assembled a top-notch band for the album. Rava’s collaborators—a better term than “sidemen” for this stellar crew—range in age from mid-20s (bassist Gabriele Evangelista and pianist Giovanni Guidi) to mid-30s (trombonist Gianluca Petrella) to early50s (drummer Fabrizio Sferra). Guitarist Giacomo Ancillotto, whose coloristic playing is reminiscent of Bill Frisell’s, joins the quintet on four of the album’s dozen tracks. The communication among the members of this multi-generational ensemble approaches the telepathic, so in tune are the musicians with each other. Petrella, who played in Rava’s touring band in 1997, first recorded with the trumpeter on Easy Living and the nascent chemistry evident on that album has ripened into a symbiotic partnership that yields some of this album’s most captivating moments.
With the exception of “Improvisation”, written by the quintet, all the pieces are by Rava, and he’s recorded a number of them previously. Tribe, besides introducing a brilliant new quintet, also makes a strong case for Rava as a composer by presenting three decades worth of his writing. The title track first appeared on The Plot, from 1977. In its latest incarnation, the upbeat tune features Rava and Petrella twinning their horns on the bright, boppish theme. Rava cut “F. Express” in 1981 for the album Opening Night. “Cornettology” and “Planet Earth” were on Secrets, from 1987. Tribe’s “Cornettology” actually is its third incarnation; Rava revisited it on 2005’s Tati. The composition, a homage to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, with a nod to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”, is free jazz warmed by Rava’s melodicism.
“Choctaw”, one of the album’s most Miles-ian tracks, is driven by pianist Guidi’s terse ostinato and Sferra’s ride cymbal patterns, with Rava and Petrella taking extended solos. “Incognito”, at 10 minutes is the album’s longest performance, showcases Petrella’s voice-like expressiveness: the man sings with that ‘bone.
With a half-century’s worth of experience under his belt, Enrico Rava this year published a memoir of his life in music, Encounters with Extraordinary Musicians: The Story of My Jazz. In the book’s foreword, Stefano Bollani observes, “Enrico is a man madly in love with jazz, and jazz, in short, is the real reason that he undertakes any journey.” On Tribe, there’s no mistaking either Rava’s love for jazz or his total commitment to his art.