Ferdinando Romano Feat. Ralph Alessi ‘Totem’ LP/CD (Losen) 3/5

“Totem” is the first album as leader from award-winning Italian bassist Ferdinando Romano. Alongside ECM trumpeter Ralph Alessi, the session features some of the most interesting new improvisers on the Italian scene; Simone Alessandrini (alto & soprano sax), Manuel Magrini (piano), Tommaso Iacoviello (flugelhorn), Nazareno Caputo (vibraphone / marimba) & Giovanni Paolo Liguori (drums).

Explaining the title of the album, Romano says: “In an artistic sense each of us has his own Totems; they are our references, the people that we met and with whom we shared musical and artistic experiences. But the single Totems can give life to a much bigger one, something that is much more than the sum of the parts and that represents the creative synthesis of our musical personality.” Romano draws from a varied musical background for this recording, the resulting music taking in a collective spirit that gives life to the bassist’s own compositions.

As one might expect from a recording featuring a “star guest” musician, trumpeter Alessi takes the lead on many of the tunes, bringing his own inimitable style to the proceedings. It is, however, for me, the nature of the compositions and the collective unity of the Italian group that is most impressive. Romano’s writing has a keen edge to it. Confident licks and melodies merge seamlessly with exquisite atmospheres to create an album that is high in quality and benefitting from that musical sweet spot between challenging and accessible listening.

The album opens with “The Gecko”, starting with a repeating bass riff on top of which some lovely chordal piano harmonies flow. Alessi provides an evocative solo as the tune develops with subtle sax tones working well alongside the trumpet. “Evocation” is a stylish, short solo bass piece, and “Wolf Totem”, inspired by the book “Wolf Totem”, by Jiang Rong, evokes a gorgeous soundscape with bass, piano and sax sounding very harmonious together. The lush “Curly” is a lovely ballad featuring some very sensitive playing from the muted trumpet of Alessi, with wonderful arrangements once more being most notable from the composer. “Sea Crossing” (Part 1 and Part 2) is more like a suite. The music flows with a more improvisational feel, exciting and thoughtful in turns, the soloing from all the musicians strong and engaging. One of the highlights of the album is definitely the wonderful piece “Memories Reprise”. The tune has a more orchestral conception, connecting with the Italian sound of the Mediterranean melodies. Both in composition and performance, this track epitomises everything that is so promising about Romano as a band-leader. The closing track “Mirrors” features a cool vibes intro, before the tune itself develops in fascinating style, being more experimental than the rest of the album, with different timbres and sound effects dancing in and out of harmony and improvisational melody.

“Totem” is a promising debut from Ferdinando Romano. On the strength of this recording, I think we can look forward to many more projects in the future from this exciting Italian bassist.

Mike Gates