Various ‘Jazz in Italian Cinema’ LP only (Jazz on Film) 4/5

For a brief period in the late 1950s until the early 1960s and the rapid emergence of rock and roll, cinema regularly drew up on jazz music as its evocative soundtrack and, in the case of Italian cinema, this coincided with a particularly fertile period in Italian cinema. All of the ‘big three’ of post WWII cinema composers in Italy (Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Piero Piccioni) used jazz music as the background to their film soundtrack work and this provides a good deal of the material on this single vinyl set. Unlike in France, where swing jazz was closely associated with resistance to German occupation, in Italy jazz did not fare as well since under Mussolini and the fascists the music was banned altogether. It was only really from the mid-late 1950s onwards that jazz began to be heard in the country. Arguably, the first example of jazz and cinema combining harmoniously is to be found in the young Rome born composer, Piero Umiliani who, in 1957, released the influential album, ‘Da Roma a New York’. A further EP yielded, ‘Blues for Gassman Pt.1’, that is included here. While the single vinyl offering only provides the briefest of glimpses into the musical universe of Italian cinema, and a more comprehensive overview of jazz in Italian cinema is urgently required, similar to CD box set projects on French and Polish national cinemas (and that is indeed a feasible endeavour), this very first incursion into the musical world of Italian cinema is not without its significant merits, not least because it introduces us to some obscure and extremely hard to find music that has remained largely unknown to jazz aficionados. Who for example has previously sampled the delights of Chet Baker as invited guest with Italian octet performing in 1959? Even the most seasoned of Chet fans would probably only be familiar with his later 1962 studio release, ‘Chet in Milan’. Elsewhere, Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, then a resident in Italy, is the only international jazz musician of note to be showcased here. Of course, he would be the composer and performer of the 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film, ‘Last tango in Paris’, that won plaudits for its musical content as well as the controversial nature of the film. How many non-Italian jazz musicians sought refuge in Italy over the decades? France is well chronicled, but that would be an aspect that a future edition could potentially address. Baker re-emerges as a guest on, ‘Oscar is the back’, part of the soundtrack by Dino Risi to the 1959 film, ‘The Widower’.

Interestingly, the majority of the music was composed by Italian pianists who were attracted to jazz, with Giorgio Gaslini a prime example who performs on the Michelangelo Antonioni classic, ‘La Notte’, with Jeanne Moreau (who features on the vinyl sleeve front cover) and Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni. The moody, ‘Blues All’alba’ is a definite highlight here. The music was in fact recorded live on set and in this respect the improvised nature of the music is comparable to jazz. Some five years later, Antonini would call upon pianist Herbie Hancock to compose music for the title to his London-based cult film, ‘Blow up’. The theme from this was recorded on a 1967 Blue Note album under Bobby Hutcherson’s leadership, ‘Oblique’, that featured Hancock on piano and came out on vinyl only in Japan and, more generally, on CD in 1990. A question does need to be raised of how committed were the composers to jazz beyond this narrow period of interest. In other words, did they ever use the idiom of jazz again, or was it more of a case that jazz was no longer perceived as in-vogue and rock and roll flavours held sway with younger directors as well as the evergreen attraction of using western classical music to accompany films?

The album is likely to appeal to broad-minded jazz fans who are curious about the relationship between jazz and cinema on the one hand, and cinema fans on the other, who are interested in soundtracks and how the two art forms interact. What helps to bring them together here is the quality of the digitally enhanced black and white photos and the loving care of the presentation with great credit due to the in-depth sleeve notes of Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris and Sienna-based jazz archivist and author, Francesco Martinelli. This is an Anglo-Italian collaboration we would very much wish to encourage and hope for further fruits. This helps greatly to compensate for the brevity of the musical time. What we now require is a meatier follow up that takes the story further and begins to fill in some of the key questions that this releases raised: at what point do more contemporary Italian jazz musicians of the calibre of trumpeter Enrico Rava, pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and even drummer Romano Mussolini enter the equation? Was the period 1957-1962 a mere one-off, or did jazz musicians at a later stage equally engage in soundtrack work? For the time being, this worthy release opens up a pandora’s box of fascinating questions, and Italian jazz is still very much outside of the country and its close neighbour in France where Italian jazz musicians, like actors, have always been welcomed with open arms.

Tim Stenhouse