PIANIST Bruno d’Ambra has quite a story to tell – not just through the spirit of his music, but also in the way he first set foot on UK soil with the zeal to energize his career.
Discovering jazz in his teens and then progressing to play the clubs and bars of his native Italy, he was searching for more as he reached his early twenties. So with a rucksack, a small keyboard carefully packed into a cardboard box and £300 in his pocket (a parting gift from his late grandad), Bruno arrived in London. Over the next two decades, the dedication of this self-taught musician led him to the stages of venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, 606 Club, Pizza Express Dean Street; and one of his greatest honours was the invitation to perform at a 2011 gala dinner for US President Barack Obama and Her Majesty The Queen. He is now an established educator, while sharing bandstand or recording studio with the likes of Tony Kofi, Alex Garnett, Jim Mullen, Brandon Allen, Nigel Price, Natalie Williams and Tommaso Starace.
New album Vesuviana sees d’Ambra collaborating with his piano-trio personnel of double bassist Jason Reyes and drummer Emiliano Caroselli in an often fiery yet elegant programme of eight originals, presented as a musical diary inspired by a person, place or situation. The title, explains Bruno, references the railway connecting Naples to towns around Mount Vesuvius, but also describes “a connection and a sense of belonging” to the region.
Initially erupting with cinder-hurling vocal chant, the title track is transformed into a carefree sightseeing journeying, transported by the lightness of bass and brushes; and Bruno d’Ambra’s pianistic touch at this point feels considered, even polite. Waltzing Mandorla Kiss shares that aura, its recollections of “romantically sipping ‘latte di mandorla’ on a beach in Puglia” offering phrases that could easily carry a lyric. But there are different facets to his playing, especially in the improvisational streaks, here, which are so freely liquescent (as is Reyes’ nimble bass soloing). Fast-swinging Top Geezer – with characterful flattened fifth, and named after grandad – flies like the spark-imbued wind, illuminated by firecracking drumming from Caroselli; and blithe Three for Trane almost cries out for its dedicatee to join the trio on tenor or soprano sax!
Alternating rhythms in Midnight Road Rage (inspired by a post-gig drive home) capture the artistic effrontery of Thelonius Monk as they dart and then ease back, including an ostinato section during the drum feature which might illustrate the wearying repetition of streetlights (d’Ambra must be a delight to watch in performance). Warm ballad Blue Pictures of You softly blazes in the night sky, with Reyes’ bass improv given free rein; In for a Penny’s rapid bossa feel is exhilarating; and charming Concettina (affectionately the leader’s “third grandmother”) closes the set in sensitive wonder, with distant echoes of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – are the stars out tonight?
It’s always a pleasure to unwrap new music in the post-bop idiom and also of Neapolitan origin. At just over half an hour’s duration, Vesuviana brings to mind the old ‘small packages’ adage – there are indeed ‘good things’ aplenty in Bruno d’Ambra Trio’s bright, breezy and accessible outing.
Released on 21 January 2021 and available from Bandcamp.
Bruno d’Ambra piano
Jason Reyes double bass
Emiliano Caroselli drums
Al Maranca (voice, lyrics, percussion – track 1)
Artwork by Jonathan Emmerson