AS MUSIC DEVOTEES, we must all have enjoyed the experience of a new recording which ‘follows us around’. Whatever comes and goes, that one album begs to be heard again and again over a period of time, and for good reason. Italian double bassist and composer Ferdinando Romano’s Totem has landed very firmly in this category.
In his first contemporary jazz release as leader, Romano’s core quintet of alto/soprano saxophones, vibraphone/marimba, piano, double bass and drums is frequently augmented to sextet or septet by flugelhornist Tommaso Iacoviello and acclaimed trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Together, they produce some of the most luscious and melodious ensemble performances I’ve heard for some time, the bassist’s eight compositions captured with typically crystalline clarity at Artesuono studio. His overarching theme and album title is described thus:
“A totem is a symbol that represents a natural or spiritual entity which has a particular meaning for a single person or even for a large group of people. In an artistic sense, each of us has [our] own totems, they are our references, our lighthouses and also the people we met and whom we shared musical and artistic experiences with. However, 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, giving birth to something new.”
There are so many exquisite moments and interactions in this near-hour’s listening that create atmospheres which, arguably, only music can offer; and this ensemble demonstrates faultless intuition in integrating and continuing textures. The Gecko’s apparently straightforward bass-and-marimba groove is clearly approached with relish by each player, with interwoven horns and shimmering vibraphone. Romano’s sleeve notes explain the background to each piece, and stealthy flugel and soprano in Wolf Totem pictorialises its described inspiration with mystery, then triumphant vitality.
The ballads are especially pellucid, with Romano’s expressive bass improvisations in Curly carried on bell-like rivulets of piano and vibes; and Memories Reprise is an emotive stand-out. I understand that sometimes the soprano sax is maligned for being shrill or narrow, but in Simone Allessandrini’s hands, it glides so smoothly (listen to this track at 4:42 where his sustained melody is seamlessly carried forward by Tommaso Iacovelli’s flugel). Longer outings come in the form of eleven-minute Mirrors – a freer, immersive exploration; and Sea Crossing (parts 1 & 2) is a suitably wild, turbulent voyage which benefits from the undoubted mastery of Ralph Alessi’s bright, limitless improvisations, though the whole band basks in the joint ebullience.
The concept of ‘life’s dance’ is never far away in this recording, with Romano referencing Mattisse’s familiar 1910 oil painting ‘The Dance’. There’s certainly an eloquence to these original sounds which, through vibrant rhythm or iridescent calm, speak to our humanity. In that sense, right now, the value of beauty in Totem feels inestimable.
Released on 24 April and available as CD, vinyl or download at Bandcamp.
Ralph Alessi trumpet (tracks 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
Tommaso Iacoviello flugelhorn (tracks 1, 3, 7)
Simone Alessandrini alto sax, soprano sax
Nazareno Caputo vibraphone, marimba
Manuel Magrini piano
Ferdinando Romano double bass
Giovanni Paolo Liguori drums
Losen Records – LOS 242-2 (2020)