‘Piano Ambulance’ – Maurizio Minardi

PianoAmbulance

MAURIZIO Minardi’s The Cook the Clown the Monk and the Accordionist of 2013 showcased the London-based Italian’s brilliance with the accordion in an engaging album of his own jazz compositions characterised by humour, theatre and showmanship.

New release Piano Ambulance shifts the focus of his unequivocal technical expertise to his first instrument, piano, with another fascinating programme of self-penned works – this time for piano quartet (with trio members bassist Nick Pini and drummer Jason Reeve, plus the sustained depth of Shirley Smart’s cello). The instrumental combination of the four is as distinctive as it is effective, capturing Minardi’s penchant for visual music which is so evidently cinematic in its predominance of drama, urgency and storytelling, whilst also contrasted by delightfully delicate interludes.

The siren-suggested piano oscillations of title number Piano Ambulance develop in vigorous Einaudian earnestness, balanced with a trio serenity which indicates the story behind Minardi’s album naming (his positive experiences of the beneficial, cathartic effects of live music that can sometimes be found in English hospitals and nursing homes). April Sun exudes an endearingly spacial, childlike simplicity peppered with the pianist’s improvisations, yet still with unsettled, ambulant overtones; and Goodbye London – its initial fluttering, tricksy moto perpetuo rhythms reminiscent of Penguin Cafe – builds into melodramatic grandeur enhanced by emotionally yearning cello.

Friday Almost paints pictures of both anticipatory joy and rush-hour bustle before relaxing into the most tranquil, electronic-tinged oasis, whilst the menacing impetus of Secret Skin resounds to Shirley Smart’s abrasive, Anja Lechner-like glissando extemporisations and Jason Reeve’s propulsive drum/cymbal accuracy (here, again, the quartet display their deftness in emotively ‘turning on a sixpence’ to sparser territory). There’s a stately, pseudo-Baroque air to Indulgence – and, complete with Minardi’s elegant piano ornamentation and Nick Pini’s delicious bass improvisation, its grazioso melody might easily be sung to words.

A strong sense of narrative defines Dangerous Innocence, Minardi’s characteristic piano ostinati (at times not unlike Michael Nyman or Philip Glass) escalating to a troubled, driven episode until a melancholy cello melody closes; certainly soundtrack material, as is Seven Sisters, a loftier, romantic affair coloured by Pini’s bass and Smart’s cello. In trio finale Francesca’s Gloves, the absence of Minardi’s familiar, repetitious pulse creates a more typically Italian style with subtle Bachian shades redolent of, say, pianists Paolo Paliaga or Michele Di Toro – an exquisite closer with a suppleness informed by the lightness of both Reeve’s percussion and Pini’s bass.

Released on 2 February 2015 and launching at The Vortex, London, on 18 February, Maurizio Minardi is touring Piano Ambulance during March (see dates below) – and, having previously seen this quartet live, I heartily recommend the excitement and entertainment value to be found in their intuitive performances.

 

Maurizio Minardi piano
Nick Pini double bass
Jason Reeve drums
Shirley Smart cello

March 2015 tour dates
4 March: Hull Jazz Club, Hull
5 March: Queens Hall Arts, Hexham
6 March: Pound Arts, Corsham
10 March: Annie’s Jazz, Southend
20 March: Gateway Arts Centre, Shrewsbury
27 March: Key Theatre Studio, Peterborough
29 March: Omnibus Arts Centre, London

mauriziominardi.com

Belfagor Label – MM12 (2014)

‘Animalia’ – Mammal Hands

Animalia

IT’S NO SURPRISE that the live gigs of newcomers Mammal Hands caught the ears of Nick Blacka (bass player with trio-of-the-moment GoGo Penguin) – subsequently recommending them to Gondwana Records boss Matthew Halsall who duly signed them to his growing catalogue of new artists – for there’s more than a hint of Blacka’s band in this, their resulting debut release, Animalia, as well as echoes of early Portico Quartet. Yet their style is also defined by elements of electronica, classical minimalism, dance, Africana, and Indian classical, creating a richly creative blend which can, in equal measure, both move and excite.

The strong Norwich-based trio comprises brothers Nick Smart (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxes), with Jesse Barratt on drums and tabla – their eight original compositions here very much on-trend with the current wave of eclectic, democratically-conceived contemporary jazz ensembles. And what a compelling first outing this is.

Eschewing the traditional double bass element doesn’t, as one might expect, result in imbalance, thanks to the solid-chorded/octaved rhythmic piano of Nick Smart. Indeed, opener Mansions of Millions of Years – with influences and moods that might suggest e.s.t., Reich, Glass and Satie, as well as a raga pulse and energy – displays the impassioned intent of this one-time busking band, Jordan Smart’s escalating soprano sax whirling and crying over the busyness of piano and drums. The three players clearly share an empathy in composition and performance, delivering a varied sound world – the brief and more contemplative Snow Bough spacially glinting to falling piano and sax melodies which possess delightful Japanese koto-like clarity.

A brooding sense of anticipation fills Kandaiki, Jordan Smart’s clipped vibrato lines very much reminiscent of Portico’s Jack Wyllie – and here can be found the magic of the trio, as piano and sax intertwine contrapuntal melodies and harmonies over a simmering, near-perpetual 5/4 piano and drum figure. In contrast, the percussive, yet melancholy, open landscape of Spinning the Wheel finds Jordan Smart’s soprano in folky, yearning vein, Nick’s dark-set low piano chords shrouding the piece in mystery.

Suitably-titled Bustle teems with life to its pianistically-tricky seven-beat ostinati and trip-up pauses; and Jesse Barratt’s complex, ticking momentum, including subtly hollow tabla, is great to focus on. Luxuriant Inuit Party presents a particularly rich combination of tenor punch, tightly-clustered piano chords and solid four-square beat which also offers a tangible improvisatory glimmer of their live act. Upping their game still further – and a real stand-out – Street Sweeper revels in an infectious groove, the Smart brothers sharing melodies over an effusive left-hand piano hook, Barratt shuffling enthusiastically as well as offering a joyous touch of Cuban clatter.

Larger-scale Tiny Crumb closes the album, highlighting the trio’s aptitude for building and elaborating on themes, moving up through keys with ever-increasing urgency. Again, Nick Smart’s all-encompassing piano presence is impressive, sharing with Jesse Barratt its rhythmic intensity, all the while encouraging the apparent vigour of Jordan Smart’s tenor (the end of his white-hot, Pharaoh Sanders-style soloing induces a desire to applaud!); and then, a hypnotic, tabla-decorated end-piece which hints at a much longer play-out than afforded here.

As a debut, Animalia is captivating, yet also feels like just the beginning of Mammal Hands’ creative musings. In their multifarious musical minds, not to mention their considerable instrumental proficiency, Gondwana have signed a breakthrough band capable of hitting the heights. Catch a glimpse of the band at 2013’s Mostly Jazz Festival, as well as the official video for Mansions of Millions of Years.

Releasing on 15 September 2014, pre-order/purchase the album (and preview a couple of tracks) at Gondwana Records’ Bandcamp Store.

 

Nick Smart piano
Jordan Smart saxophones
Jesse Barratt drums, tabla

gondwanarecords.com

Gondwana Records – GONDCD011 (2014)

‘Tower Casa’ – Nick Smart’s Trogon

Trogon

DRIPPING WITH WARMTH, Afro-Cuban rhythms and sprightly melodies, Nick Smart’s Trogon* presents a lively, listenable programme of originals and arrangements, all led by the crisp, agile tone of Smart’s trumpet and flugel.

I’ve been listening to this debut release for some time, its resolute, upbeat spark – both in terms of writing and playing – gradually seeping into my consciousness… and possibly helping to drag me through the final throes of a messy winter! There’s an appealing depth and range to this sextet’s collaborative sound – hardly surprising, given the stature of the personnel. Much-in-demand, versatile electric guitarist Chris Montague reveals his mellower side (away from the punky crackles of Troyka); electric bassist Denny Martinez supplies a fabulously deep, resonant groove to combine well with the sunshine-laden piano of Kishon Khan; and the drums and percussion of Dave Hamblett and Pete Eckford ensure these seven tracks shimmer and glisten with a palpable joy.

Nick Smart is renowned in UK big band circles as player and director (Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann, Troyk-estra), alongside his role as Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and brings his considerable experience to this vibrant outing. His own title composition, Tower Casa, revels in its obvious Latin flavour, Khan’s characteristic octaves and chords and Eckford’s embellishments colouring Smart’s trumpet improvisations. A particularly buoyant arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s familiar Kind Folk finds guitar and trumpet intertwining with remarkably similar timbre, Montague’s typically fluent chordal and solo extemporisations also impressing. Kishon Khan’s writing adds a considerably funky edge to this recording, bass and percussion clearly savouring the piano rhythm of the tambura-introduced Todi or Not Todi; and Smart’s ebullient, gritty trumpet lead encourages the wiry, playful side of Montague’s nature, the whole number just teeming with light and vivacity.

Traditional tune, Candela, is arranged as a wistful, delightfully-measured flugel ballad; and Stan Sulzmann’s Round the Round It All (sounding quite different to Sulzmann’s sax-led Neon Quartet version) dances excitedly to Smart’s tune, thanks to Dave Hamblett’s and Denny Martinez’s determined pulse, decorated variously by Pete Eckford’s percussive brightness. Everybody Else’s Song (Wheeler/Smart) shuffles amiably, guitar and trumpet again accurately doubling as front line, as well as displaying their individual melodic capabilities. Finally, Kishon teams up with the leader in penning Mo Tilda, an insouciant carnival sundown tune (featuring some great guitar and piano gyrations) which might well party long into the night.

The rich, eclectic and international feel of ‘Tower Casa’ ensures a brisk, accessible forty minutes’ worth of sun-kissed splendour in the company of six accomplished jazz musicians. So… bring on the Summer!

Released in Babel Label’s 20th anniversary year (2014), ‘Tower Casa’ is available here.

*Trogon (as illustrated on the album art) is the national bird of Cuba.


Nick Smart
 trumpet/flugel
Chris Montague guitar
Kishon Khan piano
Denny “Jimmy” Martinez electric bass
Dave Hamblett drum kit
Pete Eckford percussion

Babel Label – BDV13129 (2013)

‘The Cook the Clown the Monk and the Accordionist’ – Maurizio Minardi


Image

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the music of Maurizio Minardi was as recent as last month, when a solitary character stepped up, with accordion, to set up on one of the free stages at the popular annual Kings Place Festival, London, joined by cellist and double bassist. Excitingly, I had no expectation nor preconception of what this trio were about to offer to their waiting audience.

What ensued was both a charming and enthralling introduction, for me, to a new soundworld where the players shared between them their enthusiasm and joy for their leader’s highly individual compositions, all delivered with gusto and flair. The gathering, appreciative audience (summoned by the lush sounds travelling up through the venue’s open spaces) revelled in the bright melodies – frequently fast-paced, sometimes lyrical, often fun. And, by the close of the set, I felt I wanted to hear more from this London-based Italian who has, I have discovered, an impressive CV – often as sideman to a great array of artists, as well as pursuing his own projects.

So to this, Minardi’s current album, from which the live performance drew a good number of tunes (and clearly stayed in my head, as they were pleasantly familiar on my first CD listen-through). The instrumental grouping – on disc, a quartet, with drums – may at first seem unusual, but I have quickly grown to love this music which retains the same lively interaction that I witnessed live; and, most of all, communicates the joyful vibe they create together.

Boasting a lengthy album title (a parody of Peter Greenaway’s late ’80s romantic crime drama, ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’ – a “grotesque fresco of eccentric characters in a very elegant restaurant”), Minardi appears to delight in storytelling (perhaps I should watch the Greenaway movie, or Minardi’s own music videos, to connect more with the intriguing track names!). There is considerable energy, passion and pace here, readily conjuring much theatrical or cinematic imagery, sometimes suggesting colour-faded continental movies of the ’60s. However, Maurizio’s music is certainly for the here and now, sounding fresh with its colourful and creative influences of jazz, folk, baroque, opera, dance, burlesque… even music hall. The real essence of this recording is to be found by immersing oneself in the whole experience – but here’s an overview:

Opening number ‘The Cook in Love’ immediately throws us into Minardi’s world with its engaging pulse, supported by the repeated rhythm of Shirley Smart’s cello and Nick Pini’s bass, only pausing briefly for a romantic (maybe melancholy) cello, bass and piano interlude. ‘Penguin’ has such an affable air which, with its easy-going bass, you’d swear was a tune you’ve known all your life… and a quirky video completes the fun of this short and deceptively simple piece – a definite ‘smiler’! The dark, fast-moving tarantella-like ‘Monk’s Escape’ reveals Maurizio’s command of his instrument; and ‘Five is Better than Four’ is another rhythmically strong, instantly likeable and buoyant tune, led by Smart’s beautiful cello tone. Somewhere within ‘The Black Book’ hides a baroque spirit, its gorgeous chord sequences, percussive fills and jazzy bassline making it a winner. Mysterious and mischievious, ‘Marcello’ wonderfully changes the mood again, before the breakneck pace of ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘ hurtles off, vivid chase imagery to the fore! ‘The Gambling Queen’ is decidely sinister, bass and cello creating an almost hurdy-gurdy-type rhythm against Jason Reeve’s hollow beat, but with a serene, sublime harmonium-like central section. Finally, ‘Dirty Clown’ reveals yet another facet of Minardi’s compositional skills, its initial gentle, melodic theme giving way to a freer section where he and drummer Marco Quarantotto begin to break out, suggesting improvisational directions they might yet explore.

Maurizio Minardi is a master in creating different textures and moods within this quartet (‘The Monk’s Escape’ is a great illustration of this) and, with his abilities also as a saxophonist, it is intriguing to imagine how the timbre of a higher-flying solo instrument such as a clarinet or jazz flute might occasionally complement the lower, warm combination of accordion and strings. I continue to be captivated by this discovery – a highly entertaining release from an impassioned and accomplished ensemble!


Maurizio Minardi
 accordion and piano
Shirley Smart cello
Nick Pini double bass
Jason Reeve / Marco Quarantotto drums

Belfagor Label – MM11 (2013)

Website: http://www.mauriziominardi.co.uk
YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/gormac