Tuesday, 9 March 2010
Piero Umiliani Part Two: Una Bella Grinta and the Joys of Vinyl (I'm Being Slightly Ironic Here)
I wanted to write a rave review of this album ages ago. It's the reissue of a great lost Italian soundtrack by the great lost Italian composer (we lost him on Valentine's Day 2001) Piero Umiliani. This rare recording is back from the grave, or at least the record company vaults, and it's on vinyl, too. ¶ Unfortunately the pressing, a brand new Italian LP from Cinedelic, is so disappointing that I just lost heart and set this review aside for some months. ¶ Please note it's not the music I'm talking about here. The music is wonderful. It's the job someone did of putting the music on a shiny flat black piece of polyvinyl chloride resin that falls short of the mark. But we'll return to that in a minute. First let's talk about this marvelous music. ¶ Una Bella Grinta was a 1965 film released to the English market as The Reckless. The soundtrack album begins strongly with a crime jazz feel, reminiscent of Henry Mancini or Kenyon Hopkins. It goes on to feature straight ahead, open jazz with Gato Barbieri's blowing on tenor sax reminding me of Sonny Rollins on Alfie, another classic jazz soundtrack. ¶ There's an eerily triangular connection here. Sonny Rollins worked with arranger Oliver Nelson on Alfie. When, years later, Gato Barbieri was asked to write his own jazz score for a film, he also approached Oliver Nelson. The film in question was Last Tango in Paris. But before approaching Nelson to provide the arrangements, Barbieri first turned to Piero Umiliani. Umiliani enthusiastically agreed. But time passed and, as Umiliani himself says, Barbieri "did not call me... he had chosen Oliver Nelson for the job." ¶ Now, I think Nelson's work on Alfie was great. And Last Tango was a memorable and distinctive score. (There's also a remarkable vocal version of the main title available on a Blue Note CD which you can read about and hear here.) But I believe that not using Umiliani instead of Nelson (sorry, Oliver) was one of the great missed opportunities of jazz music on film. ¶ The music from Una Bella Grinta, or at least the six tracks featuring Barbieri, have been previously reissued on a CD on Umiliani's own Liuto label (LRS 6300/2). This rare disc also collects the Barbieri tracks from another Umiliani film score, the classic Sweden Heaven and Hell. You can see a picture of the cover above.¶ The new Cinedelic reissue of Una Bella Grinta features 13 tracks in all. Barbieri is probably at his best on the second version of Ballata della Bassa Padana (Ballad of the Po Valley), on side two of the album. This has a beautiful clean, airy modern jazz feel reminiscent of the work of Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock in the early 1960s. Barbieri is masterful here. In addition to Barbieri and Umiliani himself, the musicians on the album include Enrico Rava on trumpet, Franco D'Andrea on piano, Gianni Foccia on bass and Gege Munari on drums. I suspect that Umiliani himself (who else?) is responsible for the tasty Hammond organ on Treno di Notte and Hammond Blues. ¶ Unfortunately there's no clue to the identity of some of the other musicians. Who played the groovy guitar on Treno di Notte? Was the harpsichord on Jazza alla Vivaldi by Umiliani, as I like to believe? And who plays the hip, adroit flute on the same track? If I find out, I will tell you. ¶ So much for the great music. Now for the less than great recording quality. This reissue is on Cinedelic, an Italian label who have done fine work in the past. They clearly had some problems with the original master tape, which sounds damned good for its age, beautifully open and clear with a deep and well defined soundstage. Check out the wonderful acoustic on the brief but lovely cue Lontanaza (Distance). It's clear from this and the following track Sequenze Autostrada (Highway Sequence) that the album was recorded somewhere with a gorgeous acoustic. ¶ But the ravages of time seem to have led to some deterioration of the master. There is substantial tape wobble at the beginning of track 2 on side one (Ballata della Bassa Padana, which incidentally reminds me of Matt Dennis's Angel Eyes) and also traces on track 1. These flaws were probably beyond Cinedelic's control and I wouldn't hold them responsible. ¶ What I would hold Cinedelic responsible for is the quality of the vinyl pressing, an expensive limited edition. For the most part this is pure and quiet with only a trace of noise haunting the sweet vintage recording. But there is a visible and audible scratch spoiling the last track of side two, the great Hammond Blues. ¶ If you're in the business of manufacturing limited edition high end vinyl, there shouldn't be scratches on your records. I emailed Cinedelic about the problem. I got a prompt and polite response from Marco D'Ubaldo saying he was sorry but "the other copies don't have any scratch." This unfortunately was not the correct response. ¶ The correct response would have been to ask me to send them the dodgy copy and then, after ascertaining that it is indeed dodgy, sending back a replacement in perfect condition. (Assuming of course that any copies pressed were in perfect condition.) ¶ So I'd advise you, discerning listeners, to pick up this lost gem on CD, or maybe download it. Steer clear of the vinyl.