Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Other Italians: Piero Umiliani

My irreplaceable brother James has come out of hospital alive and well, thank all the gods. I still have a nagging guilty feeling that his heart might have stopped because I was listening to a Ray Conniff album, but I'm getting over that. Anyway I celebrated James' magnificent recovery by using his credit card to buy myself a double vinyl copy of Sweden Heaven and Hell by Piero Umiliani. Yes, that's right. while my brother lay there, hovering between life and death, I was using his credit card to buy records. Okay, that's not true. I think he was already fully conscious and acing the cognitive response tests by that time. But anyway, I bought myself this record. When in fact, and I'll be brutally honest about this, I already had a copy. Why such madness? Why two copies of this album? Why? Friend, I rationalise it thus. I won't keep it for myself. I'll pass it along to a worthy recipient as soon as I find someone with exemplary musical taste who also has a working turntable (that's a thought... I should try and set up a vinyl system for James; it's a pity I let that Garrard 301 at the Oxfam shop slip through my fingers...). Anyway Sweden Heaven and Hell, a double vinyl reissue on Rocco Pandiani's unsurpassable Right Tempo label, may well be Umiliani's masterpiece. Certainly it features his best known compositions. Who is this Umiliani? Well, he is one of what I like to think of as the Other Italians. Everybody has heard of (or at least heard) Ennio Morricone. And those who take even a passing interest in Italian film music will also be familiar with Nino Rota (The Godfather), Riz Ortolani (who wrote the hit song More, from his score to Mondo Cane) and maybe Mario Nascimbene (The Vikings, One Million BC). But the Italian scene has even more to offer than that. In particular it has those three groovy geniuses I've grouped together as the Other Italians: Piero Piccioni, Armando Trovajoli (also known, for reasons no one has ever been able to adequately explain, as Aramando Trovaioli) and the man currently in question — Piero Umiliani. Sweden Heaven and Hell (or Svezia Inferno e Paradiso to give it its original title) is an example of Umiliani's prolific work as a film composer. The soundtrack to a 1968 sex movie about liberated Sweden, it's a crazy, groovy mix of jazz, sweetly abstract vocals, lounge music (decades before the term was even invented) and mod-ish electric guitar. It's most famous for Mah Na Mah Na, immortalised by both Benny Hill and the Muppets. Don't let the mention of fat sexist comedians or green frog puppets put you off, though. This is rapturous music and even setting aside Ma Nah Ma Nah (which I adore) there are plenty of other treasures here. Listening to the album again, I was struck by the variety and diversity of Umiliani's compositions. One track sounds like Eric Dolphy or some other free jazz stalwart of the 1960s scene (and sure enough it turns out to be called Free in Minore). Elsewhere on the album, Essere Donna suggests an Italian scat take on Peggy Lee's Fever and there are echoes of an electronic Ellington on Notte di Mezza Estate (Midsummer Night). The wonderfully named Sequenza Psichedelica (no need to translate that) sounds like a bunch of Gregorian monks and a gaggle of sexy female Italian session vocalists got together for a party where the bongo drums are in slow motion and the punch is spiked with acid. It's a kind of Hammer movie black magic melt down. Plus it grooves. The sound quality on this 1997 pressing is just stunning. Thank you Rocco. It also has great cover art by Sandro Simeoni (much more vibrant and polished than the early stuff in this link. A fellow record nut has posted some interesting comments on Simeoni here). Rather less beguiling is the cover art for Requiem per un Agente Segreto, another Umiliani film score which I recently discovered. As the title suggests it's from a spy movie of the sixties (1967, as it happens, the height of the Bond-fueled espionage craze). Like Svezia Inferno e Paradiso, this begins with a somewhat dismayingly strident (at least to our Americanised ears) vocal track by Lydia MacDonald. (Lydia recorded some great jazz vocal albums with Piero Piccioni.) Soon, though, the music settles into a jazzy, funky groove, with some spectacular Hammond work which seems to anticipate the Stranglers' chart hit Golden Brown by over a decade. Track 13, called Lounge Suite on the CD, features some neo Dixieland jazz which evokes Umiliani's Dixieland in Naples on RCA Italiana in 1955. Now, I'm a man who is ordinarily highly allergic to Dixieland jazz in all of its diabolical manifestations. But there's something ineffably hip, European and light of touch about Umiliani's take on it. So, in addition to his soundtrack work, Umiliani was also a giant of Italian jazz and these two strands of his work come together decisively in Smog, the score for a 1961 Franco Rossi crime film. This is essential listening, not only for Umiliani's work on it but also the contributions of US jazz singer Helen Merrill and troubled trumpeter Chet Baker, both of whom spent considerable time in Italy (there are some details of Chet's Italian work here). The rich, dense, edgy big band jazz on offer here sometimes sounds like the work of Johnny Richards. A more pedantic man than me might be tempted to say it has the same kind of ethnic richness and organisational density. Anyway, another Umiliani classic. Interested in exploring some work by this little known great? Or at least, not put off by the torrent of pretentious drivel you've just read? Then I suggest you get some Umiliani and get listening. But where should you start? Well, if you're merely asking as a music lover, I'd suggest simply downloading or buying some Umiliani releases on CD. Try Dusty Groove. If you're additionally an audiophile, I recommend hunting down some of the early Right Tempo issues on vinyl. The first edition Right Tempo pressings tend to sound stunningly good. (I can't vouch for the original US release on Ariel, since I've yet to get a copy and listen to it). Here is useful selection of mini reviews to introduce you to Umiliani's work. (It also features a link to Dusty Groove, which is always a good thing.. Although I must say I'm a little peeved at the way they've bungled my order this Sunday). As a fantastic post script to this, I just got an email out of the blue from Rocco himself. Rocco of Right Tempo records, a label for demigods like you and I. Rocco and I first came into contact when I bought some LPs from him on eBay. (Piccioni's legendary Camille 2000; another great Simeoni cover) and despite me possibly being the most pernickety customer he ever had, we've struck up a friendship. Now he's invited me to write the liner notes for the latest Piero Umiliani release on Right Tempo. How cool is that. I can't believe it. What an honour.

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