Saturday, 26 April 2014

Piero Umiliani’s Svezia Variations

The late great Piero Umiliani was an Italian jazz man and film composer and is one of my favourite musicians. I've previously written about him here and here. And Umiliani's film score for Svezia Inferno e Paradiso (rendered in English, not quite exactly, as Sweden Heaven and Hell) is one of his finest works. 

It is also one of his most well known, and has enjoyed numerous releases in many different forms. This is not just because the soundtrack is a masterpiece, but because it features the splendid, insanely catchy song Mah-Ná Mah-Ná (you will have heard the Muppets singing it).

The score was recently reissued on CD in a new version from Beat Records and I wrote an extensive and (modest fluttering of eyelashes) fairly authoritative review of it for the great London Jazz website here. But there were some topics — of a train-spottingly technical nature — which I couldn't cover in the space of that review and which I'd like to go through now.

There are a number of different versions of this soundtrack floating around and any Umiliani enthusiast will want the most complete one possible. But what is the most complete one?  I'm going to try and help with that. Buckle up your safety belt, though, because it might be a bumpy ride.

The soundtrack was recorded in Rome in 1968 and Umiliani originally issued selections from it on vinyl on his own label, Omicron in the same year (see the first picture for this post). This very rare Omicron LP had 14 tracks. Surprisingly — or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering how great the music was, and the presence of Mah-Ná Mah-Ná — the score also got a US album release, on the obscure Ariel label. 

This American LP only featured 10 cuts. But it did include Mah-Ná Mah-Ná. Indeed, as you can see above, the LP cover touts the single. Amazingly, Umiliani left this track off his Omicron album — maybe he felt it was too lightweight.

But Mah-Ná Mah-Ná took off (despite those annoying accents over the letter 'a'), all over the world. Ariel records released it as a single in America and, in 1968 and 1969, other 45rpm versions appeared in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden (despite the less than flattering portrait painted of their country by the film attached to the song) and in the Netherlands (the Dutch liked it so much they released it twice, in two different forms).

But no release in Italy. The first Italian single of the song didn't appear until 1975. Since then, of course, there have been too many versions and variations of Mah-Ná Mah-Ná as singles to be enumerated. At least by me. Plus I'm fed up with typing that accent over the 'a'.

The long playing version of the score, however,  appeared a third time and in its finest form, as a double LP from the great Roco Pandiani and his equally great Easy Tempo label in 1997. 

This is the definitive version of Svezia Inferno e Paradiso on vinyl. It's a beautiful record, a labour of love, and features a whopping (or whooping — with delight) 28 cuts, including Mah-Ná Mah-Ná... argh, those god-damned accents... 

It also has, joy of joys, details of who played what instrument on which track. Credits for musicians on soundtrack sessions are a rarity and this sort of thing is priceless. Thank you, Rocco.

Now we come to the incarnations of the score on CD. In 1997 Rocco also issued a CD version of his wonderful double vinyl album, again with 28 tracks, with a running time of about one hour, nine minutes and 30 seconds. As is usual with Rocco's releases, the artwork and packaging of both the vinyl and CD versions were beautiful.

In 1998 there was a second CD release, from the Volcano label in Japan. The CD sounds great but it is is rather an eccentric piece of design. No conventional CD booklet or cover, just an undersized booklet which resembles an "obi" (the thin paper strip or belt which they used to put on the cover of Japanese LPs). The mini booklet does, however, make a brave stab at crediting the musicians. This edition had 30 tracks and runs a smidgen over one hour, fifteen minutes and 40 seconds.

The two tracks which weren't featured on the Easy Tempo CD are Viaggio nell'Inconscio (Journey into the Unconscious) and Contestazione (Dispute).

Both of these CD issues are now out of print and difficult to find, so it's great news that Beat Records in Rome, in association with DigitMovies, have issued Umiliani's masterpiece again this year (2014). This release, which has the original Omicron cover, is like the Easy Tempo one in that it contains a full size and lavish booklet (though sadly without the information on musicians). And it has the same 30 tracks as the Volcano release, though in a slightly more sensible sequence — the elegiac song Sleep Now Little One, performed by Lydia MacDonald, comes at the very end.

The Beat CD is a lovely piece of work and since it is limited to 500 copies, you should rush out and buy yourself a copy.

However, our little piece of musical detective work doesn't quite end here. Although the Beat CD and Volcano CD feature a definitive version of the soundtrack, they aren't necessarily complete...

Both of those releases, and the Easy Tempo ones, include three tracks by a crack jazz combo, consisting of (in various configurations) Gato Barbieri on tenor sax, Giovanni Tommaso on bass, Bruno Biriaco on drums, Enzo Grillini on guitar, Antonello Vannucchi on vibes,  Enzo Grillini on guitar and Piero Umiliani himself on piano.

But there are more than three Svezia tracks in existence featuring this combo. See if you can track down a very scarce CD from Liuto Records (another of Umiliani's own labels). The catalogue number is LRS063/2 and it is less than euphoniously entitled Gato Barbieri Two Pictures, Years 1965-1968. 

It does indeed feature Barbieri playing as a session man on two motion picture scores by Umiliani, Una Bella Grinta and Svezia Inferno e Paradiso. The Svezia portion of the CD consists of eight tracks: Solitudine, Free in Minore and Piano Bossa Nova — all of which appear on the above releases, as well as an instrumental version of Sleep Now Little One, which doesn't, plus three more versions of Solitudine which aren't available elsewhere and — crucially — a track called Sotto il Tallone (Under the Heel) which runs for about four minutes and, to my knowledge, has never featured in any of the other recordings of Svezia Inferno e Paradiso in any form.

Completists, or simply music lovers, should try and get hold of it. Seriously pricey copies of the CD are currently available here and here. But you may prefer to look for a digital download here.

(Image credits: Most of the cover shots are from the websites where I gleaned a lot of the information for this piece, Discogs and Soundtrack Collector. Both extremely helpful, valuable and informative sites. But each have their weakness. Discogs seems unaware of any CDs of Svezia except for the Easy Tempo issue. And on the Soundtrack Collector page, one of the CD timings (for the Beat release) is out by at least a minute. Tut tut. The Barbieri CD cover is from Jazz Music Archives who also have a download of the disc.) 

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