Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Feb 22nd 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
In any case, the coming together of Corsican vocal group A Filetta and Sardinian trumpet and flugelhorn virtuoso Paolo Fresu – plus Italian bandoneon player Daniele di Bonaventura – in 2006 was, per A Filetta leader Jean-Claude Acquaviva, magical: "It was love at first sight and we have never been far apart since then."
Musically speaking, of course.
It is an odd match: A Filetta draw on centuries of Corsican polyphony, both from the church and daily life, for tightly composed vocal tapestries. Fresu is steeped in modern jazz, heavy on improvisation. And di Bonaventura comes from a classical background. But the combo, which is releasing its first album, 'Mistico Mediterraneo,' on ECM Records, results in music of poetic drama, rich beauty and, as the title suggests, an engulfing mystique. It's all there in the opening piece, 'Rex Tremendae,' drawn from a requiem Acquaviva wrote in 2004 and sung in Church Latin.
'Rex Tremendae' (from 'Mistico Mediterraneo'):
"Some say there is bad blood between Sardinia and Corsica," says Fresu. "It's true that the two islands, while very close geographically, don't have a lot of contact; and it's also true that they have two different histories."
But, he continues, the similarities win out.
"I believe that between Sardinians and Corsicans there are a lot more things in common than between Corsicans and French and maybe also between Sardinians and Italians."
Fresu – heard in recent years on other ECM Records collaborations with jazz composer Carla Bley's band the Lost Chords and a 2010 duet album with guitarist Ralph Towner – says what he brings from Sardinia to this project is not anything specific but "rather a mood and a feeling which was metabolized."
And it's not like the respective musical traditions are unrelated.
"Sardinian and Corsican traditions have in common a vocal polyphony which is powerful, rough and built upon natural voices," Acquaviva says. "Let's say that in Sardinia we find more dance songs and also a stronger tradition of practicing the instrument than in Corsica."
For this project, it was more a matter of reconciling the conflicting styles and approaches than anything cultural.
"We started with out own repertoire, essentially," says Acquaviva. "We deconstructed it and then reconstructed it with Paolo and Daniele, who managed to infiltrate with our voices with a great deal of intelligence, sensibility, respect and tact."
The result is material that's somber in underlying tone, yet buoyant with creative energy.
"'Rex' evokes the Creator's pity on Judgment Day," says the composer-singer.
Several other pieces are liturgical, as well, while 'Liberata,' Acquaviva explains, "evokes the battles the resistance fought on the island during the Second World War" and is sung in the Corsican dialect. And 'Le Lac' moves outside the Mediterraneo but retains the mistico, a resetting of a Tibetan chant originally done for A Filetta by French composer Bruno Coulais for the soundtrack to the 1999 film 'Himalaya, L'enfance d'un chef.'
That mix was in place from the start when Fresu and di Bonaventura were invited by A Filetta to participate in a concert honoring the 20th anniversary of a theater in the vocal ensemble's hometown of Ajaccio. And it was confirmed with a later concert in Italy and then a returned favor at an edition of a Fresu-hosted festival in Sardinia.
"I remember that the pieces which struck me most at first were 'Le Lac' and 'Liberata,'" says Fresu. "When we gave the first concert in Italy, in Brescia, I coined the name 'Mistico Mediterraneo,' which I thought appropriate to the music and they all accepted it with enthusiasm – mistico because there is a lot of pathos in what we were doing and Mediterraneo because it had to do with a dialog between two islands, with a third element which is the other Mediterranean of Daniele di Bonaventura."
That dialog (trialog?), however, has a vibrancy that lifts any sense of gloom that may be inherent in the subject matter. The very human tones of Fresu's brass and di Bonaventura's wheezy squeezebox dance easily among the shifting dynamics of A Filetta's seven interlocking male vocals like late afternoon sunlight on waves in the, well, Mediterranean. Comparisons have been made to Miles Davis' 'Sketches of Spain' in which the leader's trumpet floats through and over Iberian settings. And several earlier ECM projects could be seen as precedents – most notably 1994's 'Officium,' on which Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek improvises over medieval chants sung by the Hilliard Ensemble.
"When we began the work on this project, we did not refer to any previous experience," Fresu says. "Also, the music of A Filetta is so strong and archaic in its contemporariness that it's difficult to make comparisons."
He acknowledges the influence of Davis and Chet Baker on his tone and spirit and says that one might hear a "distant quote" from 'Sketches of Spain' at the end of the piece 'Dies Irae.'
"But each one of us brought into the music his own experience and his own language."
That gives the results a character all its own. "All the material for this album was modified in the moment when three entities enriched it," Fresu says. "More than a distortion, I would speak of an enriching which was absolutely natural."
This is not, Acquaviva cautions, folk traditions coming together. But it is very much tied to the places and cultures that produced the musicians.
"A Filetta is not strictly speaking a traditional Corsican ensemble, since our repertoire is essentially compositions," he says. "However, the relationship with the local polyphonic tradition is undeniable. Paolo, on the other hand, is a musician molded by his Sardinian culture, even if he is a jazz musicians and a formidable improviser. And, finally, Daniele is a classical musician by training, but he has contributed to various projects blending ethnic music and improvisations. Let's say that this work is fundamentally innovative while carrying the memory of the Mediterranean, which gives it location and roots."
So totaling it up: Three lands of origin. Three musical approaches. Material sung in three different languages. In some ways, though, it's easier to describe what 'Mistico Mediterraneo' isn't than what it is. That's fine with the participants.
"A noted French jazz magazine reviewed our disc in just a few lines, saying the only true jazziness of our project were my solos and a few things of Daniele di Bonaventura," Fresu says. "Naturally, it was supposed to be a bad review. But I took it as a great compliment because that was exactly the sense of our meeting."
Heck, Shakespeare probably got reviews like that, too.