THE SOUND LABYRINTHS OF FREEDOM
by Marco Maria Tosolini
Meaningful coincidences frequently happen in the history of human artistic expressions related to great social themes. Sometimes they do not appear as coincidences, but rather as a kind of “calls” whereby creativity becomes a more suggestive subject in comparison with, for example, a reasoned essay. Exactly sixty years have elapsed from the time when, with courage and determination, coloured percussionist and composer Max Roach published his “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite”. This was characterized by a cover of a decidedly provocative style: a picture portraying three African Americans sitting at a bar counter, looking towards the camera lens with rather non-submissive gazes, while a perplexed white barman was wiping an object and observing the three youths with some preoccupation. This rich series of pieces possesses a similar artistic courage, considering their compositional and interpretive choices. The pieces are connected by a common thematic thread, i.e. that of the celebration of freedom and of some of liberty’s protagonists, as well as of (one may well say) its martyrs.
Before giving some interpretive suggestions about the music of “Freedom”, signed by Alex and Morris Sebastianutto, it is worth mentioning that the composers (i.e. Miani, Messieri, Molteni, Ianne, Lugli and Schiavo) were inspired by people (i.e. Malcolm X, in two instances, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the three Mirabal sisters) who all died a violent death. In one more case, that of Palach, such a death was self-procured precisely due to his fearless and uncompromising fight for freedom and freedoms.
Evidently the musicians who authored these works have been deeply stimulated by the subject, by the perception of these inspiring personalities, by the settling in time of the never-soothed racial problem, which only recently resurfaced on the media.
This aural work derives its overall raison d’être and expressive power (in spite of the vibrant diversity of the compositional styles) from the engagement of the two performers. They not only were able to overcome the connotative limits of their instruments (i.e. alto sax and trumpet), but also transformed them into two transfiguring aural realities. It is almost an alchemic process of music, with the undisputable contribution of the creative qualities of the composers who dedicated their pieces to these two musicians.
The two performers’ artistic maturation finds its dynamic accomplishment in this itinerary; it is almost a point of no return, where the path of so-called “classical music” becomes a workshop for a broad kind of listening and an intense expression. In fact, the Sebastianutto brothers are not jazz musicians, and this makes their capability of interacting with deeply different stylistic worlds even freer, wider and more cultivated.
Indeed, jazz music was born as a music destined for the entertainment and implicitly expressing freedom for the US Afro-American community. It was frequently imitated and “appropriated” by the Whites, and became art music, with an extraordinary explicit freedom, particularly with the avant-gardes of the Fifties and Sixties.
Later, however, as the giants passed away (presently, only the nonagenarian Sonny Rollis is still alive) and with the present global transformation, jazz frequently turned into academia, and lost its biting power and its cruelty, even on the ideal plane.
“Freedom”, the work recorded here, seems to overcome many boundaries, precisely as freedom does, giving identity and recognizability to each piece, also through wonderful citations. In the galvanizing Just X by Marco Molteni (track 3) it is impossible not to be reminded of Frank Zappa’s hyper-structured frenzy; this piece, dedicated to Malcolm X, also hides echoes from Stravinsky (whom Zappa worshipped, along with Varèse’s polymetries).
The performative skill of both the sax and the trumpet player creates crazy and yet precise nets, with carefully selected electronic sounds. There are winks to an “industrial sound”, tasting of modernist and post-Futurist consciousness, riding on it without being subjugated by it. Approximately halfway through the piece, this sonorous storm veers toward a kind of a hypothetically visual “slow motion” with extended sounds. Later it starts again, toward a stuttering reprise of more agitated moments. There is much metal, with echoes of tense bows and strident steel, where the instruments’ voices clot the whole; they almost seem benevolent ghosts, walking in the midst of the hardness of the urban world’s sounds.
Against that harsh and unfair world, Malcolm X himself protested in his famous speech, “The ballot or the bullet”, given on April 12th, 1964, in an inflamed Detroit. A recorded fragment of that speech becomes the beginning of the album’s opening piece, i.e. Trapped by Renato Miani. The evolutions of Alex Sebastianutto’s sax, an aural imitation of a fabler’s delirium, unroll a true “speech” provoking the interventions of the electric bass (with the slap technique typical of Black funk) and a Hammond-like organ, marked by a timbral/stylistic pertinence with a strong evocative power. Entire portions of the piece are sustained by an unceasing rhythmical beat, almost a “bass-drum in four”, as is typical of consumer-music percussions. However, the piece also opens itself to lyrical moments, with ghost-like and destructured echoes of Gospel choruses. There is even a hint of “scratch” technique, simulated through air blows on the reed. All of these tools allow a great management of the sax’ multifaceted expression, pointing out also some free-jazz-like moments.
Also the second track, A deep belief, composed by Massimiliano Messieri, is inspired by a powerfully evocative historical speech. In this case, it is made of Martin Luther King jr’s questions in his “What is your life’s blueprint”, a talk which both inflamed and moved the souls on October 26th, 1997 as he was addressing the students of the Barratt Junior High School of Philadelphia. A female voice innervates the piece’s beginning, creating an almost mystical atmosphere, which is later powered and transfigured by the voices of the trumpet and of the sax, which seem to sorrowfully celebrate an ancient and deeply spiritual discant. The background permanence of electronic sounds becomes a measured dramatic opposition: they are dangerous but not invasive and, in their midst, fragments from Martin Luther King’s son’s words occasionally resurface, like wandering remains of memory. A silken, ethereal two-part conclusion sings the suspended melancholy of the “Blues people”.
Apocalyptical sounds, rapidly fading as in a fire, are the burning introduction to the tortured Jan’s Shriek by Lamberto Lugli. Jan Palach sacrificed himself for freedom in Prague on January 19th, 1969, setting himself on fire in order to protest against the pro-Soviet Czechoslovak regime. Jan’s Shriek is a complex journey within the sax’ innumerable expressive techniques and possibilities, in dialogue with a very rich sound texture, with changes in metre and tempo, and with timbral situations in which the overall multiformity becomes a labyrinth of ideas. Within this labyrinth, however, the sax’ thematic-improvisational evolution becomes Ariadne’s thread, crossing “rooms” and corridors similar to an imaginary steady-cam. Here the performer offers even double sounds, limpid harmonics which turn the sax into an aural Prometheus, leading it beyond the usual (though beautiful) sounds. This is always done while magnifying the powerful and inexhaustible creativity of Lugli, the composer, who does not forget to include aural ghosts from military marches, pitiless electronic beats and a constant dramatic tension.
Also the title of the fifth track, Samādhi Gandhi by Stefano Ianne seems to be very fitting and proper. In Sanskrit, Samādhi defines the merging of those who practise contemplation with the very object of their meditation. In simpler terms (and music helps us here), any musician from an Afro-American or Asian background, or any musician who is inclined to intense transcendence is likely to state that, when he or she is playing an instrument, they try to merge themselves with that instrument, or even to actually “become” it. The iteration of the initial harmonic-melodic formula for electronic sounds immediately indicates a vaguely hypnotic project, similar to those cherished by minimalism. However, both the trumpet and the sax start very soon to fragment some thematic micro-cells, or simple syncopations on a single note; this produces an overall feeling of circularity (or rather of a spiralling motion) which is a deep feature of the Hindu thought and feeling. The velvety and mellow sounds purposefully embrace other similar sounds, sparingly allowing the solo instruments to emerge. Here too, recorded voices from the protagonists’ speeches increase the piece’s evocative features, up to a suggestively… labyrinthic and obsessive development, with a tribute to the modernity of the Seventies. Here the spirit of the best Miles Davis hovers, i.e. that of his final electroacoustic and electronic period.
The last three pieces composed by Leonardo Schiavo could only be mysterious and poetic; they are inspired by the three Mirabal sisters, who were massacred on November 25th, 1960, by the killers of Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. These are three exceedingly fine miniatures, where are observed, fluttering, the three “mariposas” (butterflies: so they were nicknamed within the “June 14th Movement”, fighting for freedom at that time). They are interpreted by a ghost-flute in dialogue with the sax’ and trumpet’s sounds, which are at times lyrical, at times cutting, at times alienating. This metaphor tells us about the grace and innocence, but also the determination and youthful strength, of these three young women, who were martyrs for freedom. The end of this aural journey is marked by a wide, lyrical and broad singing, whereby the reverberation seems to be a true breath, while the intertwining of simple dreamy melodies opens the sounds to light.