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Enrico Pieranunzi - Fellini Jazz

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Artist: Enrico Pieranunzi

Album: Fellini Jazz

Label: CamJazz

Review date: May. 11, 2005

Federico Fellini, though incomparable for the imagination and scope of the stories he brought to the big screen, arguably may be most remembered for his music, an element of film meant to be an accompaniment to the director's vision. It’s somehow sadly fitting that the title Fellini Jazz remembers this unique vision and forgets the far less famous man who wrote much of the music, Nino Rota. The composer of myriad film scripts and original orchestral and piano pieces, Rota enjoyed modest success in his career, including an Academy Award in 1974 for his memorable score to The Godfather Part II. He was a composer with an ear for the openly sentimental, precisely the reason his scores were vital as part of Fellini's craft.

Italian jazz pianist and composer Enrico Pieranunzi, whose own albums have attracted a steady following since he released his first album in 1975, has created a project of homage to Fellini by way of Rota’s compositions. Fellini Jazz features six of Rota’s most famous and familiar themes – in addition to the theme for La Citta delle Donne by Luis Bacalav – ranging in tone from the glamorous orchestration of La Dolce Vita to the blissful melancholy of one of Fellini’s later masterpieces, Amarcord.

Pieranunzi should be commended for his head-hunting. Bassist Charlie Haden has done duty with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Drummer Paul Motian has co-led groups with Haden on several releases for the Verve label. Additionally, flugelhornist and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler has a history of adventurous releases firmly entrenched in the avant-garde of the '60s and '70s, having played and collaborated with John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Tony Oxley, Anthony Braxton, and the Dave Holland Quartet. The relative newcomer Chris Potter rounds out the quintet.

Fellini Jazz, in tribute fashion, establishes the theme and melody of a piece before branching off into deferential improvisation. Pieranunzi’s arrangements nail the carefree spirit of Fellini’s world, yet the brassy warmth of his interpretations smoothes a glaze over some of the more distinguishing characteristics. The theme to Amarcord, famous for its tripping rhythm, is slowed to a crawl as Potter delivers a stunning saxophone solo. The piece is one of the more beautiful on the album, but it diverges too far from the rhythm to make any real homage. Likewise, the melody to La Dolce Vita is chopped up piecemeal and served as a hunk of glittering smooth jazz. Perhaps then, Pieranunzi should be forgiven these flaws for the straight-faced version of La Strada (1954) that relies on a clever echoed repeat pattern. For Pieranunzi’s brand of smooth jazz, Rota’s original suits the copy well. It’s when Rota’s pieces are rhythm-driven, such as in the themes to Amarcord and La Dolce Vita, that these copies fall flat.

The album includes two original pieces by Pieranunzi cut from the same cloth as his interpretations, and it’s in these originals that the divergence from Rota’s original pieces is exaggerated. They’re not built upon an already familiar melody, obfuscating any trace of reference. They’re translations with a missing signifier, a type of piece that exposes all the flaws of the translator rather than adorning the masterpieces.

The ambition to pay homage to these pieces and their composer seems, frankly, beyond Pieranunzi's grasp. He released an appalling jazzification of Ennio Morricone’s famous works in 2002, showing not only what the blandness of commercial jazz has wrought on jazz itself, but what havoc it can wreak on popular music and soundtracks. John Coltrane once opened our eyes with an awe-inspiring interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” a popular song from a musical as public as one can imagine. Rota himself provided arrangements of popular tunes as background music within the cafes and bars of Fellini’s worlds, completely consonant with the mood of his scores. Thus, Pieranunzi’s missteps should not be attributed to the porous quality of his medium, but rather to a misguided attempt at creativity that turns out to be artistic overkill.

The greatest irony to the tribute lies in the fact that Fellini’s work relies on the sprite atmosphere of the pieces to serve as a foil to the melancholy of his characters and their grotesque spirals of self-destruction. The purpose of a tribute is to instill a warmth to the music, to create a forum in which one’s life and work can be univocally remembered for their achievements, and somehow it seems at odds to so fully embrace this warmth without the underlying chill that Fellini saw at the core of human behavior.

By Joel Calahan

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