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Daniele D'Agaro - Chicago Overtones

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Artist: Daniele D'Agaro

Album: Chicago Overtones

Label: Hatology

Review date: Jun. 19, 2005

A year or two ago I first encountered tenor saxophonist and clarinetist D’Agaro on Strandjutters, a trio date from Hat that featured Han Bennink on drums and Ernst Glerum on bass. It was a witty, whimsical tour through mostly standard and conventional materials from a post-free perspective. It was pleasant, but not earthshaking or particularly memorable. Much the same can be said for this disc, where the Italian-born D’Agaro – who has spent a lot of time in Berlin and Amsterdam – joins up with Chicagoans Jeb Bishop (trombone), Kent Kessler (bass), and the ageless Robert Barry (drums).

Those who pay attention to improvised music will note that meetings between Chicagoans of the Vandermark circle and various European players are not uncommon. Usually the visiting Europeans who hook up with the North Side circle are from Scandinavia, but D’Agaro’s sensibilities are perfectly in line with the kind of music Bishop and Kessler so frequently play: equal part mid-1960s Jackie Mac or Bill Dixon, European free improv, and shades of cool. On this disc’s finest moments, it’s the presence of the reserved-to-raunchy Bishop which gooses D’Agaro in a way that I felt was lacking on the trio date (despite the presence of the mischievous Bennink). On the opening “Chicago Beer Coaster” (gotta be Old Style, right?) the leader whips up some fairly frenzied tenor as Bishop spurs him on with some counterlines. And, while they don’t always fire together, Kessler and Barry can sound fantastic together, limber and in the pocket but – if you’re smart enough to pay attention – creating all kinds of interesting commentaries and asides.

The problem for me is that these virtues aren’t realized consistently and some of this material sounds a bit flat. The band sounds better on pulse-based tunes (even slower ones like “Long Armed Woman”) than on more abstract exercises like “Ultramarine #13,” where the grumbles and squeaks occasionally sound a bit tiresome. But this doesn’t mean that they’re successful at all idiomatic playing. For example, I’m not entirely sold on their reading of Ellington’s “Sweet Zurzday” and “Melancholia”; Bishop and D’Agaro are great players, but Ellington’s soloists set the bar pretty damn high. And I’m even less sure of the strange improvisation based on Leadbelly’s “Dick’s Holler.” But thankfully there are enough highlights – like the rousing, anthemic, almost Ayler-ish performance of the traditional “L’Ago Freschio” or the energetic free improvisation “Dog Nose in the Kitchen” – to make this disc at least worth checking out. Not essential by any means, but pleasant enough by its own standards.

By Jason Bivins

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