Monday, October 8, 2012

Italian Jazz: Roberto Gatto, The Man Behind the Kit

Rea, Sellani, Basso, Pieranunzi...the first four of my Italian series was begun during the summer, and has been on hiatus for quite a while.

Today, I am picking it up again with drummer extraordinaire Roberto Gatto, clearly the go to drummer for much of the past three decades among Italian jazz players. Gatto has an exhaustive list of leader discs, but even a greater number of CDs as the beat behind those great names listed above as well as many others. One clear reason for his position in the pantheon of drummers is his great flexibility -- he can get out in front and drive a band with the best of them, he can drop bombs when needed or back off and provide quiet but insistent support, or he can be a colorist playing whispering brushes and gentle sticks. He is adaptable to a range of music, as will be seen in the discography presented here, and he writes great tunes, be they lyrical romantic themes, jaunty  swing songs, or simple modern creative jazz.  I've yet to come across a disc with Gatto playing hat I have not enjoyed, whether as the leader or as a member of some awesome groups.

Gatto was born in Rome in October 1958, so he turns 54 this month. He began playing professionally  in 1975 with the Trio di Roma, a superstar group in the making with Danilo Rea on piano and Enzo Pietropaoli on bass. Since then, he has built a solid reputation and large portfolio playing all over the world. His own groups are characterized by the first class techniques of himself and his support players, along with a sterling ear for composition, for the subtleties of timbre, and by a warmth typical of his mediterranean roots.
Roberto Gatto is one interesting and original drummer and composer. A list of his collaborators is a who's who of jazz: as a sideman, he has played with Dave Liebman, Phil Woods, James Moody, Barney Wilen, Ronnie Cuber, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano,  Curtis Fuller,  Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Zawinul, and Pat Metheny. As a leader he has recorded fifteen albums with many of the first names in Italian jazz: Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Stefano Bollani, Enrico Rava, Paolo Fresu, Rosario Giuliani, Gabriele Mirabassi among others.  
Of the 15 as leader, his first, which I do not have, was made in 1986 with Michael Brecker, "Note" (Gala 1986).  Heck of a way to start a recoding career. Of the remaining fourteen, I have  seven.
Product Details"Improvissi" (Gala 1989) was his third recording, with co-leader Danilo Rea on piano, and some quiet supporting strings in the background on selected tunes. I have already praised Rea in an earlier post, and here the outstanding pianist and drummer play an assortment of songs covering jazz interpretations of classical music, highlighted by "The Moldau" by Smetna and Debussy "La Lotta." As would be expected, Gatto provides a delacate touch on the disc, mostly colorations with brushes and light high hat work. There is one solo percussion piece on which Gatto gets to demonstrate his use of his complete kit, an interlude between the duets. This is not an essential disc to hear, but is a very lyrical and lovely set mostly notable for Rea's piano.
Roberto Gatto - Roberto Gatto Plays RugantiniGatto says in his liner notes to "Rugantino" (CAM Jazz 2001) that he had been struck in 1978 at age 20 by the music to the movie "Rugantino", which was composed by Armando Trovaioli. The popular folk-style music of the movie had stuck with him for years, and in 1999 he began to assemble a group to undertake this project, with the blessing of the composer himself. Working with the arranger Paolo Silverstri, he put together an amazing group from among the best Italy had to offer: Enrico Rava, Enrico Pieranunzi, Gabriele Mirabassi, Rosario Giuliani, Luca Bulgarelli, Gianluca Petrella and others came together with the Orchestra Roma Sinfonieta to create this masterwork. Opening with an overture, just as one would hear at a Broadway show, one immediately is drawn into the drama and emotions that infuse the entire score. Ravae and Pieranunzi are clearly the masters of their instruments, but the saxes of Giuliani, the trombone of Petrella and clarinets of Mirabassi, all leaders in their own right, are equally magnificent. This is Gatto's vision beautifully realized by world class players, and a delight to listen to for those who like the concept of a jazz score, with lots of ensemble play along with selected solos that jump from the speakers. Gatto here was the facilitator and while his drumming is omnipresnet setting time, pushing certain sections along, and coloring others, it is the entire band itself that is the star. Great music throughout, a tour de force of orchestral interplay. Should not be missed if this type of group and music is your cup of tea.
Traps"Traps" (CAM Jazz 2007) displays another facet of Gatto, as a composer of 9 of the 10 tracks on this disc. Gatto also has a chance to stand out more on this quartet disc, with Daniele Tittarelli on alto and soprano saxes, Luca Mannutza on piano, and Luca Bulgarelli on bass. Gatto demonstrates a passionate, nuanced, and lyrical style in his writing, which provides wonderful opportunities for his bandmates to shine, particularly Tittarelli on his alto sax. Gatto clearly also has a playful side, as demonstrated in the jaunty title tune. "Traps" is a terrifically upbeat bounce with a simple but very effective little tune captured first by the bright sound of the alto and later the piano. Gatto provides the timekeeping and uses his full arsenal with snares, toms, high hats and cymbals creating the movement that makes this an outsatnding, cheerful tune. Going back, the first two pieces, which precede "Traps", demonstrate the lyrical side of his writing, starting with long and lovely legato lines for  the piano and sax and gentle whispers from the drumset. Later Gatto's compositions "Octagonal" and "Monkish" are just that, a bit more angular or jagged, with appropriate spaces and jaunty melodic lines. This is an outstanding CDs of Gatto's work. 

That next CD is "The Music Next Door" (Emarcy  2009) and it is killer, with Tittarelli again on the saxes, Rosario Bonaccorso on bass, and two of the biggest shining stars in Italian jazz, Stefano Bollani on piano and Paolo Fresu on trumpet. The quintet clearly demonstrates the highest degree of musicianship possible. From their long relationships from many other ensembles and records, they also demonstrate their abilities to hear and complement each other, and demonstrate outstanding ensemble play.  The music is a bit livelier than "Traps", with Gatto's six originals more upbeat, giving him a greater opportunity to lead from the back. The group plays in the great tradition of quintets like this, with opening statements of the tunes followed by each player taking a turn on solos before a return to ensemble play. The tunes themselves are nicely composed, the harmonics easy on the ear and tuneful -- this is modern creative jazz with its legacy clearly steeped in tradition. Gatto is omnipresent setting the pace, coloring the tunes, or pushing the beat, but is never in your face -- he is never bombastic, and doens't need to prove his mettle by being out front. A great turn for everyone and terrific play by Fresu and Pieranunzi make this a must listen if you want to hear Gatto's conceptions at their best.

As noted above, Gatto clearly is part of the great tradition of drummers dating back into the 50s and 60s, and he demonstrates his debt to one of them with two tribute discs, "Remembering Shelly" (Albore Jazz 2009) and "Remembering Shelly 2" (Albore Jazz 2010).  Again using a "standard" quintet reflective of the groups of Shelly Manne, he has Giuseppe Bassi on bass, Luca Mannutza on piano, Max Ionata on sax, and Macro Tamburini on trumpet. Product DetailsThese are live recordings played at the same sessions, and include several songs that were from Manne's "book" along with a couple of Gatto orginals done in the same vein. These are two wonderfully upbeat, swinging bop discs, with Gatto's steady hand given full rein to play in the Manne/60s style. Strong leadership and timekeeping, steady high hat and bass drum set the tempo for terrific interpretations of "Nightingale", "Fan Tan", and Speak Low" for example could have been right out of the days of Shelly's Manne Hole, with unison play as well as solos by the trumpet and sax. This is A-One hard bop in a live setting, which adds to the electricity that can be felt throughout. Two great tributes that are not slavish to the past, but rather terrific interpretations thereof.

Finally, I cannot leave Gatto without noting that he has over 50 recordings as a side man as a contributor to many other fine CDs. Of note from my collection, I would list these:

  • Product DetailsEnrico Pieranunzi "Jazz Roads" (CAM Jazz 1980)
  • Tommaso, Rava Quartet "La Dolce Vita" (CAM Jazz 2000)  
  • Phil Woods "Embraceble You" (Philology 1988)
  • Rava, Fresu Quintet "Shades of Chet" (Via Veneto 1999)
  • Rava "The Words and the Days" (ECM 2005)
  • Bollani and Gatto, "Gershwin and More Live" (Philology 2006)

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