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To call Stefano Battaglia's Re: Pasolini on ECM, ambitious would be an erroneous understatement. In fact, it is an undertaking of enormous propensity. In the United States, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) is known primarily as a filmmaker, whose works such as the Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Medea, and the notorious Salo (based on the Marquis de Sade's mammoth encyclopedic novel of perversion and violence, the 120 Days of Sodom, reset in the Italian countryside during the Second World War). He was in fact, a true renaissance man in the grand Italian tradition and was widely known as one: he was a popular poet, playwright, journalist, novelist, actor, painter, linguist and a truly controversial political activist who also challenged the Italian government, the Church and consumerist Italy openly. He was brutally murdered on an empty beach on the evening of All Saints Day (the murder has never been fully explained). Pasolini was a giant figure, a near mythic figure in Italian society and an aesthetic giant in all of Europe. So how does one represent such a figure in music? Battaglia has decided to look at Pasolini's life and work in equal measure. He celebrates and examines them so closely in his medium, so as to be as close to the inside eye of the artist — and perhaps the man — as is possible. Over two discs, he uses two different ensembles to meditate upon the legacy left by this great and tragic artist through his chosen medium: a music that combines in equal parts jazz, classical, and improvisation. Disc one features a sextet that includes trumpeter Michael Gassman who has been collaborating with Battaglia for 15 years. The other members of this first ensemble include Mirco Mariotinni on clarinet, cellist Aya Shimura, bassist Salvatore Majore, and drummer Roberto Dani. The music here is lighter; reflective, melodic even at its moodiest. The opening track "Canzone di Laura Betti," is a song inspired by Pasolini's muse, an actress who worked not only with him but also Bernardo Bertolucci, Alberto Rosselini Federico Fellini and other great Italian directors. Led so beautifully by the piano, the tune serves the deep lyricism of the truly Italian form of jazz, cinema music and the ballads sung by traditional Italian singers, and even opera arias. The cello lilts in and around the piano as it quietly digs into the lyric line and celebrates it to brushed drums and a simple bassline. This gorgeous piece reflects on the actress in a nearly spiritual manner. Other tunes here reflect poems written by Pasolini, and the place of actors he worked with, and the fifth cut, "Fevrar," is named for one of Pasolini's poems. Battaglia uses it as an implement for melodic improvisation on a rural landscape. Sparse, nearly skeletal lyric lines open mysteriously and are commented upon by Majore's bassline, a tapped bell on a cymbal, and intermittent trumpet lines that last only moments. The droning repetition of the bassline suggests the rhythmic line of a poem even as it opens out onto another musical vista, where it never strays far from the emptiness and elegance of the landscape. The entire disc reflects the aspects of his subject's character, an artist and man for whom tenderness, classicism, romanticism and nostalgia were motivating factors and states of being The second disc is another matter altogether as Battaglia teams with members of Louis Sclavis' band — Dominique Pifarély (violin), Bruno Chevillon (bass), and Vincent Courtois (cello) — along with drummer and percussionist Michele Rabbia offer a much darker, more improvisational — and at times tenser — meditation on less pleasurable aspects of Pasolini's life and the often radical nature of his work: his troubled relationship to the Roman Church and his radical politics that were truly committed to a working prole (during the student strikes and riots in Italy in 1969 he backed the police over students because the former were true working men and the students "pampered boys," the leftists backed the students) and railed against the kind of materialism that gave way to consumerism and, he claimed, ruined Italian society. This is chamber music that walks a thin and blurred line between classical music and free improvisation: not free jazz. It courts tension. It is fully engaged, with sometimes-heated dialogue between musicians, but it is also dirge-like in places, brooding and full of uneasy space. It feels like an elegy. Its pieces wind through and around an eight-piece "Lyria" of shorter works. This reflects both the scenic work of the cinema and the episodic nature of epic Italian poetry that often ends in tragedy. Here "Ostia" (named for the beach where Pasolini was killed) — the only long work on disc two and its second from last cut — is full of ambiguity, darkness and open space between the lower register chords of Battaglia's piano and the alternately mysterious strings. The set ends with a sorrowful, melodic ballad that is as moving as the final cue of a soundtrack as it plays the final credits, the last moments of an opera that ends in tragedy. It is one that denotes memory, dignity, and loss. Battaglia has achieved his ambitious aim. His devotion to the work of his subject has moved through him and inhabited him. Not as a ghost, but as a Muse who speaks through his compositions and the truly empathic communication of both these groups. As a true bonus, Battaglia annotates his liner notes, track by track, exhaustively, offering their sources and inspirations as further information. America may have known Pasolini as an art house filmmaker; via Battaglia's Re: Pasolini, he has become something more, something other, a force of the mythic universe. Battaglia's work is an epic, and yes, a masterpiece that is a force in and of itself to be reckoned with. It is the high point in an already celebrated career.
Why not the whole record?
I find Battaglia to be an intriguing musician based on his eclectically wonderful Raccolto from a few years back. My plan had been to buy Re: Pasolini when it appeared on iTunes. Sorry, I am just not interested in buying those parts of this record deemed by the iTunes brain-trust as marketable to an American audience. Given iTunes' obvious marsalis-esque regard for the "genre" (whatever that is) of "jazz" (whatever that is) as an overly precious entity which should be embalmed in dusty museum permanence (rather than a living, breathing art capable of growing in unexpected and challenging ways), I am not astonished at this foolish choice. But I am disappointed.
Born: 1965 in Milan, Italy
Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s
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