A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Mario Schiano                                                                  Paula Bensi©2007

The title of this column is lifted from a double LP recorded in the late seventies for the Italian Horo label by a quartet of European improvisers. It was a time when improvisers in Europe were identified by nationality, and the musicians on this recording were no exceptions. Pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink are still central figures in the Dutch school. The same goes for trombonist Paul Rutherford in relationship to the English scene. The meeting of these important musicians was instigated by saxophonist Mario Schiano, who has a unique role in the evolution of jazz and improvised music in Italy. The time has come to pay tribute to Schiano. Even though Schiano’s ideas as a musician and an organizer have been as advanced as anyone’s on the Old Continent since the second half of the 1960s (his first attempts to create musicians collectives occurred at roughly the same time as the formation of the AACM), Schiano is not widely acknowledged today as one of the founding fathers of what some call Euro-jazz, an all-covering catchword that roughly implies the search for a degree of independence from American models.

Some background is needed to understand this state of affairs. Contrary to popular myth, the attitude of many institutions and luminaries representing “high” European culture towards jazz has been one of dull rejection or, at best, indulgent acceptance. Adorno's misguided words are only the most famous example; but, one has only to read Sartre to see that, for all his familiarity with Miles, he did not know anything about the music, or seriously care for it. Yes, European fans and listeners accepted jazz as art music, welcomed musicians, and organized festival and magazines; but, this happened conspicuously outside and against the great acknowledged cultural institutions and forums for decades.

At the same time, European jazz critics often misunderstood the development of jazz, reducing it to its recorded material as well as forcibly framing African American musics as a derivation of European music's emancipation from the tonal system. It's not by chance that the “avant-garde” composers of the XXth Century from Messiaen to Stockhausen have been the most radical opponents of jazz and improvisation. Thanks to George Lewis, we have now the category of “Trans-African” to describe a radically different music approach. In the recent documentary “Play Your Own Thing” by German director Julian Benedikt, a crucial, moving and rigorous work about European jazz, I found Dee Dee Bridgewater's sharp comment that she has a problem with the term “African American” after discovering a German grand-grandfather to be very interesting.

In all European cultural centers – London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam – jazz existed only outside and against cultural institutions, seen either an acceptable attraction for failing box-offices of opera houses or as unholy activity to be summarily banned. Only in the last years some of the Conservatories started to give serious insight to the unknown field of jazz. Today's independent existence of BIMhuis or Banlieues Bleues must not obscure the battles they required, the many other activities that could not survive, or the willingness of educational and cultural institutions to impose a classicist, museum-like stance in their approach to jazz.

Rome in the 60s and 70s was a case in point. Jazz lived its existence in underground caves, was rarely seen on television and concert halls, and could not approach universities or conservatories. Jazz musicians and arrangers were welcome for flexibility and fluency as background to popular songs and movies; but, their names not even mentioned in the titles. An established contemporary pianist and composer like Giorgio Gaslini was invited in the 70s to teach jazz in St. Cecilia Conservatory, only to be chased away the following year because his classes were too successful! Today, jazz enjoys a cool image to a degree; there are big bands and concert seasons in Italy's capital, but this is not the place to discuss the inherent limitations and serious flaws of the current scene.

When Schiano moved to Rome from Naples around 1960 he found a jazz environment of cold studio professionals and well-to-do amateurs playing Trad. He didn’t care about factional fights, joining New Orleans-style bands like the Aurelian Syncopators where his presence triggered heated arguments about “purity” of style, and where he also crossed paths with Ivan Vandor. In the mid-sixties a breath of fresh air came when many avant-garde jazz players arrived in town to play or just to enjoy Roman life: Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Kent Carter, Paul Bley, and Barry Altschul stayed with friends, musicians, actors, and painters. They enjoy “La dolce vita”, jam, and bring first-hand news of what’s happening in jazz on the other side of the Ocean: Ornette, the free experiments. A parallel nomadism manifests itself with young American musicians escaping the stifling atmosphere of Darmstadt's Ferienkurses and joining forces with Lacy in Rome to form MEV: Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum; with a similar perspective, Franco Evangelisti creates Nuova Consonanza (see the perceptive article by Art Lange in PoD Issue 11).

Schiano, the ultimate individualist, finds a similarly minded person in yet another contemporary composer, Franco Guaccero. Schiano remembered that the attitude of a musician like Franco Evangelisti was radically different from Guaccero's, especially from the point of view of emotional involvement, a key element for Schiano who gives it top value above all others. They can be first heard together on two tracks on On The Waiting- List, recorded in 1973; Guaccero on keyboards fully accepting the challenge of the group, where "only the game counts; but a game where life is the prize." He and Schiano are immediately on the same wavelength in the first piece, confronting the winds' oppressive riffing; the broken dissonances of Guaccero’s organ echo Schiano’s soprano saxophone, fighting any temptation to "do” the swing until they develop a great, iridescent chord. In the second piece, a piano is prepared on the spot and mixed with the group’s percussion, revealing the instrument’s hidden resonances very much in the way of a Tippett or a Taylor.

Four years later, in February 1977, they recorded together De dè, their only full-fledged collaboration on record. During that time the relationship between Schiano and Guaccero develops outside the concert halls, let alone the recording studios. These are frenzied years for Schiano, he's fully engaged in his passions, both musical and social: his groups play in countless political meetings, contributing to fundraising events for libraries and other cultural services in the degraded Roman suburbs; he is invited in major festivals like Umbria Jazz and Bologna. Schiano and Guaccero created their own group, called Musical Workshop, which was intensely active at the end of the 70s. De dè represents in Schiano's work the search for pure sound, parallel to the path of Roscoe Mitchell in Chicago and of AMM in England. The group is completed by Alessandro Sbordoni, soon to return to a more comfortable position of composer, and Bruno Tommaso, who plays percussion and various sound objects besides bass and viola da gamba, an instrument that he very rarely used outside his specialized activity as an early music player.

Taking the venerable vinyl out of his cardboard cover one cannot but think that only a few hundred copies of De dè were pressed, and most of those, unsold, were soon sent to the factory to be recycled, so that maybe 50 or 60 copies are extant. A truly limited edition. As it happens with other records by Schiano, the two sides have fundamentally different personalities. The first is completely occupied by the long title track, inspired by a verse by Mallarmè that, interesting detail, forms the textual basis for a Barry Guy composition recorded by the bass player himself with the Hilliard Ensemble (New Music For Voices, ECM New Series 453 259-2). The four musicians search and attain the perfect state when music seems to flow by itself, without distinguishable personal contributes; jazz, brass band music, song, pop dance music are in turn subject to a process of quotation and dissection, with a movement the Ives would have liked (the American composer is shrewdly evocated by Guaccero in his liner notes, with Varèse). The balance of sound is rather precarious, but Tommaso's voice frequently emerges for his appropriate comments and has a natural way of sustaining and connecting all its parts of the improvisation. Schiano and Guaccero, on their side, alternate with joy and passion at the different instruments; in the dramatic development of “Quattroetrentacinque,” where a melody evocating Mediterranean atmospheres emerges from a percussive thick; in the contrasts between electronics and sax of “Sequentia,” in the desolate night club of “Quell'estate senza te,” in the intense, suspended atmosphere of “Come Silenzi,” the last piece of a record which ranks for me among the most important achievements in sonic research of the last decades.

Gruppo Romano Free Jazz 1997                                       Massimo D'Amato©2007
(Mario Schiano, Bruno Tommaso, Giancarlo Schiaffini)                                              

Up to the move to Rome, Schiano’s musical career took place exclusively in the thriving circuit of Naples’ dance halls and night clubs. Born on July 22, 1933, he was attracted to the music very early. He began formal lessons from a priest at ten, when he and his family took refuge in a small town in the country to escape the war-ravaged city. However, the priest soon realized that the pupil was memorizing the lessons instead of learning to read written music; outraged, he sent the boy away. Schiano taught himself to play accordion, and he was already able to earn money as a singers’ accompanist soon after the war. His curiosity was then stimulated by the shining metallic pipe of the saxophone: also, the club owners were asking for the instrument that symbolized swing. After a period of using borrowed instruments, he received his own as a gift from his father. The year was 1957, and it was an Italian military band alto, used. But it was a saxophone, and finally Schiano could try it at leisure, to understand “how saxophonists can make so many notes with so few keys.”

Schiano has described his relation with the saxophone: "The instrument for me was always something magic, a metal-plated extension of the esophagus, through which the thing inside could sing outside.” His relationship to the music is visceral in every sense of the word, and reflects Barthes’ concept of “texture” of the voice. Barthes was not discussing Billie Holiday or Schiano when he introduced the concept of texture, which is crucial in understanding the Trans-African sensibility in both vocal and instrumental music, and is now useful in discussing Schiano: "something that is directly the body of the singer, in a single movement brought to your ears from the bottom of the caves, of the muscles, of the mucous membranes, of the cartilages...as if the same skin was the tapestry of the internal body of the singer and of the music that he sings".

In the theoretical opposition between pheno-song and geno-song introduced by Julia Kristeva, and assumed by Barthes as a starting point for his concept of texture, the geno-song is "the space where the meanings sprout from the inside of the language and of its own materiality… a significant game extraneous to communication, to representation, to the presentation, to expression… not what it is said, but the sensual pleasure of its significant sounds.” Schiano always took the "genre" as a pretext, criticizing free improvisation immediately when it crystallized in a “school,” without ceasing to practice and promote free improvisation in the most strenuous and coherent way. He exercised satire on the worn-out standard melodies, but he played them in a memorable, moving way; he ostentatiously renounced empty technical display, but his example inspired the most technically dazzling musicians of Italian jazz, including Massimo Urbani and Bruno Tommaso.

Schiano’s instrumental voice and his relation with a "folklore" which includes the pop music of his time remind me of two non-European alto saxophonists: Dudu Pukwana and Marshall Allen. For all their huge diversities, they share a direct, immediate transition between "tradition" and "avant-garde" – terms that surely do not have a real meaning with respect to their music. Pukwana could play a ferocious bop, a lilting kwela and could take part with joyous abandon to the improvised collectives of the Brotherhood; with Sun Ra's Arkestra, Allen can play “Over The Rainbow” or “Tenderly” in the style of Johnny Hodges, and then transform them in a burning column of whistles and overtones. The difference between them and Schiano is that they were operating within the highly charged, creative, nourishing environment of bands like the Brotherhood and the Arkestra, promoted by imaginative leaders like Chris McGregor and Sun Ra; Schiano could not regularly surround himself by similar groups, so he often played both parts in the play, building a context to deconstruct it, not necessarily in the same session – in fact most of his output has to be considered together to be understood.

Alain Gerber caught an essential aspect of Schiano's music in 1972, reviewing the first record by the Gruppo Romano Free Jazz for the French Jazz Magazine: "it features the originality of letting a heritage continuously surface from under the anarchist turmoil and provocations. It's impossible to say if this precedence ... is under accusation, derided, or if on the contrary it is claimed as an essence, as an unmovable nature of jazz through its mutations... this uncertainty stimulates the curiosity toward those created it with their contempt of the too clearly defined paths." “The funniest lounge player you can imagine,” according to Kevin Whitehead, Schiano’s keyboard music is an Italian version of barbecue music, sometimes recalling Sun Ra at the electric organ (he favored the Italian-made Crumar Mainman): to sing Italian songs in a night-club style accompanying himself on a cheesy keyboard makes full sense if juxtaposed with his free-form music – “singing and carrying the Cross,” as we say in Italian about someone who has to cover all roles in an organization.

Schiano always puzzles purists – jazz purists, avant-garde purists – when he plays jazz standards or sings traditional songs. His feeling for this material is true: it's not a commercial ploy or a purely intellectual stance; the irony is always against those who treated music as a commodity, never against the music itself. His reading of “All The Things You Are” and “Mille lire al mese” - taking into account the different weight and history of the pieces - are equally sincere.

Ernst Bloch is another rare source in European high culture as far as the essence of music is concerned; in his Essays on the Philosophy of Music, we find an observation relevant to Schiano's music: "The deeply moved, supremely innocent listener must be preserved and comprehended just as he is in order for him to re-emerge as the man for whose sake the whole thing is happening, behind the tonal framework and his laws, and thus in the place which purposes and awaits him" (Essays on the Philosophy of Music, Cambridge U. Press, 1985, p. 130). European composers have moved away from this research: generally blinded by the complementary attraction or the repulsion for the external characteristics of jazz music, they missed its essence, so that Ansermet's celebrated essay was not a starting point, but a level of understanding rarely reached afterwards. Bloch again: "In this way a new self, the perfectly struck self of divination and bringing together, must also be introduced behind any concept of musical form, instituted anew as a function of metaphysical aesthetics, if the deeply moving experience is to be saved and consolidated, if the wherefore and spiritual end of music – which is one long tale of heresies in sound - is to attain a concept adequate to it." (Ibid. p. 131)

The cliché of Schiano's supposed technical inadequacy, one of his many heresies, has been used to avoid the challenge of his music. The recurring accusations of "not knowing how to play the blues" if compared to the accolades bestowed on current half-baked imitations of American musicians of the past reveal not only a lack of comprehension of Schiano's music, but missing basic understanding of the relevance of all African American music. Lacking this, "critics" can hardly discuss the relation between European musicians and Jazz. The musicians on the edge for their time are so usually either unable to play and/or useless virtuosos: this “double-bind” scheme, applied already to bop, repeated itself with Coltrane, with free jazz, with the European improvisers. Unable to come to terms with the sound object, the "critic" takes refuge on the apparently neutral technical point of view, to escape the challenge ground cleared by the music. Monk, Giuffre, all musicians that do not conform to a predetermined model are not good "technically" while the rest cannot communicate for excessive virtuosity leading to that capital sin, lack of swing.

In the tradition of the Italian artistic movements, the Gruppo Romano Free Jazz wrote a manifesto to be read before the first performance of the group: "The music by the Gruppo Romano Free Jazz is completely improvised, free from predetermined chords, or themes, harmonies, rhythms. There is no division between soloing and accompanying instruments. From this concept of improvisation an operative hypothesis will result. This will be based on an empathy between expressive modes, which will take into account the crossing our personal stories. These modular ribbons will generate, through analogy or contrast, sonic perspectives always different. ... To an ear used to listen in a lazy way, out of habit, our music might give an impression of a pointless disorder: but the confrontation is with the arbitrariness of the “eternal”, “universal”, “untouchable” Work of Art."

True to his program, Schiano remained utopian, a permanent revolutionary on a scene where reformers are hard enough to find, a jazzman for the institutions, but suspiciously “politically incorrect” for the newborn jazz establishment. Precariously operating on the fringe of acceptation, often alone, despite his commitment to the Controindicazioni Festival he could not build an “alternative society” like ICP or even London Musicians' Collective, and a connected network of international contacts, so his contribution, especially outside of Italy, goes mostly unrecognized. His current severe health condition – he was plagued with serious problems all his life, but they never deterred him from enjoying it fully – prevents his sound to be heard, and we sorely miss his comments: he'd make us double up with laughter, scorching with his unique humor and lilting Neapolitan accent the neo-swingers, the classicists, the newly formed official class of Italian “jazz.”

Suggested listening:

Han Bennink + Misha Mengelberg + Paul Rutherford + Mario Schiano: A European Proposal (Horo HDP 35-36) (Still available on vinyl for about 40 Euros – FM)

Mario Schiano + Domenico Guaccero + Bruno Tommaso + Alessandro Sbordoni: De Dé (Splasc(h) CDH 510.2)

Mario Schiano: On The Waiting-List (Unheard Music Series UMS 235)

Mario Schiano: Social Security (Victo cd043)

Mario Schiano: My Funny Valentine (Splasc(h) CDH 697.2)

(The best source for Schiano CDs on the Splasc(h) label is the reliable www.jazzos.com website – FM)

Francesco Martinelli©2007

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