Roman rhythm in real time

Leighton Buzzard Music Club’s concert on Saturday 16th March struck a different chord from their usual, chamber music, offerings. A substantial audience welcomed two Neapolitan jazz musicians: Luca Luciano on clarinet and Bruno D’Ambra on piano. Both now live in London and collaborate regularly. Luca has made four solo albums of his own clarinet compositions derived from his research interests. His music begins with a notated section – original or arranged from an existing piece – which is then ‘composed in real time’, which is to say improvised.

From the opening note on the clarinet it was apparent that the evening would be suffused with Italian passion that, as Luca told us in the programme, ‘embraces romantic atmospheres and … heartfelt melodies.’

Luca’s playing was mesmeric; he played his clarinet with his whole body, often taking one hand off the clarinet to gesture with it, leaning towards us, swaying from side to side like a snake charmer, standing – he was never still. His clarinet was like the magical pipes of Pan. Indeed, fond as I am of the sound of the clarinet I had never before heard one quite like this. The reason for this is partly to do with the instrument Luca plays, which has more keys and rings than usual. One could see a fatness around the middle of the instrument. And Luca certainly made use of every extra note and effect that this gave him.

The first half of the programme began with two short, one movement, sonatas (No 2 ‘Stellare’ and No 3) on either side of a piece entitled ‘No compromises’, all composed by Luca and improvised by Luca and Bruno together and separately. These were followed by a solo improvisation on the clarinet on themes from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ which segued into an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’ for both instruments. During this Luca explored the extremes of the clarinet, making it growl one moment and squeal the next, while still attending to his promise of ‘heartfelt melodies’. Next they played ‘Fellini in London’ – also composed by Luca. This was, for me, the most substantial piece of the programme so far. Its melodramatic opening quickly acquired overtones both of the mysterious East and Sixties London. Here, too, Luca found some deep down and dirty notes at the bottom of his clarinet’s range. His ability on the instrument really was exceptional. Trills and glissandi poured from it. The final piece before the interval was an arrangment of Gershwin’s already semi-jazz standard ‘I’ve got rhythm’. Like Neapolitan icecream, this came in three flavours: first they played it straight, then they swung it, then they improvised on it. Applause was warm and prolonged; smiling faces made their way to the bar.

The second half began with another of Luca’s short sonatas (No 4). This was a mellow, reflective melody evocative of ‘September Song’ which we’d heard earlier, full of yearning. Next the melting theme from Act III of ‘Tosca’ was given the Luca treatment, the little solo shifting like a will o’ the wisp into Luca’s ‘Sonata No 1’. These two pieces were as soft as silk. A more robust piece, ‘Some day my Prince will come’ by Frank Churchill, followed. Ably pursued by Bruno, Luca once again demonstrated that his augmented clarinet puts a wealth of effects at his command. Penultimately another little piece for solo clarinet ‘Rondo Contemporaneo’ by Luca covered the jazz spectrum as well as including a tiny suggestion of klezmer. It segued into ‘Cripta’ by Luca – a bluesy piece in the ball park of ‘I’ve got rhythm’ and now my foot was really tapping!

We were favoured with an encore – a piece with a ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ vibe, it began lazily with much space between the notes, then swung gently, before gathering pace and allowing Bruno once again to show his virtuosity. The clarinet rejoined for a soulful conclusion, ending with arpeggios running down through the music, bringing us gently to earth.

Many coins clunked into Oxjam’s ‘retiring collection’ bucket as we cha-chaed out into the chilly night, flushed with music.

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