VA: Amarcord Nino Rota
The fact that Amarcord Nino Rota was recorded in 1981 means little when its music is so timeless. Rota is, of course, best known for his lengthy partnership with Federico Fellini; in fact, so inextricable is their connection that it's nearly impossible to think of one without the other. That Rota composed the music for every one of Fellini's films, from his first, 1951's The White Sheik, to 1978's Orchestra Rehearsal must be some kind of record; sadly, Rota died as he was preparing the score for Fellini's City of Women. While Rota composed operas, concertos, and symphonies, it is his film work that will be most remembered. He scored almost one hundred films during his career and is better known to those less familiar with Fellini's work as the composer of the haunting score for 1972's The Godfather. Just as Fellini's films exude an exuberant lust for life, so too does Rota's music overflow with passion. Emotions run the gamut from unbridled joy to deep sorrow, the full spectrum of experience embraced and savoured.
Aside from Rota and the musicians who naturally play a critical role in determining the quality of the recording, Hal Willner is the other key name associated with this project who deserves mention. His name is absent on the front cover but appears on the back—standard practice for a producer's credit. However, Willner's role far transcended mere production. As the driving force behind the homage, he managed to persuade a vast number of musicians of widely varying backgrounds to provide what would turn out to be some of the most memorable moments of their respective careers. Jaki Byard, already established as a solo artist and as Charles Mingus's pianist, performs two solo pieces that now seem definitive. The opening track, “Amarcord,” encompasses a wealth of elegant, bluesy, boisterous, and melancholy moods, as Byard captures the nostalgic, poignant essence of Rota's composition. As is the case with his fellow musicians, Byard tastefully uses his considerable technique—even managing to accommodate stride playing and impressionistic classicism in the same piece—to serve the song. Unbelievably, he betters this performance with the closing “La Strada,” a stunning display of pianistic restraint as he allows its gorgeous theme to stand unadorned. Elsewhere, Rota's penchant for carnival themes is well-served by Dave Samuel's vibraphone interludes of themes from Juliet of the Spirits and La Dolce Vita, and by the Carla Bley Band's accomplished arrangement of themes from 8½. The La Dolce Vita Suite is another standout. Opening with a yearning french horn-steel drums intro, Muhal Richard Abrams' beautiful arrangement of “Notturno” follows, the gorgeous theme voiced in turn by clarinet, trombone, and trumpet; closing out the suite, Blondie members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein provide an endearing rendition of Walzer (Parlami Di Me) that is as near to a novelty treatment as the recording gets. David Amram's eastern-flavoured shanai playing on “Satyricon” suggests how receptive Rota's music is to wide-ranging interpretations.
Admittedly, a bittersweet quality pervades one's present-day listening, given the death of some participants in the intervening years. Byard, sadly, passed on many years ago. D. Sharpe, Bley's drummer, likewise died at a far too early age as did bassist Fred Hopkins, long a compadre of Henry Threadgill in the trio Air and the Henry Threadgill Sextett. It's also interesting to hear the two most famous Marsalis brothers on the medley (themes from The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, Il Bidone, and The Nights of Cabiria), given that their contribution captures them near the beginning of their careers. Wynton especially was regarded at that time as a great hope for jazz's future with his prodigious technique and strong beliefs. In the year that Amarcord Nino Rota was recorded, The Art Ensemble of Chicago was still a vital force, its great trumpeter Lester Bowie was still alive, Ornette Coleman and Prime Time were in full swing, and Miles Davis was just emerging from his self-imposed five-year retirement. How depressing, then, to witness the regressive turn jazz has taken under Wynton's tutelage in the years since.
But none of that negates the remarkable recording currently under consideration. The justifiably enthusiastic critical response to the Rota work not only bolstered Willner's reputation but enabled him to realize further dream projects, specifically 1984's That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk and 1985's Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill. Certainly both have much to recommend them. It takes a lot of courage to take on Monk's inimitable compositions but they're well-served by Steve Lacy and Charlie Rouse (“Ask Me Now”), Sharon Freeman (“Monk's Mood”), and Carla Bley (“Misterioso”), as are Weill's by Charlie Haden and Sharon Freeman (“Speak Low”) and, again, Carla Bley, this time joined by altoist Phil Woods on a lovely “Lost In The Stars.” However, these tribute recordings' impact is diminished by the sense that a formula is creeping in, not to mention the decision to include less credible interpretations by the likes of Todd Rundgren. In retrospect, it now appears that Willner reached a peak of sorts with his Rota tribute that he would never again quite match, with all of its participants preserving the integrity and beauty of the composer's works through their indelible contributions.