In the time of pandemic | Issue 17 | 2020
Jazz and blues from the backdrop to Benedetta Orsini's life in Milan. She grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and graduated to jazz rock, picking out blues lines on a bass guitar with friends and singing in a jazz group. At nineteen, she enrolled at the 200-year-old Conservatorio di Milano, where she studied vocal jazz for several years before deciding to concentrate her energies on her career in law. She still goes to gigs at the Blue Note jazz club, mixes it up with musicians and singers, and has been known to rescue broken saxophones from garbage dumps.
School Days, 1976
If you have ever wondered whether music can depict an image, then you have to listen to 'Desert Song'. It is as though you are there— in that moment—on a sand dune, the wind shaping the line of sand and silence, the sky low and perfectly, astonishingly, blue.
I have to admit: I really love Stanley Clarke. Who but he can make you bump and jump with joyful jazz rock riffs, as in ‘Life is Just a Game’ (on the same album)? And then, in the next moment, you are looking at the bright moon on a winter night, filled with peace.
‘Desert Song’ dates back to 1976; it features the melancholy, acoustic presence of a cello, a sort of bitter-sweet lament, dialoguing with Clarke’s bass and John MacLaughlin’s guitar. The beauty of the song is in its simplicity: music appears ‘nude’, uncovered by effects or frills.
The song was issued as an instrumental piece but Clarke did write lyrics for it; here is a sample: ‘We're sailing ships across the desert | And fading in the Arabian sun | Too hot the sand too deep the oceans | It's just surviving whatever the cost’.
BLUES FOR GASSMAN
I soliti ignoti, 1958
Piero Umiliani is a composer and conductor. He may not be as well known as other Italian composers—he is certainly not as familiar a name as Ennio Morricone—but his compositions provide the soundtrack for many wonderful movies, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Umiliani’s most popular song—‘Mah Nà Mah Nà’—was released in 1968. The song, with its simple, seemingly naïve sound, relates back to scat singing (random syllables repeated rhythmically, typically used by jazz singers as an instrument and to cover instrumental solos). One of his composition techniques was interpolation, where melodies are abruptly cut off and replaced with new ones.
The Italian film I soliti ignoti (in English, Big Deal on Madonna Street) is considered one of the masterpieces of Italian cinema; and there in its 1958 soundtrack is Umiliani’s ‘Blues for Gassman’, now an Italian jazz standard. Umiliani also composed the soundtrack for the sequel, featuring Chet Baker. And if, at some time or other since 2004, you have watched Ocean’s Twelve, you will already be familiar with the guitar rendition of ‘Crepuscolo Sul Mare’ (‘Twilight on the Sea’).
ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET
Easy to Love, 2006
Roberta Gambarini left Italy at twenty-six, when she won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Later, she moved to New York and met James Moody, who became her mentor, introducing her to the New York jazz scene, where she became a cult favorite. She is a great jazz interpreter. She is also terrific at scat singing. I love her stunning version of ‘On the sunny side of the street’, where she covers note by note the instrumental solos played by saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, as well as the well-known version released by Dizzy Gillespie. She is amazingly talented. I had the chance to meet Gambarini when she came to Italy on tour, and I was astonished by her.
When I was a kid, in my room, struggling with the translation of a text by Senofonte (I mean Xenophon) or contemplating an ellipse equation, I always had Pearl Jam on the stereo. The warm voice of Eddie Vedder spoke to me from the speakers. I spent endless, entire afternoons in the company of Pearl Jam – the epitome of grunge.
I still recall the night I spent listening to Pearl Jam live on a radio gig. In Milan, at home, everyone was asleep. I was supposed to be in bed, dreaming, but instead a buzzing pair of headphones kept magically repeating in my ears the sounds of my favourite group.
Adolescence is a time when you have more questions than answers, and your hopes collide with fears and doubts. Pearl Jam is one of the sweetest memories I keep of that time in my life. The emotional melody line that runs through ‘Black’ is carried to perfection by Eddie Vedder, who once said "fragile songs get crushed by the business. I don't want to be a part of it.” He was my hero then, and now.
I'LL FLY FOR YOU
Spandau Ballet are actually an legacy of my older brother. I used to go into his room and steal cassettes and, later, CDs. I was always quite afraid to be caught in that moment of crime. My brother was always yelling at me because he was the one who was buying the music that I was listening to and enjoying…
“I’ll fly for you” is a classic from the eighties when a smooth, optimistic and glam sound was accompanied by video clips. The video of this song is one of my favourite: it’s an ironic love-crime story, a girl trapped who needs to be saved, the ending left to destiny. Another hero of mine, definitely.
First published in RE: issue 15 (2019). Illustration by Ivan Maslarov
© Norton Rose Fulbright LLP 2021