The Italian Project

Springwood Presbyterian Hall, July 20

Italian Project res
Paul Grabowsky, Virna Sanzone, Andrew Gander and Paul Cutlan. Photo: Peter Karp Photography.

Jazz can happily slide into bed with virtually any other sort of music, whether from Norway, South Africa, Brazil or Turkey, and make it feel good. The popular and traditional songs of Italy – particularly of Naples and Sicily – are no exception. This project, hatched by singer Virna Sanzone and pianist Paul Grabowsky, allows the former to explore her Italian heritage through the prism of jazz.

At first it seemed an uneasy blend, with Sanzone singing the songs “straight” while the accompaniment dashed between vividly contrasting musical options. The cause was not helped by the PA being absurdly loud for what was essentially a chamber-music ensemble, completed by Paul Cutlan’s clarinets and Andrew Gander’s drums.

The traditional Sicilian La Pampina Di L’Aliva was more successful, featuring a bass clarinet solo of fluttering phrases before Grabowsky alternated starkness and playfulness to eerie effect. Sanzone charmed on the gently rapturous Mi Piace, coloured by Gander’s bewitching use of mallets, especially in his whispered cymbal washes.

The volume troubles were sufficiently resolved in the second set to relish the autumnal nostalgia of Settembre Cu’ Me’. The ensemble then hit a rich seam that began with Nino Rota’s Lla Ri’ Lli Ra’ (underpinned by Gander’s brilliant brushes) and culminated in Mi Votu E Mi Rivotu. Slow and stark, it contained Sanzone’s strongest performance of the night, while Cutlan crafted a desolate solo on recorder and Grabowksy played with the merest wisps of sound.

Already good, the project could be better. Not having a bass can often be the catalyst for added creativity, but here the absence was felt. Using Cutlan’s bass clarinet in that role would be an occasional solution, although the real thing may be best for tying the singing to the adventuring piano and drums.

More importantly the swaggering dynamism and intensity of Grabowsky’s playing could be shared more by all, especially Sanzone, who seems potentially capable of impaling us on these songs, but loath to risk the first stab.