Claudio Scolari | Principal Records (2018)
By Jerry van Kooten 31 January 2019
This Italian improvisational jazz-prog trio have released their third album Natural Impulses. Scolari/Cavalca work in the avant-garde end of jazz-prog, with the emphasis on the jazz side than on the prog side. They seem, to me, to be the equivalent, in jazz-prog terms, to RIO giants Art Zoyd. In that both bands are happy in the avant-garde margins of progressive music, both ploughing a their own unique furrow.
Scolari/Cavalca produce challenging, sometimes obtuse, music that prioritises an atmosphere over a melody or a groove. See that jazz-prog envelope? Well Scolari/Cavalca have just torn it up, then set fire to it and now the smoke alarms are going off.
This jazz project was formed by Claudio Scolari. He is a drummer, composer, percussionist, synth programmer, teacher at a conservatory and member of a symphony orchestra in Italy. His compositional process starts with building the synthesizer sounds, adding rhythm and colours with percussion, drums and then ornamenting them with the help of Daniele Cavalca’s live synths, Rhodes, piano, vibraphone and bass, and Simone Scolari’s trumpet. Daniele Cavalca also plays a second drum kit on four tracks (Unknown Destination, Chasing Inspiration, Uptown Night Trip and Insomnia).
The synth lines do work as a way into the complex and, often fragmented, music found on Natural Impulse. This gives the ear something to follow. In the way that the percussion does on the opening passages of Miles Davis’ electric albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’m thinking of tracks like Shhh/Peaceful from the first side of In A Silent Way and the title track from Bitches Brew. Where multiple keyboards, trumpet and guitar are held in place by the rhythm section pursuit of a groove. On Natural Impulse Scolari/Cavalca seem to have abandoned the idea of finding a groove in the Davis sense. Sidestepping this convention for a disturbing, uncomfortable ambience of percussion, keyboards and trumpet stabs.
The opening track, Unknown Destination (the title seems prescient), is the most avant-garde piece in this collection. It starts with two minutes of the jazz equivalent of an orchestra tuning up. Then Scolari/Cavalca start a game of avant-jazz ping-pong, batting short phrases and ideas back and forth between the trumpet and the keyboards. In the meantime, the percussion seems to be in a different world all together. None of this leads to a melody or even a sense of some forward momentum or coherence. And like many of the tracks here it threatens to take off but seems to fizzle rather than burn.
However, there are four or five tracks that do work better for me. There is on Chasing Inspiration, a hint of Miles Davis jamming with Black Market-era Weather Report all lithe synths and muted trumpet. The piano improvisation and electronics of the title track have a repetitive melodic phrase that is hard to shake. Moon Mood is the soundtrack to the covert art’s mysterious woodlands. The music reverberates through the trees and undergrowth in a lazy meander that is quite captivating. Dear John has sparkling synths, gentle percussion and an emotive trumpet. The trumpet also so spars with some lovely piano in an almost conventional way.
For the rest it seems to me that that Scolari/Cavalca are feeling their way into the compositions. The spark they had in the studio does not quite transfer to my living room’s speakers. It is easy to admire the musicianship and the singular vision, but I find it hard to fully get on board with the results.
If you are a prog fan who is not at all interested in the jazzier side of the genre then walk away there is nothing to see here. Personally, as a prog fan who has a lot of time for jazz I found Natural Impulse an extremely challenging listen. This is an album for the adventurous avant-jazz lover who doesn’t mind if the prog side fades away.