Virna Sanzone and Niko Schauble

Virna Sanzone and Niko Schauble in The Italian Project

REVIEW: Acquacheta / Paul Grabowsky & Virna Sanzone: The Italian Project, Chapel Off Chapel, Friday 23 May, 8pm for Stonnington Jazz

In all my travels abroad, I have not been to Italy. Now I want to go. Yet the musicians who have inspired this wish are close to home.

This concert was billed as “jazz with an alluring Italian accent”. It might also have been promoted as two sets by superb musicians, some with Italian connections. Saxophonist and pianist Mirko Guerrini moved to Melbourne last year to take up a teaching position at Monash University. At Wangaratta last year he teamed with guitarist Stephen Magnusson, bassist Frank Di Sario and drummer Niko Schauble as Acquacheta, but I heard only part of that concert.

It was a treat to hear a whole set from this quartet as they reinterpreted songs by John Lennon and George Harrison, some originals by Magnusson, Di Sario and Guerrini, movie theme Prima della Pioggia (Before the Rain), plus En la Orilla del Mundo (At the Edge of the World, possibly by Arturo Castro).

Mirko Guerrini

Mirko Guerrini

What a rich tapestry this was. I particularly liked the sharp-edged and abrasive Mag-Pie (Magnusson), the piano’s clarity and scant guitar in Before the Rain, the developing intensity of Javier (Di Sario), which included a great guitar solo over drums and bass, and ruminative reeds with rapid vibrato and rasping “parps”. In the closing Here Comes the Sun, Guerrini built his solo so beautifully to a climax of squeaks and squawks that I decided it would be the best sax solo of the night. I spoke too soon.

The second set ditched the guitar and bass (sorry Steve and Frank) and added pianist-composer-arranger Paul Grabowsky and Sydney vocalist Virna Sanzone for a collaboration titled The Italian Project — interpretations of traditional Italian and Sicilian folk songs, and more recent songs from Fellini and other modern Italian composers.

Virna Sanzone

Virna Sanzone

The program notes said Sanzone’s delivery of the lyrics “often provides a dramatic contrast to the imaginative improvisations of her colleagues” and that was indeed the case. As someone who at times needs convincing (or education) on the value of vocals — I often enjoy other instruments more — this set was a revelation, perhaps precisely because I loved the disparity between the expressive vocals and the riveting work of the other musicians.

It probably helped that I could not understand the words being sung, because that left the voice unadorned, except by the emotions conjured by my mind from the description given by Sanzone about the songs.

Two things stood out in this set. First, Virna Sanzone conveyed so much emotion in vocals that were powerful yet often caressing, the degree of care taken giving the impressions that the sounds were being nurtured as they emerged. I especially loved the vocals in Mi Votu E Mi Rivotu and the yearning in Sanzone’s voice in Mi Piace, as well as the way she entered so unobtrusively during the piece.

Paul Grabowsky

Paul Grabowsky

Second, the accompanying musicians were just superb, as well as being sensitive to their vocalist. Highlights included Guerrini’s beautiful solo in La Pampura Di L’Aiva (at times he seemed just to breathe into the sax),  Grabowsky’s powerful swinging solo and Schauble in full flight in Tu Si’ Na Cosa Grande, another fantastic Guerrini solo in Ma L’Amore, No, and his droning buzz in Mi Votu E Mi Rivotu accompanied by deliberate, spaced chords from Grabowsky. Mi Piace brought subtlety on piano and drums, and wondrously variable dynamics along with mewlings from Guerrini before the piece gathered intensity.

I could go on raving, but you get the message. The imaginative work by Guerrini, Grabowsky and Schauble throughout this set would have been a joy to behold, but offset against Sanzone’s vocals it was a perfect fit. Not surprisingly there was an encore.

This was an ideal way to see and hear Italy.


There are more images to come, when time permits.

Mirko Guerrini

Paul Grabowsky

Virna Sanzone

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