Since its inception in 2001 the Auand imprint has emerged as a key hub for jazz in Italy, providing an essential platform for new generations of improvisers such as Gianluca Petrella, Francesco Bearzatti and, latterly, Zeno De Rossi and Leonardo Rizzi. Its catalogue also boasts releases by Americans who always manage to be interesting, such as David Binney and Cuong Vu, which means that, despite its relatively low profile in the UK, Auand is very much a benchmark of quality whose distinctive luminous green hand-eye logo is the sign of music that is worth looking up and lending an ear to. Most impressively, the label is run by the one-man band of producer Marco Valente in the picturesque seaside town of Bisceglie in the Puglia region of southern Italy. His relentless dynamism is perhaps mirrored by the powerhouse achievements that have come to define the local cuisine and foodstuffs. In the 1920s and 1930s Bisceglie was the largest supplier of table grapes in Europe and the quality of cherries, olives, fish and 'sospiro', an iced sponge cake moulded into the shape of a breast, has been recognized by many 'Slow Food' evangelists.
Over the eight days of the Auand Festival, Valente judiciously programmed events to give a vivid sense of the Bisceglian art de vivre and cultural richness, as well as the excellence of the musicians on his label. A walking tour of Palazzo Tuputti by Piero Bittolo Bon is the highpoint of the schedule. The alto saxophonist leads the audience through this exhibition centre housed in a medieval building of high ceilings and fine masonry where each room tells the story of a particular kind of local produce. Showing much creativity in his changes of timbre, attack and phrasing, from lyrical whispers to rugged overtones, Bittolo Bon keeps flawless time, and his use of the instrument's keys as a percussive, 'finger-drumming' device is quite electrifying to hear at high tempo. Required to play while almost constantly on the move Bittolo Bon proves an incisive and potent improviser who creates intriguing melodic vignettes that effectively soundtrack the texts and images that present a wealth of riches dalla terra et mare.
The other solo performance that greatly captures the imagination is guitarist Manlio Maresca's lunchtime set at Verde Matematico. The charming restaurant with a courtyard for al fresco dining provides a serene setting for a performance that is anything but. Pleasingly, there is a tightly calibrated violence in the performance that takes it far away from the timid sedations of any background music. As the patrons clink cutlery Maresca bangs out off-centre beats from a sampler while an effects unit enables him to mangle his tone with a somewhat acrid flavour that contrasts entirely with the finesse of the dishes on the menu. A worthy inheritor of the distortion-as-sonic-sculpture aesthetic of the likes of Marc Ducret and Jeff Parker, Maresca is nothing if not audacious in his blend of rhythmic zigzags, serrated themes and psycho-funk chords that create a danse macabre with much humour.
Joyous cheers rather than coughs of indigestion are the tips thrown in his direction. If the intensity of the audience reaction says a lot about how well Auand Days works in small venues then further confirmation comes in the shape of trios at the very genial Make Art bar in the centre of town. Crammed into the corner of the heaving room The Storytellers offer a zestful take on the guitar-organ-drums combo, while Mirko Signorile leads a piano trio in which the Fender Rhodes rather than a Steinway takes pride of place, evoking post-Bitches Brew imagery as if to the manner born. More small groups appear at the Palazzo Tuputti, the pick of the bunch being the quartet in which Federico Pierantoni's trombone and Andrea Grillini's drums combine to produce a barreling low-end funk that occasionally loosens into more freeish abstraction. Several of the aforementioned players, along with the articulate guitarist Francesco Diodati, a noted young sideman to Enrico Rava among others, feature in the Piccolo Coro Elettroacoustico as well as the all-star Auanders. The former sees them stationed at laptops to create a shifting canvas of crunchy digital eruptions that has moments of intriguing tension and underwhelming tedium, which is to be expected given its wholly improvised nature, while the latter is an enjoyable demonstration of ensemble playing in which swirling horn lines as well as the hearty gurgles of Bittolo Bon's bass clarinet work well.
The climax of the festival though is Orchestre Specale Don Uva, which is a big band comprising patients from a nearby mental health hospital. The performance achieves the not inconsiderable feat of giving a degree of dignity to those that society might deem 'special needs', and allows them to express themselves all the while responding to the wily directions of conductor Stefano Tamborrino. In an age when mixed ability ensembles are in fashion it is very rewarding to see a concert that strikes such a winning balance between discipline and freedom, creating a deeply prevailing sense of humanity. Yet that is the defining theme of a festival in which music is presented as social cohesion within a warm, grande famiglia ambiance.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Leonardo Todisco and Domenico Soriano