Jeff Levenson, Producer
“I hear this record as Francoʼs deep longing to re-enchant
“This album and Alan deserve a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
and another for Ambrosetti for Best Improvised Jazz Solo.”
“…the album feels like the soundtrack to a romantic suspense movie set in Malibu…
Growing up in Lugano, Switzerland, the son of a pioneering bebop alto saxophonist on the 1940s European jazz scene, a teenaged Franco Ambrosetti came under the sway of his father’s heroes — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. They became his heroes too as the aspiring trumpeter began emulating their blistering chops and visceral abandon. Now, at age 80, Franco is following a different muse. After nearly 40 albums as a leader, he has reached a point in his career where caressing each note is more important to him than showcasing chops. “When you’re in your 20s, you want to play as fast as you can and as high as you can, like Clifford,” he said. “But somewhere after turning 50, then you concentrate on more important things and you try to say something with just a few notes, but the right ones, like Miles Davis did.”
Franco plays all the right notes in typically elegant fashion on Nora. Backed by an all-world group of pianist Uri Caine, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Peter Erskine, with a guest turn by guitarist John Scofield, plus Grammy-winning pianist-arranger Alan Broadbent conducting a 22-piece string orchestra, Ambrosetti plumbs the depth of emotion on this program of romantic ballads, delivered with rare intimacy and grace. Possessing a golden tone on flugelhorn, he ruminates and tells stories on each of these melodic gems.
Rather than emulating Bird’s ferocity on “Ornithology” or the intensity of Clifford Brown’s “Cherokee,” Franco mines something more luxurious on Nora – a spirit closer to Charlie Parker with Strings (Bird’s lush 1950 album on Mercury Records) or Clifford Brown with Strings (his 1955 album on EmArcy).
Franco turned to Broadbent, whose empathetic approach proved perfect: “My method is to have the orchestra involved in what I call a subsong, where the ensemble is playing its own melody, lifting and expressing things in quiet counterpoint with the lead song. This is an older style I’ve identified with since I was a boy, influenced of course by Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle. But my harmonic approach to string writing is completely different from theirs, more jazz-oriented. I like to think that I have found my own voice as an arranger/composer. I believe this attracted Franco to me, like musical souls finding each other.”
The opener, Ambrosetti’s “Nora’s Theme,” is a composition he originally wrote for a 1997 theater production of Ibsen’s “House of Dolls,” which featured his wife Silli in the main role. With Erskine setting a subdued tone on brushes, Franco states the melody simply and beautifully on top of the hushed backdrop. “When you have so much support from strings, I don’t think it’s wise to add too much,” he explained. “So you try to be essential, playing only the most important things that come into your mind. In German it is called ‘speichern,’ or ‘saving notes,’ where you’re trying to do only what you feel in that very moment.
George Gruntz’s romantic “Morning Song of a Spring Flower,” a tune that Franco played often as a member of the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band from 1972 to 1991, features the first contribution from guest guitarist John Scofield. Following an opening statement of the gentle theme, Scofield brings his expressive string-bending prowess to bear in subtle yet meaningful ways. At the 2:45 mark, he kicks into his solo in inimitable fashion. Franco follows with a bristling turn of his own while the strings actively engage in counterpoint.
On Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Colley states the familiar Ron Carter bass line while the strings sound the classic refrain. Franco plays the melody with tasty restraint before heading into a stellar solo that generates sparks. Uri Caine’s piano solo is suitably bluesy, a la Wynton Kelly. And Erskine traverses the kit with the loosely swinging aplomb of his hero, Elvin Jones. “The string ensemble gets a chance to shine on this number,” said Broadbent. “You have to be very careful writing jazz phrases for strings, but here I think they swing as hard as you can get.”
There’s a genuine sense of longing in Franco’s intimate flugelhorn cries on Victor Feldman’s “Falling in Love.” Caine offers a delicate touch to the graceful proceedings. On the haunting rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” underscored by Broadbent’s Gordon Jenkins-ish strings, Ambrosetti opens with muted flugelhorn before switching to open blowing, providing a patina finish to this melancholy gem. His “Sweet Journey” is given relaxed treatment with an understated piano accompaniment and solo from Caine. Franco remembers the origins of this song: “I arrived home from Greece one day and sat at my new beautiful Steinway piano that Silli had just given me. I played those first four notes and it instantly triggered something. From that moment, it became what it is.”
Franco’s interpretation of John Dankworth’s romantic “It Happens Quietly,” a tune previously recorded in 1983 by his wife, singer Cleo Laine, unfolds softly and gently. Franco’s warm lines convey quiet rapture as they blend with Broadbent’s swirling strings.
Scofield returns for the poignant closer, a faithful reading of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” Broadbent’s figures underscore with hypnotic, Bernard Hermann-esque repetition before Ambrosetti states the restful theme with immense feeling. Scofield begins soloing at the 3:15 mark, holding his chops in check before unleashing his signature finger vibrato and legato flow of notes. On the outro, guitar and horn engage in animated trading. Broadbent explained, “On the first part, I paint a picture, perhaps of Franco in a forest dripping droplets from the rain, the sun breaking through the branches, which brings on a meditative quality that I wanted to represent in the second part.” Added Ambrosetti in summary, “It’s a song that moves you so much…it takes tears from your eyes.
This sumptuous marriage of flugelhorn and strings on Nora fulfills a lifelong dream in a career spanning six decades. It stands as a crowning achievement in Franco’s recorded legacy. — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a longtime contributor to DownBeat and the author of “Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker” (Backbeat Books)