Paolo Fresu - Miles apart with his double take

Paolo Fresu tours Scotland with two very different orchestras over the coming weeks. This weekend the Sardinian trumpeter guests with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra on its latest project, interpreting two of Miles Davis’ collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool. Then in late April, Fresu returns with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu for the new J-Word initiative.

Yes, this second grouping is a trio but for Fresu it’s a much bigger sound, texturally if not necessarily in terms of volume, than would normally be expected of three musicians.

“Trilok is an orchestra by himself,” he says with a laugh down the line from a snowy Bologna. “He plays percussion but there’s so much more to his music. He’s a vocalist, a tabla master, a sound sculptor and he can really kick the music along with his drum kit. So if you add Omar, with his amazing piano playing and electronic samples and me on top, we can have many different orchestrations and colours.”

The very 21st century sound of the trio is something that Fresu, one of the most distinctive-sounding musicians in European jazz, enjoys immensely. He also, however, feels that it’s important to go back to the great landmark recordings of jazz, such as Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead, from the 1940s and 1950s respectively, and understand the music that played such a major part in jazz’s development.

As a budding young trumpeter growing up on Sardinia he had few opportunities to play with jazz musicians of any kind, let alone an orchestra such as the one Evans placed behind Davis on Miles Ahead, although Fresu did run a band in his teens that played weddings and would regale bride, groom and guests with numbers from the jazz fusion repertoire of trumpeter Ian Carr’s Nucleus as well as more traditional wedding party fare.

“Listening to records was really my school as far as learning to play jazz was concerned, and Miles Davis and Chet Baker were my first masters,” he says. “They taught me so much. I loved the incredible sounds they both made but I also liked the way they left silences in their solos. They chose their notes with such care and it never felt like they were just playing fast licks to impress. It was always from the heart and that was a strong influence on me.”

Davis’s albums with Gil Evans were particular favourites and in 2002 Fresu paid homage to one of them, Porgy & Bess, with a recording that reimagined Edwin Dubose Heyward’s original storyline far away from its South Carolina origins by pitching French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê alongside Tunisian sufi singer Dhafer Youssef and a Mediterranean rhythm section.

There’ll be no such exotic diversions in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s interpretations of Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead.

“No, and I’m fine with that because Gil Evans’ arrangements were so imaginative,” he says. The combination of instruments – those bass clarinets and French horns alongside flutes and tuba – and the way they were voiced: that was very special. I was listening the other day to some of Gil’s arrangements for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in the 1940s, and they were incredible. He really drew jazz and the great classical composers of the twentieth century, like Ravel, together.”

For Fresu, Evans’ settings for Davis on Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool, as well as Porgy & Bess, created music that was as much like opera as it was jazz, with the trumpeter playing the equivalent of arias.

“It’s a terrible admission, I know, but I’m not a big fan of the big band repertoire generally,” he says. “I love Duke Ellington, for example, but a lot of big band music, for me, can be a bit too busy. That’s why I like the music I’m going to be playing with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. It leaves the soloist space to think, to be expressive, like a singer. The way I hear it, there are two different approaches involved: on Miles Ahead I’ll play quite close to what Miles played on the original and on Birth of the Cool, I can be freer, be more like myself. And that idea appeals to me.”

Although he tends to be better known in mainland Europe than he is over here, Fresu has appeared in Scotland before, the first time when he toured his Porgy & Bess sextet for the late visionary promoter Billy Kelly and more recently when he and classical and twelve-string guitar specialist Ralph Towner performed music from their beautiful ECM Records album, Chiaroscuro, at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh.

His relationship with Omar Sosa, which has produced the duo CD Alma as well as the imminent trio tour with Trilok Gurtu, is typical of an international approach to making music that has seen Fresu create working partnerships with flamenco, African, Macedonian, Scandinavian, French, British, and American musicians as well as the Corsican choir La Filetta, with whom he’s recorded one album for ECM Records, Mistico Méditerraneo, and is about to record another.

“Mistico Méditerraneo was quite a challenge but I like a challenge,” he says. “We had the choir and Daniele di Bonaventura on bandoneon and myself and although I loved the choral arrangements of songs that had all these influences – African and Eastern European and other music that had impacted on the Corsican tradition – it was difficult to know where to play. Then Daniele and I realised that we just had to think of ourselves as two more voices and it worked. So, yes, it’s a long way from Miles Davis and yet, maybe it’s not so far after all because it’s all music and I enjoy playing it all.”


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