With a name like Critical Mass, one might be led to expect that Enrico Fazio’s band would be one of those “outside” avant-garde units that plays everything in amorphous tempi with wild, screaming solos, but such is not the case. On the contrary, the opening selection, E=MC2, is a nice, medium-tempo swinger led by the clarinet and violin, and although the tempo shifts played by the percussion do indeed move the beat around, the change is not detrimental and does not last long. Before long, we hear a fine alto sax solo with bass underpinning that has both musicians moving together in synch as the music is improvised upon, later with the leader’s bass dropping out to allow Virone free rein. Once the drum comes in, we hear the other instruments playing interesting chorded figures behind Francesco Virone, eventually taking over as Adalberto Ferrari’s clarinet plays an interesting, and probably written-out, break, followed by an improvised solo played by Alberto Mandarini on trumpet. When Virone returns, it is to play a cappella as he slows down or stops the tempo at will, then we get solo violin, at times with Virone playing softly in the background, following which the trombone and clarinet play counterpoint in a three-way conversation. This is really interesting music.

The Lilo Variations open with solo trombone, following which Fazio has written an interesting ensemble including violin, clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones, following which the tempo increases as Luigi Campioni plays a good violin solo over bass and drums. Everything in Fazio’s music dovetails and fits in, and there is yet another “concerto grosso” section where the soloists play off each other before Adalberto Ferrari enters for a bass clarinet solo. When the ensemble returns, this time with a euphonium in the mix, they are playing a series of descending chords that complement the tune’s structure. Then a sudden switch to a funky beat, with Gianni Virone playing a gutsy tenor solo over African percussion.

West to East opens with a kora solo by Moustapha Dembélé, following which Malfatto plays a lovely theme on the trombone which is then developed in the ensemble—but not for long. The tempo suddenly changes, and get faster, as a flute solo comes in above marimba chords, with fills by muted trumpet and violin playing in unison. The clarinet then plays in counterpoint above a chorded ensemble before another concerto grosso section is heard from the ensemble, followed by a trombone solo which, in itself, creates its own counterpoint, the second half over the staccato bass. Anaïs Drago then plays an excellent solo on the 5-string electric violin, followed by the alto sax, picking up on what Drago had just played for his own solo. Trombone and clarinet play fills behind him, after which another interlocking section is heard before everyone falls away to allow the kora, violin and percussion their say. The violin eventually predominates, giving way to the Turkish bass clarinet but still playing its own figures in the background before the full ensemble returns in counterpoint to one another.

Sliding Times begins slowly, with the trombone way down low and the clarinet as well, playing snaky opposing lines, later joined by baritone sax. The tempo picks up a little, things become animated, and then the trumpet comes in for a solo with African percussion underneath. The clarinet plays a serrated figure—then a full stop. Overshoot Day is a sort of Calypso blues, if you can imagine such a thing, played with clarinet lead; eventually the trombone, playing ostinato figures underneath, continues as the tenor sax comes in for a solo, with marimba underpinning. Then the tempo gets funkier, introducing a nice violin solo. This eventually fades away as Fazio, playing some weird electronics along with Valeria Sturba’s Theremin, takes over for a while. The alto sax comes in above this oddness as the beat slowly begins to coalesce once again. Then the original funky Calypso beat returns, again with the violin playing above the percussion. This really is freaky stuff, but very well organized and executed! Eventually, the whole piece begins to swing and we move into the home stretch with the violin screaming overhead.

In the finale, Lectio Magistralis, the solo clarinet again opens the proceedings before the band moves into what I’d describe as a jazz bellydance. The alto plays modal-atonal figures against the rhythmic bite of the clarinet and violin, there’s a brief trumpet break, but most of this part of the piece is ensemble before the trombone enters for a solo with the rhythm shifting somewhat and becoming more aggressive in a jazz sense behind it. The ending fades out.

Throughout this CD, one is aware of these pieces as much if not more for their compositional structure than for the jazz content, though the latter is certainly an important component. Fazio clearly has his own view of how things are put together. This album is brilliant as a series of concept pieces almost from start to finish, with few if any weak links. Would that all the jazz CDs I review were as good as this one.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley on THE ART MUSIC LOUNGE