Fabrizio Sferra Quartet – Untitled #28 (2012)

Fabrizio Sferra is a favored drummer of fellow Italian Enrico Rava, having appeared on Rava’s Full of Life (2003) and last year’s Tribe. In evaluating Tribe, Sferra stood out to me, and I offered that “it’s not difficult to understand why he’s such a great fit in the band. Rava requires drummers who can play suspended rhythms and provide the shadings and colors that do as much to shape the sound as his tonal partners.” A little later on, I also wrote that Sferra is strongly reminiscent of Jon Christensen, one of the finest European jazz drummers of all time.

And upon taking in Sferra’s lastest album, Untitled #28, those same thoughts about his style of drumming return.

As Sferra is a European musician well into the mix of European jazz, it would be easy to label Untitled #28 as a “Euro-jazz” record, and perhaps the label is rightfully applied. But that’s also too generalized. “ECM-like” is closer to the spirit of these recordings, though even then, that can mean a lot of things, too. Sferra’s jazz is wider, airier, more open to explore the back alleys of jazz but reverent of its main streets.

Like his erstwhile leader Rava, Sferra apparently believes that surrounding himself with younger, forward-minded players is a way to keep his music modernistic and unspoiled, and Untitled #28 certainly comes across that way. Dan Kinzleman mans the tenor sax, clarient and bass clarient, while Giovanni Guidi handles piano and Joe Rehmer plays the double bass.

Sferra uses his role as a leader to craft a record where his drums share in shaping the tonality and mood of thr music, and not mere timekeeping. Heck, actual timekeeping doesn’t even appear until the fourth track, anyway. Songs are kept short to medium length, and the band favors solemn moods and spare, airy arrangements over urgent improvisation. Improvisation does happen, but the more contemplative group kind; these are very mature young players who are eager to enhance the music more than they are interested in showing off chops.

The tracks “IX Elegia,” “The Accomplices,” “The Snow Child” and “The Arrangement” are probably group improvs, anyway. On the second such performance, Kinzleman can be heard spending notes like it’s a precious commodity, and “The Snow Child” features economy of sounds from everyone, with long played and whispered notes rendered over a barely-heard piano. “The Arrangement” begins with a lonely sonic landscape, too, but the restlessness bubbling underneath erupts into Guidi’s Cecil Taylor pianisms by the end of the song.

The deceptively simple, sing-song folk melodies of “Skaal,” “Eye Of The Needle” and “Simply Back” gave rise to the ECM reference I made earlier, because they are so reminiscent Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, the first two being airy and free-flowing, while the latter sporting that Jarrett funky strut. Rehmer, much like Arild Andersen before him, plays a crucial part in defining the harmonic definition of these songs, as does the deft shadings of Sferra.

Sferra’s quartet doesn’t settle into any familiar patter for too long, often creating their own ideas from scratch. “Quai Des Orfevres” is instigated by Rehmer’s foreboding sequence of notes that settles into an elliptical pattern, as Kinzelman lurks around at a hushed growl. “Sunbathing In Central Park” has indeed a sunny, light Latin rhythm, but a lilting sax and strongly delineated bass lines takes up the space of the absent piano. Kinzleman picks up the clarinet for a lullaby-like “All Of Us” but takes a backseat to Rehmer until the reprise that immediately follows, switching to saxophone as the song segues into a different melody based on same key.

With all the variation in approaches throughout Untitled #28, one thing that’s consistent is Fabrizio Sferra’s obvious confidence in his band to play loose and creatively. It’s a trust that’s paid off in an album that surprises and sets provocative moods. Untitled #28 went on sale February 14 by Via Veneto Jazz (Millesuoni) and Jando Music.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.