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Disco 'Round Midnight 

Gianni Gebbia's out-there saxophone mastery masks a deep and surprising respect for all musical genres

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Roving with Gianni Gebbia down the cobblestone streets of Palermo, we rarely pass a cafe, restaurant, or bar without hearing someone call out, "Gianni!" A local celebrity who's been performing in Sicily's breezy seaside capital since he first picked up the alto saxophone as a teen 20 years back, Gebbia invariably makes time for lots of late-night gatherings. Not unlike his music, Gebbia's impromptu discourses range far and wide -- from Italian history to prospective multimedia projects to chaos theory -- and he always listens with as much intensity as he speaks.

"I'm lucky," explains the saxophonist, "because I was born as a listener. As a kid I would spend all day long going to record stores and listening to all kinds of music" -- from the progressive pop of Gentle Giant to James Brown to old swing records. Gebbia, who majored in philosophy, never planned on becoming a professional musician. "I could say people led me to be one," he says. "Every time I was playing, people enjoyed it. ... And being a saxophone player in my hometown was exciting. There were not so many guys doing this, so people would say, 'Look at those crazy guys in that band.' "

Relishing this kind of provincial notoriety fueled Gebbia's early interest in what he calls the "crazy" personas of melodic liberators Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. "Along with a Duke Ellington LP," he recalls, "This Is Our Music [by Coleman] was my introduction to jazz. I've always liked the very melodical or atmospheric and intense colors, and the crazy, free solos."

But it was Dolphy's "mysterious and attractive style" that turned his ears (and his direction) inside out. "I played that Prestige double album [In Europe, Vol. II] all the time," says the saxophonist. "I had it in my mind, even while sleeping." He sings, "Laaaauuura ...."

Clearly, discovering the pioneers of the early '60s was an overwhelming inspiration for the fledgling jazzman. "As an alto student," he explains, "taking somebody like Eric Dolphy as a model is like trying to have a free-climbing session on the Himalaya[s]." But this awesome initiation rite served him well. It taught him always to keep an open mind, that nothing is impossible with perseverance and imagination, and that anything and everything is potential fodder for the new-music mill.

Those concepts led to Gebbia's inventive use of color, texture, space, and structure in his spontaneous compositions, which draw from a startling array of sources, like the circular-breathing techniques of the launeddas (Sicilian bagpipe) masters of Sardinia, the microstructures of biorhythmic cycles, and non-Euclidean geometry -- spatial relationships that fall outside of the rational or Aristotelian standard. Drawing on such supramusical influences, he transforms his horn into industrial machinery or an electronic barrage.

Yet despite Gebbia's unconventional bias, his extraordinarily melodic music is closely aligned with the rich histories of both the jazz and Mediterranean-folk traditions. This stems from his wide-open ear for all types of music, a philosophy that has reached precarious proportions over the years.

For instance: In 1979, an 18-year-old Gebbia went to New York for a while to work for his uncle, Thomas J. Valentino, who ran a prominent sound-effects company. Valentino had produced some recent hits on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, including Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band's "Fifth of Beethoven." By day, Gebbia earned his keep by duplicating cassettes and cleaning tape-machine heads in the studio. In the evenings, he soaked up eclectic NYC nightlife, from the city's legendary avant-garde loft scene -- where he was "shocked" and "amazed" by Ornette-Dolphy-Coltrane descendants like Julius Hemphill and Sam Rivers -- to the trailblazing punk rock of CBGB's and the waning days of disco at dance clubs and parties all over Manhattan. To say the least, it was an unusual period of growth for the budding artist.

"I grew up with disco," recalls the saxophonist. "But it was like the enemy for us because we were playing jazz, experimental, improvised, progressive music. But when I had a chance to go and live in New York with my uncle, I started to get into it."

If you think that's scary, picture this: One evening last summer at his condo in Palermo, Gebbia played me recent DATs of his techno experiments. He then confessed, "I really like disco now. I think you can only really judge music much time after it is over. Most of the people [in the '70s] were thinking this is just horrible dance music of the moment, but then you realize that there's some interesting melodies and interesting, soulful things."

Strange but true: One of Sicily's most respected avant-garde jazz improvisers has shamelessly layered his speaking-in-tongues saxophone on top of drum machines and manipulated samples of "Fifth of Beethoven" and Randy Crawford's "Street Life" at popular Palermo watering holes.

Gebbia doesn't care if all this sounds like blasphemy by so-called progressive musicmaking standards. He takes on projects for the fun and challenge of it, and at 37, his inclusive attitude and high-level artistry have earned him international accolades. Over roughly the past decade he has appeared on more than a dozen adventurous recordings and performed at major jazz and new-music festivals all over the world. His resume of eminent collaborators includes some of music's most forward-thinking practitioners, including U.K. saxophonist Evan Parker, German bassist Peter Kowald, Russian pianist Sergey Kuryokhin, Japanese mixmaster Otomo Yoshihide, Chicago guitarist Jim O'Rourke, and, of course, noted "Italian" vocalist Miriam Palma and the distinguished Italian Instabile Orchestra.

While Gebbia's full-throttle activity echoes the innovative spirit of the '60s, his work is like no one else's. "When I first saw him solo at Beanbenders during his first tour [in the Bay Area in the winter of '97]," recalls veteran local drummer and Rastascan Records honcho Gino Robair, "I was floored by his sound and the feel of his music. I turned to Myles Boisen [guitarist and studio engineer] and said, 'We have to record him. Tomorrow!' And we did."

Gebbia's Bay Area concert debut marked the beginning of an ongoing, mutually auspicious relationship between the Palermo and San Francisco creative-music communities. From that initial recording session, Rastascan issued H Portraits, a set of riveting solo saxophone improvisations that's arguably one of the most compelling discs in that label's distinguished catalog. Then, during various Bay Area showcases last spring to promote the album, the saxophonist teamed up with some ambitious locals, including twentysomething bassist Damon Smith and powerhouse drummer Garth Powell. Before Gebbia returned home, the trio recorded a set of inspired improvisations that became the Sicilian's second album for Rastascan, People in Motion.

This past winter the saxophonist organized the California Dreamin' Festival, which brought a handful of Bay Area luminaries -- Robair, Smith, Powell, Tom Nunn, Tim Perkis -- to Palermo for a few nights of improv-related conferences and cross-cultural performances. And this weekend, Gebbia returns to Northern California to celebrate the Gebbia-Smith-Powell trio's outstanding debut CD.

Robair feels that the recording "speaks on a number of levels, always as one voice," and this description fairly sums up the effort. For a largely unrehearsed session performed by players from vastly divergent backgrounds, the improvisers are remarkably in sync with one another's instantaneous movements, which range from wonderful episodes of melodic swing, to ugly-beautiful pure-timbre investigations, to surprisingly tuneful shenanigans with duck calls, squeaky toys, and vacuum hoses. While Gebbia tends to steer the direction of the tracks with his exuberant tone, lucid sense of form, and sometimes wryly fragmented phrasing, his sax often seems like the first passing of fresh thread through the eye of a needle, and the bass and drums fall in line in the fraction of a flash.

Capturing the highly charged mood of a live performance, where daring and spontaneity yield fiery musical choices, the set also comes across with an acute focus. Trademark Gebbia, it's clear that an ears-on approach was top priority in the creation of this improv tour de force.

Gianni Gebbia, Damon Smith, and Garth Powell celebrate the CD release of People in Motion on Sunday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. at Church of the Good Shepherd, 1823 Ninth Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $7; call (510) 597-1769. Gebbia also appears with pianist Graham Connah, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Smith Dobson Jr. on Wednesday, April 14, at 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. at Bruno's, 2389 Mission, S.F. Tickets are $5; call 550-7455.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni

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