Words: Gary Rees
To understand Matteo Ciminari’s Fried Hippocampus, it helps to know a bit about the limbic system. The one inside your brain starring a hippocampus and amygdala. The limbic system you need in order to form memories and have emotions. It’s this part of the brain that’s going to respond to the beauty of Ciminari’s ensemble jazz and ensure that it’s properly remembered.
Actual Fried Hippocampus would be like Cervelli Fritti, a fried delicacy served in Italy that is reminiscent of chicken nuggets, but made from calf brain. If this is what Ciminari consumes before artfully taking up his guitar or expertly waving himself at his Theremin, then perhaps we should all indulge.
Ciminari is a native of Italy, as are most of the musicians on this album, all highly talented artists who Ciminari has worked with for nearly two decades. Jazz is the cuisine in Ciminari’s kitchen, as patrons well know from two decades of fine audio dining. Defining what flavor of jazz is being served is trickier. The ingredients vary, but they’re likely whatever Ciminari finds in season, whether Bebop or Post-Bop or Free Jazz. That’s what you’re having in this nine-course meal.
Let’s have a look at the menu. Fried Hippocampus is a 9-track set totaling a bit more than 32 minutes. All the songs on this Chant Records release were written by Ciminari. The record features six musicians in all. Ciminari plays on all the tracks, as does Mattia Borraccetti, Ciminari’s long-time collaborator on the stand-up bass. Most of the songs feature a quartet: guitar/Theremin/keyboard by Ciminari, bass, and drums. Plus sax or piano on several numbers. Ciminari joins these musicians in the kitchen as trusted friends. There is no better recipe for success than this.
Fried Hippocampus is a pandemic effort. The ensemble was recorded virtually, part by part, in recording facilities in the U.K. and Italy. This fact may be the most remarkable element of the album. Throughout, it sounds indistinguishable from a group of jazz artists playing off one another live. It’s all the evidence you need for the tremendous talent of these six musicians.
As a whole the nine tracks on Fried Hippocampus are not far-ranging in sound or style. The group’s delivery is clearly driven by Ciminari’s taste for tightly choreographed pieces. Inspired forays into adventurous improvisation are stirred into each helping. There are frequent hints of whimsy that evoke Zappa, who, as a fellow guitarist, is one of Ciminari’s key influences. It’s not all that hard to make comparisons as you go. A Coltrane vamp here, a Zappa flourish of frivolity there. But when the comparisons multiply, often within a single track, it’s time to give it up and acknowledge that Ciminari is a unique voice.
Take the opening track, Pazzammano. Are we in a jazz club in the late 50’s? At a Prog Rock gig in the 70’s? Maurizio Moscatelli’s sax dances in unison with Ciminari’s guitar, then in harmony, establishing a head. The guitar then channels Gary Green before a notable moment of silence is broken by Borraccetti’s transporting bass. A new syncopated phrasing emerges, embellished playfully by drummer Luca Orselli, and we’ve landed somehow in the soundtrack of a 1960’s Italian surrealist film. The rhythm team cooks up a quirky walking gait so Ciminari can free associate a solo in a scale of his own devising. Finally, the opening sequence returns and Moscatelli brings an unhinged free jazz rant to the table before the ensemble returns to the head to close out this amazing three-minute dish.
While this is Ciminari’s release, it’s his third album with several of these very capable players, perhaps the secret recipe to this highly successful, virtual cross-channel collaboration. Ciminari and Borraccetti released their first album with the group IM ANIT’a in 2002. Orselli joined them for a second album with the group in 2011. In addition to IM ANIT’a three EPs, Ciminari has done soundtrack work and various commissions. You’ll find links to all of this on Ciminari’s web page: https://matteociminari.weebly.com/. The site includes a bio in which Ciminari confides that “his instrumental skills allow him to move easily around jazz, blues, contemporary and avant-garde music, always remembering that one important thing in music (and in life) is to have fun and improve ourselves.” All of this is baked within Fried Hippocampus.
Perhaps the most contained and melodic track on Fried Hippocampus is Narni Underground, invoking the name of a small, centuries-old town in central Italy. Sax and guitar again join together in phrases Coltrane would have enjoyed, serving up a beautiful melody that your hippocampus will help make unforgettable. At 5:17, it’s the longest track on Fried Hippocampus, drifting dreamily like a hazy warm Italian afternoon. It is one of four tracks featuring the subtle and expressive drums of Michele Sperandio.
The track How I Feel Today is a bluesy outing and the sole ballad on offer. And you might taste a little Thelonius Monk on Spiced Amygdala (that second tasty treat from the limbic system). It moves from tight grooves to free for all guitar. Ciminari’s guitar seems to operate best with light strings or a whammy bar, notable in vibrato that’s redolent and tasteful.
El Sepriente’s polyrhythms and rhythmic gymnastics lay the ground for Ciminari’s improvisation in a manner that could accompany a B-movie from days gone by. But each player’s performance is crisp and inventive.
Psalm is a departure from the more traditional jazz sound on Fried Hippocampus, featuring electric piano by James Boston and Ciminari’s theremin. But this is not your great-grandma’s theremin. The melody Ciminari unfolds, with Theremin and guitar sharing one voice, is smooth as silk and classically haunting. But failure to acknowledge boundaries is Ciminari’s specialty, so for a moment in Psalm the figures go Prog Rock and we’ve brought Gentle Giant into the cucina.
Mr. Distraction features a rich tremolo and melancholic riff underscored by drum and bass and amplified by the theremin. Ciminari waits to bring his theremin to the mix until these last three tracks, a dolce, caffe and digestivo, if you will. He first heard the instrument on a radio program years ago and felt compelled to play. He also likes the wow factor the instrument produces in performance. But he’s obviously learned the secrets of coaxing quite pleasing sounds from this quirky instrument.
Ciminari closes the album with a lo-fi throwback, A Woman, featuring theremin and guitar. We’re taken back decades to a simpler time through a haunting melody and a waltz-like dream sequence through simpler times. It’s a satisfying end to a delectable meal that only Ciminari could create, the cuoco of this band of fine jazz musicians who fry up some hippocampus and serve you a most memorable meal.
Chant Records’ release of Fried Hippocampus is available for purchase on Bandcamp
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