What happened to Slivovitz? Listeners familiar with Hubris, the Naples-based group’s 2009 MoonJune debut, would surely not expect the 2011 follow-up, Bani Ahead, to be quite this explosive. Hubris is a strong and even remarkable recording, a blend of jazz, Balkan, and other unexpected elements (blues harp, funk, Afro-beat, Canterbury, and more) with an occasional breezy flavor, including vocalizing from Ludovica Manzo that imparts a quality not unlike early Flora Purim -- if transplanted from Brazil to the Mediterranean, that is. But Bani Ahead is something else. Manzo is gone, drummer Stefano Costanzo has been replaced by Salvatore Rainone, and newcomer trumpeter Ciro Riccardi has had a significant influence on the band. Slivovitz’s transformation is immediately apparent, as leadoff track “Egiziaca” begins with a chunky, dirty, repetitive guitar figure from Marcello Giannini before the group stakes out brass-fueled jazz-rock territory and segues toward the Balkans with a melody line prominently featuring Riccardo Villari’s violin and Derek di Perri’s harmonica. This is all within the tune’s first minute, and before the seven-minute track ends Slivovitz also rocket to deep space with Riccardi’s looping trumpet conjuring Mark Isham-flavored atmospherics; they return to earth with a jolt as di Perri blows burning blues harp over a multi-layered, complex yet funked-up arrangement, then expertly bring it all back to the track’s opening brassy/Balkan themes. That may sound like a pastiche (Mark Isham meets Slavic Soul Party!, anyone?), but it’s not: although “Egiziaca” travels far and wide, the transitions -- even when abrupt -- don’t seem illogical thanks to saxophonist Pietro Santangelo's strong compositional skills.
And across the CD’s concise 43-and-a-half-minute length, there isn’t a single letup in quality, with the band tightened up and grabbing the listener’s attention every step of the way. “Cleopatra Through” rocks with an off-meter groove and soaring front-line theme in one of the most inspired jazz/rock/you-name-it instrumentals since X-Legged Sally’s live set-opener “Memphis” from the mid-‘90s; after Villari builds his violin solo up to a double stop-filled fury, the tune fragments into staccato bursts from all the players and then explodes into a pounding three-chord horn-accented rock vamp with Santangelo’s tenor soloing assuredly across the top. Not everything on Bani Ahead is quite that relentless; calmer moments emerge at just the right places, but these aren’t lightweight bits of fluff. Villari draws long violin lines across Giannini’s muted arpeggios in the inexplicably named “Fat”; pizzicato pluckings and harmonica accents season a lovely, almost subtly orchestral arrangement and di Perri’s solo is closer to Toots Thielemans than Little Walter here. “Vascello” and “02-09” include hot-wired ensemble interludes but also conjure up subtler and -- in the case of “Vascello” -- darkly mysterious moods. And the cinematic chord washes and effects beneath Riccardi’s trumpet on “Opus Focus” followed immediately by the Balkan blowout groovefest of the title track also capture the wide dynamic range of Slivovitz’s world, a place you will want to visit repeatedly.