"Banda" is a term for the local Italian wind ensembles that originated in the mid-19th century, both to perform indigenous folk songs and to bring the burgeoning music of Italian opera to the people living outside of the major cities. The tradition continued, though it was entirely ignored by the musical establishment in Italy and, indeed, considered something of an embarrassment. Trumpeter Pino Minafra (mainstay of the wonderful Italian Instabile Orchestra and leader of his own band, Sudori) had long held great affection for these groups and led the effort to provide one of them, the Banda Città Ruvo di Puglia, a showcase for its impressive talents, tackling both traditional and modern repertoire.
The first disc consists of aria transcriptions for the group, which certainly lets the warhorses loose. Everything from "Toreador" to "Nessun Dorma" to "Largo al Factotum" is covered. Interestingly, the arias themselves are performed by flügelhorns, with soprano, contralto, tenor, and baritone voices being replaced, respectively, by sopranino, soprano, tenor, and baritone flügelhorns. This, combined with the replacement of the string section by clarinets, provides a rougher, perhaps more rustic sound than what one hears on orchestral recordings. The compositions are beautifully, precisely, and enthusiastically performed and, even if one is not a huge opera fan, they are difficult not to enjoy. The second disc is given over to four contemporary arrangements or compositions, and this is where the jazz fan will find some real meat to dig into. Following a gorgeous ballad written and sung by Lucilla Galeazzi, the group launches into the highlight of the session, French tubaist Michel Godard's "Tra la Folla, Mora, Mormora," a luxurious suite bursting with lyricism and featuring some fine free solo work from Godard, Jean-Louis Matinier on accordion, and Willem Breuker on bass clarinet. Next up is a lengthy piece by Breuker which, while providing some enjoyable passages (including one of Minafra's patently wacky explorations of the megaphone), is too often ponderous and sluggish. All's well for the final number, however, a lovely arrangement of Nino Rota music by bassist Bruno Tommaso featuring strong solos by Matinier and the great reed player Gianluigi Trovesi. For those seeking a relatively painless and enjoyable entry into the fascinating Italian jazz scene, this set could be just the ticket.