Rossano Sportiello: Milano Stride Piano
Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz Festival The Hub
Saturday 6th August, 2005
The cliches supplied in the programme blurb about this concert were wrong. The pianist isn't an Earl Hines-Jelly Roll Morton specialist. He's been a pupil of Barry Harris, and his music includes beside a Dave McKenna walking left hand some bebop, and Harlem stride from Clarence Profit back to Luckey Roberts both under-recorded masters of the fine gradation of touch Rossano Sportiello has.
His hero is the late stride-master Ralph Sutton. He wears the same model of jacket Sutton wore on his last Edinburgh gig (he was delighted I recognised it) and presumably on their one meeting, a month before the old maestro's sudden death. At time of meeting they both had a gig in Bern, Switzerland, one in the jazz club and the other in the restaurant.
If the Edinburgh gig had been better billed, some elderly men would have been very happy. Maybe they've seen and heard him since, at the Nairn Jazz Festival in north-eastern Scotland. Sutton had some close friends in Scotland, always there when he turned up and sometimes greeted or joked about from the stage.
The Sutton thing goes deep, although the young man has more schooling and a wider range (which doesn't mean he combines classical and jazz though his grasp of Debussy allows him more flowing phrasing and harmonic swell when tackling a Bix Beiderbecke number).
He began his gig to a hopeful but not fully informed audience in a Tatum style heard the same weekend in some intros John Bunch played. Bunch is in his list of heroes, and still ahead of him (and most pianists) in melodic phrasing and touch. After the fingers were warm and the audience inspired and relaxed, the second number went into some mighty stride. He has an enormous repertoire of tunes, and varies programmes by playing lots of unhackneyed out-of-the-way items. This time he played famous old standards, as per a Sutton recital, reliable items with plenty for the stride style and nice to hear new; as well as a few specialties.
Thus we had Willie the Lion Smith's frequent vehicle "Shine", which turned up again during the evening by Duke Heitger's all-stars, when the pianist had his friend Dan Barrett for company, as well as Evan Christopher, and Edinburgh's Roy Percy and John Rae (as good as any bassist-drummer team I've heard with a stride pianist!). There were signs of dismay among evening audience members who (curses!) could have attended the lunchtime concert.
The first specialty was a citation of Ralph's special preference for the compositions of Willard Robison, another minor star from the great American songbook whose tunes find special results in specific fingers. Robison's name was got wrong when Don Friedman included "Old Folks" on a CD last year. This time we heard "Love Lies", a ballad.
Then the pace upped with "All God's Chillun" trotting to a walking bass (McKenna/ Hyman) with hints of "Memories of You" as the music leapt into more stride, On other and recorded evidence this brilliant young stride player doesn't always bear a strong resemblance to Sutton, but he was slanting his playing in that direction.
There was "I guess I'll Have to Change My Plan", simmering ballad and between the one plan-change and the other which took him through a fresh "I Got Rhythm" then "Don't Blame Me" (not entirely, more Ralph Sutton here, to whom many thanks!
During the interval an attractive young lady in the audience, sitting beside a veteran pianist called Joe, was marvelling at the movements of the Sportiello fingers. They looked like they were rummaging at high speed inside a sack. The movement looked too rapid to be anything but random. Joe was dizzied by the speed at which the left forearm and hand bounded in playing the strides. This wings on his fingers had just been demonstrated again in a coming-home performance of the tune abbreviated as T42. It began bop, switched into walking bass, and then it strode.
The locally resident major pianist (no mere regional talent Brian Kellock) has in recent years been playing a Fats Waller stride programme (with John Rae on drums), and during his duo gig with Dave Berkman the night before he'd done a bit of striding on one number. Interviewed when waiting in the bar, he responded to the idea of a traditional Harlem school cutting contest with his own mighty left hand signalling deference. The head shook in mellow appreciation, no, not with (expression of awe) all that. The versatile combination of stride, Tatum and sometimes boppish walking bass reminded Prof. Kellock of a Dick Hyman solo recital.