Maybe it’s these unsettled times that call for calming sounds. Or perhaps it’s this writer’s propensity to be drawn to ballads. One of the best albums of last year (Glide Jazz Top 20) was the late Jimmy Heath’s parting statement of all ballads, Love Letter. Earlier this month we had a gorgeous duo album (El Arte Del Bolero) from Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo, and on these pages, we have the sublime hushed beauty of Joe Lovano’s latest edition of Tapestry. Yet, Franco Ambrosetti’s Lost Within You is as strong a ballad album as you’ll ever hear. Yes, it can confidently sit aside such landmark ballad works as Coltrane’s Ballads or Miles’ My Funny Valentine, the latter of which informs the trumpeter/composer’s approach in this session.
Ambrosetti may have as a unique as resume as any jazz musician. For almost six decades he has been an active, respected trumpet player on the European scene. For 30 of those years, he also ran Ambrosetti Industrial Group, as CEO and eventually chairman. (The company manufactured steel wheels for vehicles and landing gear for airplanes.) Counting this one, he has recorded 25 albums as a leader, often assembling all-star bands with people like Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Dave Holland, and Phil Woods. Blessed with these financial resources, he can command the best. In a repeat of last year’s Long Waves, also on Unit Records (his third), he again hired guitarist John Scofield, pianist Uri Caine, bassist Scott Colley, and pianist/drummer Jack DeJohnette. This time, though there are three pianists as in a rare spot DeJohnette opens, Caine has three, and Renee Rosnes has five of the selections. In addition, to produce the crystalline sound, he brings back one of the best engineers in the genre, Jim Anderson, for three days of recording at Sear Sound in NYC a year ago.
Coinciding with his 79th birthday, Ambrosetti exclusively plays the flugelhorn on compositions from Bill Evans, Horace Silver, and McCoy Tyner along with two well-chosen standards and two originals. The leader imbues each of the nine tunes with gorgeously pure tone, his signature lyricism, and a depth of heartfelt feeling. He explains the inspiration for this work as follows, “As a young man, my goal was to play fast. Then slowly but surely, I started to discover ballads, and Miles Davis was one of the great inspirations for that. From listening to Miles play ballads I started to understand, and I was able to go inside the ballad and play these long notes that he was playing. Miles showed me how you stretch the notes out like you’re really singing or crying, and I think I can express my feelings better that way.” Ambrosetti’s “less is more” approach to ballads is not new. He has built his reputation on it for over five decades now. His refined approach was particularly evident in 2018’s lavish orchestral production, The Nearness of You, and it plays out in sublime fashion again here. As many of the great blues guitarists built their sounds on bending notes, Ambrosetti is their equal here on flugelhorn, stretching notes into almost inconceivable directions.
Stellar drummer DeJohnette turns in a rare piano performance on a stretched-out ten- and half-minute version of Horace Silver’s delicate “Peace,” a tune imbued by Scofield’s unique bluesy phrasing and DeJohnette’s precise chording and soloing. The piece, first recorded by Silver over 60 years ago, is the perfect balm for these unsettled times. The guitarist also contributes an outstanding solo on Ambrosetti’s Latin-tinged “Silli in the Sky,” named for Franco’s wife.
Franco adds his signature lyrical touch on poignant readings of the Cy Coleman-Joseph McCarthy torch song “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Outta My Life” and Dave Grusin’s “Love Like Ours,” both performed in an intimate drum-less trio setting with Rosnes and Colley. Pianist Caine provides the perfectly syncopated backing on Franco’s wistful “Dreams of a Butterfly,” which opens with a fragile ascending figure before setting into a New Orleans flavored “Poinciana” groove on the kit by DeJohnette, inspiring some of Ambrosetti’s boldest playing on the record. Caine also sets the mood for a relaxed, expansive quartet take on Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” which tends to break out of the ballad mode at moments with fierce spots from him and the rhythm section. Caine plays with graceful restraint as a trio with Ambrosetti and Colley on Benny Carter’s melancholy ode, “People Time.”
Rosnes brightens, as does DeJohnette with his shimmering cymbal work, the delicate reading of “Flamenco Sketches,” from Miles Davis’ 1959 classic, Kind of Blue, co-written by Miles and Bill Evans. Rosnes alternates between delicacy and light swing on the tender closing number, McCoy Tyner-Sammy Cahn’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” which features searching, expressive solos from the pianist and Scofield while, and, especially vividly here, Ambrosetti’s golden, enveloping elongated tones.
These musicians enable totally free expression from the leader who says, “Musicians of this caliber, you want them to play what they are. I can explain the form and what is happening in terms of the solo order and everything. But then I tell them, ‘What you do behind that, it’s up to you.’ They know exactly what to do. We think the same way, so I trust them completely.” This is master class in restraint and in chemistry both – truly a sonic masterpiece. To borrow from the title, one can get lost and find some needed peace in these soothing sounds.