It was on a particularly melancholy night as summer faded to autumn that I first heard the exquisite, sad and slow rendering of “Moonlight Serenade” by Gianluigi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia on their 2019 album that is a tribute to their departed friend Umberto Eco. I was moved practically to tears. Possibly – who knows? – in part because the Glen Miller original was one of my own father’s favorite songs.
There is something ineffably moving about the combination of these two instruments, clarinet and accordion, in the hands of these two Italian maestros. Combine that with the undeniable depth of feeling with which they performed these pieces, looking back over their lives and its intersections with that of their friend, the noted Italian author and philosopher, himself an amateur musician. It’s a recipe for a transporting musical experience unexpected from these simple, earthy instruments.
Eco, who died in 2016, and accordionist Gianni Coscia were lifelong friends since growing up in Alessandria during the years of World War II. Eco was a longtime champion of the Trovesi-Coscia duo, and wrote liner notes for each of their three previous ECM albums, released in 1999, 2004, and 2009. Following Eco’s death, the two looked to Eco’s partly autobiographical novel whose title graces this album, rendered in English as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana as inspiration for their next collaboration.
So on Regina Loana they include their own riffs on music mentioned in the novel and free-associate on its themes, also drawing on their own memories of their long lives in association with the author and the times they lived through together in Italy’s turbulent 20th Century. The music runs the gamut from rollicking New Orleans jazz to film music to Italian and French cafe music to chamber music to the avant garde. Most of the 19 pieces are fairly short, a few seconds to four minutes or so, as befits an album about the transitory nature of life and memory and the snippets of sound that sometimes form the soundtrack of our personal stories — if our personal story was as memorably framed as Umberto Eco’s.
Some of the longer pieces are Trovesi and Coscia’s interpretations of jazz works, like the aforementioned “Moonlight Serenade” and “Basin Street Blues,” strongly associated with Louis Armstrong and the first wave of American jazz that reached Italian shores. “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca and “Bel Ami” from the 1939 German film of the same name. They rework the antifascist anthem “Bella Ciao” as “Fischia il vento” or “The wind is whistling.” It has a wild, anarchic air from the wild free-improvised lines on the piccolo clarinet that fly atop the klezmer-tinged melody on alto clarinet melody and the rhythmic laboring of the in-out accordion wheeze.
Jaunty and haunting at the same time is the 1945 Italian pop song “In cerca di te.” I’ll let Coscia’s explanation in the liner notes explain this one: “The words of this song begin with … ‘Alone through city streets I go,’ which is also the title of one of the first chapters of the novel; we’re glad to play it as the Italian theme tune of the post war years.’ ”
There’s much more, all of it infused with a melange of emotion, simultaneously joyful and sad, wistful and elated. It’s accompanied by a 30-page booklet with Coscia’s notes in Italian plus English and German translations, photographs of the musicians and hand-drawn illustrations by Eco. It’s a loving tribute to Eco and at the same time a masterful performance of music that evokes an era but lives utterly in the present.
Here’s a long video of their performance of this music at a recent festival in Italy.