Tommaso Starace (saxophonist) and Michele di Toro (pianist) collaboratively performed on Saturday evening at St Giles Church, taking the Oxford Jazz scene to another level. At what was the midway point of the 'Autumn Jazz at St Giles' series, these classically trained Italian jazz musicians gifted the audience with something quite special. Tommaso recalled that this was his fourth year returning to Oxford which he refers to affectionately as 'The Gem of England'. With a busy touring schedule, it is wonderful that they could make time to share their love of music with us.
di Toro began with an interpretation of the '2nd Movement' of Ravel's Concerto in G and on cue Starace entered from the back of the audience, playing his soprano saxophone down the aisle, instantly giving the audience a taste of what was to come. The style was crisp, virtuosic and totally engaging. In this comfortable 12th century church, the duet's performance was spellbinding.
Two hours of non-stop music included improvisation, the use of multiphonics, extended techniques and even tongue slapping to finish one piece. The enjoyment of was palpable. With an overwhelming response, the audience closed their eyes, tapped their feet and nodded their heads. The imaginations of the jazz enthusiasts were left to wander and for one reviewer, the music was reminiscent of Golden Age cinema or perhaps car rides along the Mediterranean coast.
An accomplished composer as well as musician, Starace included his compositions: 'When Mountain meets the Moon' and 'Perseus and Andromeda', inspired by the Tizian work found hanging in The Wallace Collection. Entwined were his brief commentaries including references to De Niro's role in the screen movie The Untouchables, which was the inspiration for his work 'Trust and Betray'. Morricone also stands out as one of his influences. Their repertoire took the audience on a well-designed tour which included renditions of Children's Songs by Chick Corea and a stunning interpretation of 'Dexter's Tune' by Randy Newman for sax and piano.
The respect and commanding relationship between the two performers made the evening even more engaging. Starace would silently mime while moving to di Toro's piano solos and he had an almost acrobatic response to the enjoyment of their music making. It was Starace's intention, he told us at the beginning of the concert, to create the opportunity to temporarily leave the world's turmoil behind and take a journey to the countryside. We trusted them and went along for the most enjoyable and rewarding of musical adventures. Such a polite and genuine performer Starace asked 'May I?' before walking across the stage to climb the steps of the pulpit to perform the encore piece 'Mercy Mercy Mercy' by Joe Zawinul.
While our city is bathed in the rich colours of autumn, this duet brought the chemistry and teamwork that makes jazz an experience, not just a performance.