The opening solo performance of Ramberto Ciammarughi's three-night stint at Spoleto Festival USA was absolutely brilliant. The Italian pianist performed during last year's Spoleto Jazz series with jazz sax player Stefano "Cocco" Cantini's combo. This year, his dynamic 75-minute performance ventured far beyond breezy Mediterranean be-bop. The Recital Hall at the Simons Center was nearly packed for the 5 p.m. set.
Soft-spoken and deliberate, Ciammarughi addressed the audience from his piano at the top of the set, explaining the theme of the concert. "This is a journey through cinema," he said. "One that comes from memories of music and motifs ... some of the famous melodies." I call them small suites ... a tribute to the silent films, the anonymous composers, and the whole art of cinema."
He added that he preferred for the audience to refrain from any applause until the end of the program. "I want to do the experiment, then, at the very end, you can if you want to," he added with slight chuckle. "Let's begin ... at the beginning."
With no sheet music or charts, Ciammarughi kicked off with a montage of melodies from classic silent films. He must have practiced and performed some of the numerous themes and melodies many times before — they seemed completely natural to him, but even more impressive was the dynamic way in which he improvised the texture of the transitions.
While lauded in Europe for his original classical and jazz compositions, Ciammarughi's fluid improvisational talents were on full display here. He looked deeply focused and absorbed as he concentrated on each suite, building intensity in swells of wild flourishes and decrescendos along the way. Somehow, the music never lumbered or felt directionless — forceful, but never forced.
His technique was astounding, with both hands equally strong and agile. At times it looked like he was playing as if his index fingers were mallets, crossing arms with one hand while "rolling" on two or three notes with the other. Sometimes it sounded like two classical pianists were jamming with a jazz cat simultaneously.
Ciammarughi paid homage to several modern American composers. He touched on themes from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, carefully twisting melodies from "Maria" and "America" into something new. His suite touching on some of the early Disney film soundtracks was elegantly morose (there may have been a hint of "My Favorite Things" in there, too). The upbeat set of John Williams themes — from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Indiana Jones — was as close as the pianist came to mainstream chamber-pop.
The most exciting and passionate moments came when he delved into music by the Italian composers Ennio Morricone, known for scoring classic Westerns and dramas, and Nino Rota, known for his work on Fellini films and Coppola's Godfather trilogy. During the Morricone suite, Ciammarughi's switched from a ferociously percussive style into more graceful and flowing rhythmic figures, punctuating things with an occasional thump on a low key, or an amazingly fast run from the highest keys all the way down the board, resembling a full glissando. With the dampers off (and the overtones ringing out), his most complicated flourishes made his piano sound more like a harp or a vibraphone. His closing set took familiar themes from Rota's music in La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and 8 1/2 and wrapped them into a mesmerizing tangle of harmony, dissonance, and nearly-insane accelerando.
Performing solo sets for an attentive audience can be challenging for any master player. To improvise from a vast collection of complicated melodic and harmonic material — and one's own mood and memory — is simply amazing. Ciammarughi's creative set list, dexterity, passion, and unpretentiously powerful style will surely be remembered as a terrific highlight of this year's Spoleto Jazz program. —T. Ballard Lesemann