Horn and Wind Maestro Mike Rossi’s latest ‘Root & Routes’ album: A Cultural Journey in Sound

The Mike Rossi Project has already produced three gem albums that highlight the enticing journeys of American-born, South Africa-adopted, and now Italian-nationalised Mike Rossi through various musical turfs in his teaching and performance career. This wind and horn Master has cast a spell on the jazz idiom wherever he goes, thanks to a love affair with the Italian hand-made Rampone & Cazzani Saxophones – the R1 Soprano, R1 Jazz Saxello, R1 Jazz Altello, R1 Jazz Alto and R1 Jazz Tenor on which he performs regularly. And there’s always the Flute!

Mike Rossi

His recent fourth album of the Project, ‘Roots and Routes’, contains 12 delightfully engaging songs which were inspired by his professional work (including performance and teaching) in some parts of Africa, Japan, Brazil, Europe and the USA.

Saddled with a Doctorate from the Boston-based New England Conservatory of Music, young Rossi made his way to Durban to join the music faculty at University of KwaZulu Natal, then migrated to the University of Cape Town’s School of Music, Jazz Studies, and developed an innovative exchange program between an Italian program and South African students at UCT. Blessed with Italian naturalised citizenship due to family heritage and his wide contributions promoting Jazz Education internationally and for 30 years within South Africa, Rossi and his family have now made a permanent home in Italy.

Let’s see how the journey goes…… Influences and legendary touches are key. The album firstly honours the late great South African pianist Bheki Mseleku, a giant of South African Jazz in linking traditional and contemporary styles, in ‘Bheki Music Matters’, the opening song. “The melody is diatonic throughout with a mix of on and off beat rhythms and travels through four Major key centers (concert C, Eb, Gb, A) each lasting 16-bars each. The solo section gives everyone a chance to exchange ideas and features”, Rossi writes on his Facebook page. Then, Rossi’s dancing flute offers a ‘Mantra for Mandela’, then jumps to Cape Town in ‘Cape Town Jump’ with sounds of the early Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath in classic mbaqanga swing with careful syncs of the horns and Darren English’s trumpet solos.

After these first three danceable songs in South African style, American influences emerge through a tribute to Wayne Shorter, with Rossi’s clarinet emphasising the uniqueness for Shorter’s incandescent saxophone style. Sadly, Shorter passed away a few weeks ago. So far, the jazz styles go from swing, bebop, mbaqanga, kwela to ghoema, all expertly delivered by the Project’s six-piece band named below. Mike Campbell’s walking bass, Blake Hellaby’s abilities to swing in multiple styles, and drummer Kevin Gibson’s steady beats.

Blake Hellaby

Then on to Japan. ‘Bokke Boogie Japan’ in bebop time pays homage to South Africa’s national Rugby team World Cup win there in 2019. A carefully written and descriptive narrative about each song in the album folder guides the listener to understand dips, rhythms, styles, and musical ecologies of Rossi’s journey. “This piece uses a standard 4-bar harmonic cycle commonly found in 1950-60s South African. It makes reference to the magical period of South African jazz from 1950s and 1960s, and to the Big Bands of the Swing Era.” ‘Cookin in Kanazawa’ talks about Rossi’s fun at the Kanazawa Jazz Clinic and Kanazawa Jazz Street Festival with some throwback connections with Dixieland/New Orleans boogie beats. A fun piece with Rossi’s clarinet and Campbell’s walking bass.

Playful and soulful tributes to extended family of Italian roots took hold during visits to a small village of Alanno in Abruzzo where Rossi’s grandfather Giacomo Sansonetti was born in 1899, and to his mother Janet Sansonetti Rossi and the warm people of Abruzzo. Then, onto a short solo tenor sax operetta style improvisation in ‘Buon Giorno Le Marche’.

This is truly a journey with Rossi mixing his various instruments appropriately with the moods called for. Back to South African influences, ‘So So’ references the musical style of the late great Capetown saxophonist Ezra Ngcukana, and the bass line and form of the Jazz classic ‘So What?’ by Miles Davis. An interesting, cocky ‘so what’results as Rossi’s baritone sax duos with Blake Hellaby’s excellent piano interpretations. True artistry.

Darius Brubeck

The remaining two songs on the album are stunning tributes to friend and mentor Darius Brubeck, who introduced the first Jazz Studies degree program in Africa in 1983 at UKZN. ‘For Darius’ was composed when Brubeck was seriously ill with the Covid, in an induced coma for 3 weeks battling the virus! Brubeck’s composition closes this fine story of Rossi’s dizzy round-about jazz tourney through 5 continents with Brubeck’s own composition ‘The Lion at the Bar’….. which is a whole ‘nother’ story!

The Mike Rossi Project is a six-piece jazz ensemble created in 2012. Since then, it has produced three CDs totaling twenty-six original compositions to date, along with select standards, use of mixed media and orchestral settings for saxophone. Most of the original works have been published internationally by Advance Music/Schott Music, Germany. The albums are:
Trespassing Permitted (2013)
The Mike Rossi Project: Take Another Five (2015)
The Mike Rossi Project: Journey (2018)

L-R: Kevin Gibson, Mike Campbell, Mike Rossi, Blake Hellaby at Sunset Recording Studios

Musicians on ‘Roots & Routes” are:
Blake Hellaby – piano, synth
Mike Campbell – electric bass,
Kevin Gibson – drums,
William Haubrich – trombone,
Darren English – trumpet & flugelhorn,
Lilavan Gangen – percussion.
Mike Rossi – piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano, alto, altello, tenor, baritone saxophones, composer and arranger.

MRP 6 For more information visit: Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@themikerossiproject Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michaelrossijazz Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/michaelrossijazz/ Website: https://www.mikerossijazz.com/ HearNow: https://themikerossiproject.hearnow.com/

Carol Martin
Author: Carol Martin

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