By ProgBlog, Apr 9 2017 09:47PM
It’s just after 8.30 pm on Friday 31st March and the taxi driver is suggesting that I’ve given him the wrong address. He’s driven me somewhere well outside the centre of Milan (a taxi was much quicker than public transport) and I have to assure him that there really is a gig at the night club he’s just pulled up outside, Milan’s Legend 54.
It’s a slightly strange looking venue from the kerbside, with an array of pop-up food stalls and not much else, though there was music blaring from one stall. The woman at the cash bar stand informed me that tickets for the Z-Fest could be bought ‘inside’ only I had no idea how to get inside. It was obvious I had arrived at the right place because the improvised musical equipment storage rooms, made of the sort of tents that fit onto motor vehicles, contained not just the odd drum kit but also the organiser and bassist with the headline act, Fabio Zuffanti. By the time I’d circumnavigated the building a queue had formed at the entrance: €8 for three bands and three hours of quality music.
Going back a couple of months following an awful day at work in Whitechapel, I arrived home to search the internet for a weekend break. Realistically, I couldn’t have gone away the next weekend, so I calmed down and checked to see if there was anything prog-related coming up in the next few weeks that I could include in a short city break with my wife. Milan, 31st March to 2nd April, coinciding with the Zuffanti-organised Z-Fest and, with cheap flights at good times and a four star hotel with cheap rooms, was something I couldn’t resist.
Jumping forward again to last weekend, we ate an early evening meal overlooking the duomo from the terrace of the Obicà Mozzarella restaurant at the top of the Rinascente before making our way to a guided tour of Leonardo’s The Last Supper (in the former refectory of the convent attached to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie) – an exceptionally pleasing attraction made all the better by our knowledgeable and irrepressible local guide. I escorted my wife back to our hotel before getting in the taxi...
When the gig was originally announced, the line-up included Cellar Noise, Christadoro, and Finisterre. The promo video for the 2017 Cellar Noise debut album Alight, an album produced by Zuffanti, was very promising and rather than import a copy, I had already decided to buy the CD (or LP, if available) at the show. The Christadoro album, another 2017 release, featured well-known Italian songs given a progressive rock makeover, not unlike the way Yes treated Simon and Garfunkel’s America. Fabio Zuffanti was involved with the concept and played bass with the band. I’d already bought the album on vinyl before reading the group were on the bill but later Facebook posts suggested they wouldn’t appear and that they had been replaced by experimental jazz-prog quintet Zaal. The Zaal connection with Zuffanti was via keyboard player Agostino Macor, an integral member of Maschera di Cera and other Zuffanti projects, though I’d never heard any music by them, unlike headliners Finisterre, as I own all their studio releases.
The evening conformed to what I’d come to expect from an Italian prog festival; it was running slightly late, there were interviews with luminaries including Stefano Agnini and Mox Christadoro during set changes, and the music was incredible. The club was pretty full and for almost all of the Cellar Noise performance I found myself standing next to drummer Paolo Tixi (Fabio Zuffanti’s Z-Band, Il Tempio delle Clessidre.) Cellar Noise were very, very good. Their live sound is heavier than on record but they played symphonic prog of the highest order, despite a couple of early technical hitches, taking us through their entire debut album and even appending a quotation from Höstsonaten’s Rainsuite to the track Monument, a nice gesture to Zuffanti, before delivering a magnificent encore of The Knife. It’s hardly surprising then, that Niccolò Gallani should come out with some Tony Banks-like synthesizer runs during their original material, or that Alessandro Palmisano should don a mask, and his between-song explanations could have been Peter Gabriel stories, especially as Alight is linked to the back cover story on Genesis Live via the London Underground. The Gabriel flute solo was covered by keyboard, with Palmisano sitting on the stage, miming the action of a flautist. Together with brothers Loris and Eric Bersan (bass and drums respectively) and guitarist Francesco Lovari, based on their excellent first album and the transfer to a live performance, there’s a bright future for this quintet.
Zaal played some challenging music and I suspect that since the original album La lama sottile, described on progarchives.com as a ‘delicately colourful type of progressive-oriented jazz-rock, highly melodic and yet mysterious’.they have become a little more hard-core, featuring some nice electric piano with a hefty dose of electronica. I have an enduring vision of Macor reaching over his Roland to a sequencer, the keyboard player forever moving, never staying still. I was reminded of circa Third Soft Machine with sax provided by Francesco Mascardi and trumpet by Mario Martini (El Trompeta), powered by the driving rhythms of Pietro Martinelli on bass and Andrea Orlando on drums (who would subsequently also play alongside Macor again for the Finisterre set); though at times they played some mesmerising jazzy space-rock grooves. I’ll be checking out their two albums on Mellow Records.
Finisterre have undergone many personnel changes over 25 years, behaving more like a musical collective than a band, although Zuffanti, Stefano Marelli (guitars) and Boris Valle (keyboards) remain core members. Tonight they were joined by Macor (who has a long history with the band) and Orlando, and the music was again heavier than on the albums. Tracks segued into each other so I found it a bit hard to follow but the musical trickery and alchemy between the members was remarkable. During an interview at Prog Résiste in 2014, Zuffanti dismissed his bass guitar skills, suggesting he was the least accomplished musician in his band (the Z-Band.) Up close, his work rate and dexterity reveal he was being too modest; his song-writing and his ability to pick amazing colleagues for his projects was never in any doubt.
The whole evening went very smoothly and it was amazing to witness such prodigious talent squeezed into 3 hours of performance, ranging from classic symphonic Italian prog to radical jazz-prog. I can’t wait to see next year’s line-up.
I got back to my hotel room in the early hours of the next morning, having failed to understand the message on a taxi firm answerphone and making my way across Milan by late-running public transport and a taxi from the Piazza del Duomo, but I didn’t get much sleep because we had to catch the 09:25 train to Como. The purpose of this day out was to assess the suitability of the lakes as a base for a longer family holiday, and Como. Only 47 minutes from Milano Central, seemed like a good place to start.
We were both suitably impressed by the architecture and the scenery but, I was once again amazed by the presence of really good record stores – every town we visit in Italy has somewhere that sells CDs and vinyl. First up was Frigerio Dischi on Via Garibaldi, before we’d seen anything of Como, where I spent some quality time going through the comprehensive Italiano section, picking out two CDs by Alphataurus (Attosecondo and Live in Bloom), a couple by Area (Maledetti and Event ’76, inspired by my attendance at Event ’16 in Genoa last October), Clowns by Nuovo Idea, La Via Della Seta by Le Orme, and PFM’s first album Storia di un Minuto on vinyl.
I could probably have bought more but travelling on Easyjet, with their cabin luggage restrictions, made me a bit wary. After an early lunch, sitting between the duomo and the rationalist Terragni Palace (the latter a modernist masterpiece, unfortunately once used as the Fascist Party headquarters but now the base for the Guardia di Finanza) we walked towards the waterfront and had to stop in Alta Fedità to browse through the vinyl, though Susan wasn’t at all impressed by the cover version of a Dead Kennedys song being played... The shop contained some rarities and some cheap, second-hand records, but there was nothing really which caught my eye, apart from a Support Your Local Record Store T-shirt.
We flew back on the Sunday, but not after a deviation for an architectural masterpiece (Torre Velasca) and a rummage through the extensive CD and vinyl in the branch of Feltrinelli in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II; I emerged with a copy of Il Rovescio della Medaglia’s English language version of Contaminazione, (Contamination) on vinyl.
The break was successful. Getting away from work had been a high priority, but combined with the opportunity to see some amazing music made it especially worthwhile.
It’s becoming ever more evident to me that the north west of Italy, Genoa and Milan, is the crucible of much of modern progressivo Italiano. My love affair with Italian music, architecture and scenery continues. I’ll be back