Perfect Partners...David Coulter made his musical saw tingle the spine... Movie scores are usually supposed to complement the action, but the late Nino Rota's could take on the role of an extra character. That was the quality in Rota that producer Hal Willner pursued when he asked a group of American jazz musicians - including then unknowns Bill Frisell and the Marsalis brothers - to reappraise the composer's work for the Amarcord Nino Rota album in 1980. Willner put the show back on the road with an old and new cast for the Barbican's Only Connect series on Saturday.
Prominent among the original contributors was Carla Bley, one of the great jazz composers of the past 40 years, who was back as a driving force in the remake. It was her mix of carefree swing, fairground themes, disruptive time-signature changes and spaces for raw improv that was the finale and the high point of a first half devoted to Rota's early works for Federico Fellini. That sequence had also seen pianist Geri Allen shift imperiously between tango and swing on Amarcord; a big band, directed by Michael Gibbs, unleash a blazing sunrise of sound (with Gary Valente, a trombone player loud enough to be heard on Neptune) on an arrangement of The Glass Mountain; Van Morrison oboeist Kate St John's take on I Vitelloni turn from bitter-sweet lyricism into acoustic-guitar swing; and Roger Eno's Casanova interpretation suitably exploit overripe harmonies and Beth Orton's fragile voice. Among many impassioned instrumental marriages, Steve Beresford's placing of a Hawaiian guitar against blaring brass also shone a fresh light on Rota's lovely melody for Il Bidone.
Trombonist Valente, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, trumpeter Guy Barker and Allen were the mainstays of the jazz soloing, with Valente's grainy, multiphonic bravura, Sheppard's breathy sound and Barker's technical power and obvious empathy with movie-score interpretation constantly igniting the materials. Valente unnervingly caught the sombre and the bellicose for Karen Mantler's menacing-waltz arrangement of The Godfather theme, Marianne Faithfull swept on (to a rapturous star-greeting) for a few seconds to sing the Dolce Vita theme against arranger Roy Nathanson's swooping alto sax, and the piece developed into a New Orleans jam that had Barker and Valente whooping gleefully at each other. Pere Ubu founder David Thomas and the Two Pale Boys played a terrifying, raw-noise deconstructivist interpretation of Satyricon; David Coulter made his musical saw tingle the spine on a lyrical treatment of Hurricane; and Sheppard and Barker (the latter, occasionally a slightly mannered performer, was the absolute rock of the enterprise) closed the show with Allen on the luxuriously whispered melancholia of La Strada.