Subjects for jazz tribute albums have exploded during the last two decades. Almost everything inventive improvisers get their hands on – from Joni Mitchell weepies to Sly Stone anthems – seem to become viable vehicles for group excursions. So don’t bother to raise an eyebrow at Bella Napoli (Capri), a quizzical collabo between New York’s most astute and agile bari player and the octogenarian actor best known as The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior. As they roam around the Canzone Napoletana songbook, their insightful dedication to variety and their animated playing makes this nod to Italian culture one of the more engaging “tribute” discs to come along in a while.
Music director Jeff Lederer can take a bow right at the top. His inspired design sense gives the program an enviable flow. Interspersing tracks featuring Chianese’s heartfelt tenor with instrumental romps led by Smulyan’s forthright horn, the action is focused and fluid. In the opening slot, the puckish “Funiculi Funicula” sets the tone for much of what’s to come. These familiar themes are tightly arranged, giving the players room to move while utilizing a bit of pop efficiency.
The band is culled from the circle of players that surround Matt Wilson, and a few of the pieces are infused with the drummer’s trademark whimsy. Their spin on “Tre Veglia e Sonno” starts tight and then lets a bit of deconstruction in the door – the looser it gets, the jazzier it feels. “O Saracino” doesn’t have that kind of wobble, but its élan comes across just as plainly, and with bassist Martin Wind driving the action, the band gives both Smulyan and Gary Versace (on accordion) plenty of oomph for inspired solos.
Chianese fits in nicely because his approach tilts towards the folky side. Like the disc’s other ballads, “O Sole Mio” is taken seriously, but nonchalance guides the vocal. As Smulyan’s basso lines weave in and out of Chianese’s plaint, the performance becomes more irresistible. There’s bravura to their bromance on this unique album, but its invitation is warm from start to finish.