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Gassmann blues, Piero Umiliani’s music for I soliti ignoti by Monicelli

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[Monday Notes n.153] For the soundtrack of the film I soliti ignoti the director Mario Monicelli chose a young Florentine musician named Piero Umiliani. Monicelli wanted a completely jazzy soundtrack, an unusual choice at the time. Let us analyse the main theme entitled Gassmann Blues.

The use of jazz in film music was a novelty in Europe. The same year, French director Louis Malle invited Miles Davis into the recording studio to perform the soundtrack of Ascenseur pour l'échafaud live, while the film's images were playing.

The main theme written by Piero Umiliani for Monicelli's film is entitled Gasmann Blues and has the typical form of a 12-measure blues, a blues in a minor mode.

The main theme of Gassmann blues, by Piero Umiliani
The main theme of Gassmann blues, by Piero Umiliani

To separate the classic 12-bars sections of the blues, Umiliani inserts an 8-measure episode. This simple riff is very interesting because it breaks the normal flow of the blues, making the music more fragmented and suspended, and therefore perfect for commenting on the scenes of the film.

In these eight measures we also recognise an interesting rhythmic solution: the motif has a duration of three measures and is superimposed on the 4/4 time, creating a polyrhythmic effect. In the score below the three-measure phrase is highlighted, it is repeated three times.

Gassmann blues, polythythmic effect
Gassmann blues, polythythmic effect

In the reprise, the main theme of Gassmann Blues is harmonized instead, here is the transcription of the double melodic line.

Gassmann blues, harmonized theme
Gassmann blues, harmonized theme

Piero Umiliani proves in this piece that he is an excellent jazz musician and that he knows the subtleties of the American repertoire. Moreover, he uses the instruments with great skill. During the piece we often hear more rarefied areas, such as at minute 1'30'' where the drums and double bass are left alone.

In the second part of the piece we also hear the vibraphone, and in some moments a touch of collective improvisation that almost recalls certain sounds of Charles Mingus's orchestra. At minute 2'30'' the piece modulates to the major mode, definitely more suitable to comment on the comedy of the scenes of the film.

The cover of the score of "I soliti Ignoti"
The cover of the score of "I soliti Ignoti"

Jazz music and improvisation were well suited to these great actors. It is well known, for example, that Totò often improvised in his films. Even under the direction of a maestro like Mario Monicelli, exceptional actors like Vittorio Gasmann and Marcello Mastroianni had to be allowed a certain amount of freedom. Just like in jazz music, where even in an orchestra the soloist can always improvise during his solo.

The first encounter between jazz music and Italian comedy was therefore a success. Gassmann blues and the other songs written by Piero Umiliani for I soliti ignoti enhanced Mario Monicelli's direction and the acting of Totò, Gassmann and Mastroianni. Each in their own way, these great performers certainly "have swing", just like the best jazz musicians.

Download the score of Gassmann blues by Piero Umiliani

Download the sheet music

The official website of Piero Umiliani: http://www.umiliani.com/

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