Monday Notes

Piero Umiliani, Gassmann blues. Jazz meets Italian comedy

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Leggi in Italiano

[Monday Notes no. 153] For the soundtrack of the film I soliti ignoti Mario Monicelli chose a young Florentine musician named Piero Umiliani. Monicelli wanted a soundtrack that was completely jazzy, a very unusual choice for the time. Let us analyse the track entitled Gassmann Blues.

The use of jazz in film music was a novelty in Europe, we remember that in 1958 the French director Louis Malle wanted Miles Davis in the recording studio, to perform a live soundtrack for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud 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.

Il tema principale di Gassmann blues, di Piero Umiliani
Gassmann blues, by Piero Umiliani

To separate the classic strophes 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 the scenes and action 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, it is highlighted the three-measure phrase, which is repeated three times.

Gassmann blues, riff poliritmico
Gassmann blues, polyrhythmic riff

In the reprise, the main theme of Gassmann Blues is harmonised. Here is the transcription of the double melody line.

Gassmann blues, tema armonizzato
Gassmann blues, harmonized theme

Piero Umiliani shows in this piece that he is an excellent jazz musician and that he knows the subtleties of the American repertoire. Furthermore, 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 at certain moments a hint 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 humour of the film’s scenes.

lo spartito de 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 freedom. Just like in jazz music, where the soloist can always improvise freely during his solo.

The first encounter between jazz music and Italian comedy was therefore a successful one, 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 one in their own way, these great performers certainly have swing, just like the best jazz musicians.

Until next Monday!

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