Able was
I ere
I saw Elba.

 


This mysterious Napoleonic palindrome rattles around my head as I gaze out from the terrace over looking the harbour of Portoferraio. Jutting out into the bay is the castle where we will play our concert, and behind me is the Teatro di Vigilante, in which my new band GIZMO will be rehearsing for the next ten days. When Napoleon was first defeated and given this Mediterranean island in exchange for Europe, he noisily put down roots and engaged in public works, giving every impression that he intended to retire here. Secretly he was plotting his escape. He built this jewel of an opera theatre, in which Vittorio and I are plotting Gizmo.

It is a tiny dollhouse opera theatre in the classic horseshoe form, with about a hundred seats on the floor and three stories of ornate boxes around the rim. Our gear is nested on the stage. From my drums I can look straight through the theatre, out the front door, across the piazza and over the terrace to the bay, where fishing and pleasure craft are wafting past.

It’s just another fine mess that my friend Titti Santini has landed me in. Titti is the impresario who first brought me to Italy four years ago. He’s rare among southern Europeans for his brisk organization and rare among promoters for his zeal for unusual music. This time he has hired me some very slick musicians to create a new band called GIZMO.

The band has not all arrived at once, so Day One of rehearsals starts with just keyboards, guitar and me. In the absence of bass, percussion and vocals, the most logical place to start turns out to be the Klark Kent songs that I will be singing – which takes us straight to the most intriguing plot point of the project. I have almost never done this before. I conquered the world riding my drums, but as a singing guitarist at the front of the stage, I’m just about to open the first door, as a rank amateur.

Leaving aside that I forgot to bring my instrument (verry professional) the first challenge is that I have to walk up to the microphone with (borrowed) guitar loaded, in front of the crew, local promoter and some serious pro musicians; and sing. Showing them the parts and groove are easy – I’ve been playing guitar all my life – but approaching the mic is like walking up to the precipice and thoughtlessly leaping into the void.

So I start singing, and my dull baritone reverberates around the hall. In fact, it sounds magnificent! Every utterance into the mic sounds grand and important. It’s not a hard tune to carry, so pretty soon I’m channelling Elvis and putting full attitude into the song. I always suspected that the singing thing would be easy, and it is! Fun too. Problem is, my guitar chops have disappeared completely. Guitar, vocal, and vibe – I get two out of three. I can play the guitar and sing while staring at my fingers, or play the guitar and dance around without singing, or sing and dance around while pretending to play the guitar. Clearly the latter course is the only way forward. It’s odd that, after all these years, my big guitar hero moment is subsumed by the supremacy of the song. Like I tell all of the youngsters: everybody is working for the singer. Even when the guitarist is the singer.

Is my enthusiastic debut as cool as it feels, or does it suck? There is an absence of comment from band and crew. If it weren’t my band, this would have been a debut swan song. But it is my band, so even if it does suck, we’re doing it. It’s in the show. With practice, I’ll get better at it.

The next issue is the matter of the extra bass player. I have managed to entice my old friend, the legendary Armand Sabal Lecco, Prince of the Deep, to join me on this tour, but there are a few dates that he will have to miss, due to prior commitments. Fortunately there is an eager sub, by the name of Max Gazze, Prince of Italian Pop. From his ivory palazzo in Rome, Max has heard rumours of Gizmo and has instructed his agents and managers to offer his services. Although known mostly as the singer of a substantial string of hits, he’s actually a pretty slick bass player. He is excited to be “just the bass player” on this tour and go nowhere near the mic.
The plan is for Max to attend the last couple of days of rehearsal, once we have the material worked out, and then Armand will show him the parts.

But Max can’t wait. He bursts into the theatre on day one, having learned all the parts from the CD that I had sent to all the players. He is completely prepared, and with not only the bass parts. He can sing the guitar solos too. Since Armand hasn’t arrived yet, Max gets to work with a zeal that is infectious.

Then Armand arrives. After our exuberant African greeting with hugs and elaborate handshakes, I pull him aside and explain what’s up with the unexpected early arrival of the other bass player. Musicians can be touchy about these things. From the inky blackness that is Armand, there is a brilliant flash of his smile, fully six inches wide and three inches deep. Benignly, he draws his bass and plugs in. He hasn’t done any homework because he just Knows What To Play.

Max is unsinkable. Over dinner we are entertained by his quick-fire zany humour and for the rest of the week, he is into everything. He plugs earphones into his amp rig and learns his parts silently. Then he’s into the percussion, then some backing vocals (very careful to not step on Rais’ turf) then he’s fussing over the monitors, then the then the lights. With his restless energy, he’s into every possible thing that can advance the cause of Gizmo. A man after my own heart.

Our lead singer is Rais (aka Rino Della Volpe), who I met in Melpignano back at the Tarantula festival. He has an underground following that he built up with his ex band Almamegretta, singing and rapping in a strange Napolitan patois. With his big stage presence, he has just what it takes to stay in front of an aggressive band like Gizmo. Off-stage and in rehearsals, Rino is quiet and bookish but when he hits the stage, some kind of monster takes over and a strange exaggerated character emerges. He’s not just a singer singing the tune. He’s a story.

Vittorio Cosma, another Tarantula alumnus is our keyboard player and MD. As music director he has analysed all of the material, figured out the parts and form of each song, and is ready to direct the rehearsals for efficient assimilation by the players. Having written the material, I can now just play my drums while Vittorio runs the band.

Joining us on guitar is Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski from New York. Back home he has a solid life as a teacher at the Berkeley School of Music and has a raging fusion band on the side called the Headless Torsos. He happens to have just finished a M’shell Ndegeocelo tour, that has conveniently dropped him off here in Italy.

For a bit of extra rhythm, we have Mauro Refosco from Brazil on percussion and mallets. Mauro is so laid back with the Brazilian vibe that he makes the Italians look like Germans. You may wonder, considering the racket that I produce unassisted, why I would need more banging and clattering in the group. Guitarists usually grump about six-stringed competition, but in the world of groove, particularly in the hot zone, more is more.

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