Recording of August 2021: Irene of Boston

Francesco Cafiso: Irene of Boston
Cafiso, alto saxophone; London Symphony Orchestra; four others
EFLAT EF0003 (CD, available as download, LP). 2020. EFLAT, prod.; Riccardo Piparo, Mat Bartram, Francesco Lupi, Roberto Romano, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The first time I heard Francesco Cafiso, I thought I was hallucinating. It was 2005. I had flown to Australia from Seattle to cover the Melbourne Jazz Festival. Cafiso appeared the first night. He was 15. He played the most outrageous bebop I had ever heard outside of Charlie Parker records. I thought I was delusional from jet lag.

I wasn't. Cafiso was one of the most extraordinary prodigies in jazz history. He gigged with the best jazz musicians in his native Sicily when he was 9, began making records when he was 12, and toured Europe with Wynton Marsalis when he was 14.

By 15, his chops were ridiculous, and his alto saxophone sound was celestial.

Cafiso's renown spread throughout Europe in his teenage years, but eventually critics began to worry about his conservatism. He played bebop of mind-boggling brilliance. But he played bebop only.

Around 2011, he dropped off the radar. For three years, he essentially withdrew from performing and recording. When he came back, he had done something few prodigies do: reinvented himself.

Cafiso had never been known as a composer. Now he played his own tunes exclusively, many inspired by the uproarious energy of Sicilian marching bands. In his role of improvising soloist, there were also shocking new developments. He had replaced his Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone with a Selmer Reference 54, which gave him a harder sound, closer to a tenor. He had transformed his natural lyricism into something free, wild, and raw.

The new Cafiso was introduced on a three-CD set, 3, on the Artist First label, in 2015. That album contains 29 new compositions performed by three ensembles, one of which is the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). 3 is an underground classic, one of the major achievements of new-millennium jazz. In 2018, he released a nonet project, We Play for Tips, on his own EFLAT label. It reveals his continuing growth as a composer/arranger and further documents his mature identity as a soloist of incendiary virtuosity.

Now there is Irene of Boston. The title comes from the name of a 100-year-old sailing ship that crossed the seas of the world and ended up shipwrecked on a beach in Sicily in 2014. In Cafiso's imagination, the ship becomes a metaphor for a journey "embracing the wind that always pushes us to go 'a little further.'" To bring his story to life, he again relies on the LSO, plus an international rhythm section (pianist Mauro Schiavone; bassist Eric Wheeler; drummer Marcus Gilmore; percussionist Alex Acuña).

The 10-part suite begins quietly, as in a dream. The motifs of "Bouche Dorée—Apparition" coalesce from the orchestra's stirrings. The wind is just beginning to rustle the sails. By the second track, "Far Flow," the ship is powering through the waves on the seething energy of Gilmore and Acuña. The spiritual aspiration of the journey is depicted in rapt pieces like "Corto Maltese" and the title track, where yearning melodies unfold and evolve toward fulfillment.

For a latecomer to composing and arranging, Cafiso manages the details of his large ensemble skillfully. (At 32, he is a "latecomer" because he has been a professional musician for 20 years.) From five stringed instruments of the LSO, plus its brass and woodwind sections, he derives subtly shifting colors and deep textures. In the sonorities of cello, oboe, and bassoon, motivic development is intriguing even when (or especially when) barely whispered. Some pieces, such as "Seasons of a Dream" and "Fluid Remembrance," feature haunting recurring melodies but no solos.

Cafiso's solos, when they come, are shattering. Perhaps only someone with his vast technique and his grounding from childhood in song forms could break through to such discoveries of jagged lyricism. His solos are deliverances to which the story builds and builds again.

Irene of Boston was recorded by three engineers in three studios. The musicians were never together in one place. But mixing engineer Riccardo Piparo integrated and balanced the disparate elements: a large ensemble; a single instrumentalist; a powerhouse rhythm section; delicate orchestral nuances; ass-kicking dynamic range.

Francesco Cafiso is probably the most important European musician who has remained largely undiscovered by the American jazz community. You can find the music at all the major digital platforms.—Thomas Conrad

JoeE SP9's picture

I've been a fan since hearing Happy Time (I bought it). He was 17 then. Thanks for the tip on this issue.

granosalis's picture


Lazer's picture

I’ve been trying to find a source that has this album on vinyl. So far my attempts have been fruitless. Can anyone provide a link or source that sells this album on vinyl?