In an interview last week, soprano saxophonist and bandleader Stefano “Cocco” Cantini emphasized his dedication to working with melodies and themes. During Sunday night’s gentle performance at the Cistern, he demonstrated a firm grasp of melody at every turn.

Cantini wasn’t the focal point of the performance, however. Backed by his current combo — a highly talented trio comprised of drummer Roberto Gatto, upright bassist Paolino dalla Porta, and master pianist Ramberto Ciammarughi — the saxophonist was more like a ringleader than a recognizable frontman. There was certainly nothing flashy or fake about any of it, fortunately, but his overtly mild manner was a bit surprising.

Ciammarughi’s amazing technique and fiery playing style stood out as the main highlight of the evening. Known in Italy and Europe as an exceptional pianist, composer, and improvisor, Ciammarughi spent time working with a variety of jazz artists, including bassist Miroslav Vitous and many of the northern Italian musicians on the festival circuit. His experiences with classical concert music must have added to his terrific chops. As an accompanist, his piano sounded full and warm. As a soloist, it sizzled. At one point, his solo ran the length of the keyboard, scaling in triplet phrases from the right side to left, until he literally ran out of low notes to press.

Following another solid introduction from Wachovia Jazz producer/director Michael Grofsorean, the band rolled through the first few numbers at a cool pace, swaying within melodic conversations — sometimes long-winded — between Ciammarughi’s grand piano and Cantini’s soprano sax. The pianist shifted from straight beats to polymetric phrases effortlessly, while the saxophonist trilled and ran on shorter, more Coltranian phrases that jumped from low tones to sustained notes in the upper register.

Gatto’s fluid playing style on the drum kit pushed things along at a careful pace. His peppery stickwork across the cymbals guided most of the dynamic twists. Initially, it sounded like he had a light touch, but his subtle fills, rolls, and accents greatly enhanced the groove and color of every piece. It’s far more difficult to play softly than to bash away at this type of instrumental jazz, so his technique and feel — by way of sticks, brushes, and his bare hands — were quite impressive.

Three songs in, a bass solo in 6/8 time from Paolino dalla Porta earned a loud round of applause from the audience. Every musician on stage had taken their turn by this point, and the Cistern crowd was plugged into it for sure.

“Thank you,” Cantini announced to the audience in a shy, raspy voice. “My English finish … sorry!” The line got a warm laugh. “Where I live, there is no much … there are few people … and many animals.” Cantini’s voice may have sounded hoarse, but the tone of his sax was clean and smooth — maybe too smooth. Within the flow of melodies and rhythms of his backing band, even Cantini’s wildest flourishes and solos sounded a bit tame.

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