By JIM FUSILLIAs a child in Naples, Italy, guitarist Marco Cappelli had little exposure to American surf music—the instrumental guitar-centric dance sound of the early 1960s popularized by the likes of Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, Link Wray and the Ventures featuring Bob Bogle. But, like many of his countrymen, he heard the twangy surf guitar featured in the film music of Luis Bacalov, Ennio Morricone, Carlo Rustichelli and Piero Umiliani, composers who scored Italian spaghetti westerns, gangster flicks and comedies.
The group's new album, "The American Dream" (Mode), features improvisations on themes by the aforementioned composers delivered with a sensibility found in some of the work of Nels Cline, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, among others associated with New York's downtown avant-garde jazz scene. It's a fascinating exploration of engaging music. "Django" stays true to the melody and atmosphere of Mr. Bacalov's theme to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film of the same name, but the trio allows it to crumble amid a flurry of independent soloing. After a sudden stop, the musicians resume the theme. Then Mr. Cappelli begins a rubbery reggae rhythm and his mates join in. All the while, the twangy surf guitar remains at the forefront courtesy of Mr. Cappelli's Gretsch guitar.
That surf sound may have influenced Mr. Cappelli in subtle ways. While studying at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia of Rome, his teacher was Bruno Battista D'Amario, a guitarist often featured in Mr. Morricone's scores. Many musicians who worked in the Italian film industry at the time came from classical backgrounds—at Santa Cecilia, Mr. Morricone studied under Goffredo Petrassi, who developed an Italian stream of modern classical music. "In the '60s and '70s," Mr. Cappelli said, "if a musician wanted to make money in Rome, you had to be involved in the film industry."
The composers' sophistication is apparent, he added. "Even if the themes are easy listening in a way, if you study the melodic line, you see they were really well done. It's not easy music."
In the late '90s, as he began to delve into avant-garde jazz, Mr. Cappelli became enraptured with John Zorn's "Book of Heads," which featured Mr. Ribot playing 35 études for solo guitar. Messrs. Ribot and Cappelli formed a friendship; after Mr. Cappelli moved to New York to be closer to musicians with a shared sensibility, Mr. Ribot encouraged him to explore American surf music. "The repertoire was in my background," Mr. Cappelli said. "The challenge was to mix my improvisational approach with this kind of stuff."The Italian Surf Academy came together while Mr. Cappelli was teaching a master class in Palermo. The trio had been jamming on '60s-style Italian film compositions, but an invitation to perform in New York gave them a chance to try them out in front of an audience. From the beginning, he said, music fans have responded well to their approach. Even when the music is most threatening—those spaghetti westerns often required themes that supported acts of unbridled violence—the melodies conveyed on electric guitar have a giggly élan, as if they're winking at the listener.
"It's a pleasure to improvise with this music. If you approach it from a free improvisational point of view, you get the audience with you. You can play all the crazy stuff you want and they will be with you. Sometimes we stay in a tonal environment, sometimes we go far off."The Italian Surf Academy's "definition of surf is a little extended," Mr. Cappelli said. Mr. Cusa kicks off "Tiffany Sequence" with a New Orleans-style second-line pattern, while "Cinque Bambole" has a straight Ventures-style feel until Mr. Cappelli makes eerie sounds when the rhythm section drops out; after some curious meandering, order is restored. As for "Blood and Black Lace," from the jump it gets the ominous treatment the title demands and grows darker as Mr. Cappelli adds delay and echo to his squeals.
"There is something about the electric-guitar identity that comes from this sound environment," he said of surf music. "You have to master that kind of sound if you want to play." The Italian take on it, he added, is perfect for improvisational music. "It gives you someplace to come from and someplace to go to."
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.
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