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Lisa Mezzacappa's 'Cosmicomics' Riffs On Italo Calvino's Scientific Surrealism


This is FRESH AIR. Bay Area bass player and composer Lisa Mezzacappa says she needs external stimulus to spark a new piece of music. Her sextet projects draw on literary sources, such as the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster. The band's new album was inspired by the scientific surrealism of the late Italian writer Italo Calvino. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: That's from "The Aquatic Uncle" on bassist Lisa Mezzacappa's album "Cosmicomics." It's a set of takeoffs on Italo Calvino stories of the same name, meditations and tall tales about the nature of space, time, the universe and evolution. In Calvino's "The Aquatic Uncle," a primordial fish refuses to crawl up on land like the rest of the family. In another Calvino story Mezzacappa riffs on, the moon orbits so low above the Earth you can hitch a ride from the top of a ladder. Mark Clifford's vibes bring out that up-close lunar light on "The Distance Of The Moon."


WHITEHEAD: The Mezzacappa Six's hot sauce and secret weapon is laptop wizard and gizmo designer Tim Perkis, who adds fizzy weirdness around the edges. He stands in for the narrator of Calvino's "Cosmicomics," an eternal being who resides on Earth but stands apart, having been around since before the Big Bang. Perkis' metallic percussive twiddles blend with vibes, John Finkbeiner's spiky guitar and drummer Jordan Glenn's cymbals. In another Calvino story, the low orbiting moon drips on the Earth like a cheap candle. Tim Perkis adds the Jackson Pollock splatter to Lisa Mezzacappa's "The Soft Moon."


WHITEHEAD: "Cosmicomics" is a music of large and small gestures, and sometimes the Mezzacappa Six plays styles like jazz rock and free jazz with quotation marks around them, as if at a slight remove. That fits in with Calvino's ageless narrator, who's in our world but not quite of it, who might ponder huge upheavals from the backseat of a speeding Volkswagen. The corresponding music's whimsy can get Frank Zappa-esque in a good way.


WHITEHEAD: Italo Calvino's parables plant ideas in your head, tweak your worldview. Lisa Mezzacappa doesn't adapt his tales literally but runs with his concepts. One Calvino story connects the sea that nurtured our one-cell ancestors to the salty blood that courses through our veins, as if evolution had gradually turned us inside out or outside in. One part of Mezzacappa's composition "Blood, Sea" conveys the swimming motion of that sea within us. Aaron Bennett is on tenor saxophone.


WHITEHEAD: Writer Italo Calvino's "Cosmicomics" are awash in dream imagery and dream logic, which have inspired artists since they were telling stories in caves. In Calvino's fable about the Big Bang, to imagine a universe is to create it. That's a good metaphor for fiction writing or composing music. Lisa Mezzacappa practices a parallel alchemy in which Calvino's incantations give rise to slippery music with its own light-touch humor, sounds curving through time and space.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "Cosmicomics," the new album by the Lisa Mezzacappa Sextet. Kevin has a new book; it's "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Terry will talk with Stephen King about living in a world that feels like a Stephen King novel. About 40 years ago, he wrote about a viral pandemic in his novel "The Stand." His new book, "If It Bleeds," is a collection of stories. The main character of the title story is Holly Gibney, who's appeared in several King novels, including "The Outsider," which was adapted into a recent HBO series. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Some other spring, I'll try to love. Now I still cling to faded blossoms. Fresh when worn, left crushed and torn, like the love affair I mourn. Some other spring, when twilight falls, will the night spring another to me? Not your kind, but let me find it's not true that love is blind. Sun shines around me, but deep in my heart, it's cold as ice. Love, once you found me, but can that story unfold twice? Some other spring, will my heart wake, stirring to sing love's magic music, then forget the old duet and love in some other spring? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.