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The Jazzy & Funky Sounds of Italian Film Music
Here are 10 movie composers not named Ennio Morricone who captured hip American sounds for Italian film audiences
Italian movie music is sometimes more famous than the films themselves. At least for me. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I often listen to soundtrack recordings without bothering to watch the movie.
That’s not always a good idea. And if the director is Fellini, Leone, De Sica, etc., even I give full attention to what’s happening on the screen. But for the musical examples shared below, you may want to exercise some discretion. More than a few of these movies would now require what are called trigger warnings—although in an earlier day I would simply have said they displayed questionable taste.
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My favorite period for Italian film music started sometime in the mid-1950s and continued into the late 1970s—and by the end of that era, almost anything could show up in an Italian film. And that was true of the music too, conveying a sense of freedom that provided much of its enduring appeal. There were few limits, except for the budget—but even this may have been a blessing in disguise, as these composers learned how to extract the widest range of sounds from the smallest number of instruments.
It was as if two conflicting worldviews collided in these soundtracks. On the one hand, these composers were extremely aware of trends in Hollywood scores and American popular music, and could draw on everything from West Coast jazz to inner-city funk in their own work. On the other hand, they had grown up surrounded by the rich tradition of Italian classical and operatic music, which had its own tools for enhancing drama and romance. The intersection of these powerful soundscapes created something new and fresh, unlike anything happening anywhere else in the world of pop culture.
Here I want to focus on the funky, soulful, and jazzy sounds of that period—and highlight 10 little-known composers who demonstrated extraordinary skill and flexibility in adapting the new vocabulary of American music for their own homegrown purposes.
The end result was something campy and compelling. The sounds superficially resembled urban song styles from the United States, but were a little less gritty, and accompanied by a kind of postmodernist playfulness that is still endearing so many years later. It’s easy to dismiss this music—all the more so because it frequently showed up in tawdry grindhouse films. But now that these kinds of soundtracks have all but disappeared from cinema, I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgic regret, and a desire to give some attention to the behind-the-scenes artisans who created this neglected body of work.
I am omitting two familiar names from this guide, because many music fans already know about them—Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. They have gained worldwide recognition for their work, and if you haven’t heard their scores, you should seek them out. But right now let’s turn our attention to those lesser-known musicians who demonstrated so much creativity in the Italian cinema world of the 1960s and 1970s, even when working at a frenetic pace to meet deadline after deadline. You might not be familiar with any of the names below, unless you are a Tarantino-esque movie buff. But they gave us some of the most enjoyable film music you will ever hear.
Stelvio Cipriani (1937-2018)
Cipriani started out as a church organist, learning under the instruction of a parish priest—but you won’t hear much of that influence in his mature work. As a teenager Cipriani worked as a musician on cruise ships, a vocation that led to an early encounter with Dave Brubeck. He made a specialty of writing for crime films and westerns. Here’s a finger-snapping groove track from his soundtrack for Mark il Poliziotto (Mark of the Cop) from 1975.
Nino Oliviero (1918-1980)
If you know the name, it’s probably because of one song—“More,” a Oscar-nominated song from the 1962 film Mondo Cane, which became a radio hit and got a Grammy for best instrumental in 1964. That track sounds too much like elevator music for my tastes, but Oliviero was also skilled at adapting jazzy sounds for Italian films—as for example in “I Sadici” or the aptly-named “Sexy Trumpet.” I can hear the influence of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Shorty Rogers here, along with a deep dose of Henry Mancini, that Italian-American who served as a role model for so many Italian soundtrack composers. Oliviero’s score the 1965 film Run for Your Wife, about an Italian man who comes to New York and hatches plans to find a wealthy wife, gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of the stylish American movie sounds of the era.
Piero Piccioni (1921-2004)
Piero Piccioni led the first Italian jazz band to perform on radio after the fall of fascism. For many years he worked as a lawyer, but his reputation as a soundtrack composer eventually eclipsed his legal reputation. He was a great admirer of the music of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, and his jazz sensibility played a significant role in his cinema music. Here’s a slow funk piece from his score to the Italian crime film Colpo Rovente (aka Red Hot Shot) from 1970.
Gianni Ferrio (1924-2013)
Gianni Ferrio composed more than 100 movie soundtracks—mostly spaghetti westerns and sexy Italian comedies, few of them reaching an audience outside of Italy. His most high-profile work is the soundtrack to Giorgio Ferroni’s Un Dollaro Bucato (Blood for a Silver Dollar), some of which showed up in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Piero Umiliani (1926-2001)
Like Piccioni, Umiliani trained for a career in law, but his skill as a jazz pianist opened up more exciting opportunities. By some accounts, he was the first Italian musician to make a bebop record. His score for the 1956 film I Soliti Ignoti (aka Big Deal on Madonna Street) was one of the first jazz Italian film scores. Umiliani had a deep appreciation for West Coast jazz, both as a composer and performer—as demonstrated in his collaborations with Chet Baker.
Alessandro Alessandroni (1925-2017)
You probably aren’t familiar with this composer’s name, but you’ve almost certainly heard him performing—his guitar riff plays a prominent role in Ennio Morricone’s well-known score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and he is the whistler in the soundtrack for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. I love the track below from 1976 movie Sangue di Sbirro (aka Blood and Bullets). Okay, it sounds like a ripoff of the Shaft theme, but the mood is perfect for an Italian noir film about a cop who travels to New York to get revenge for a mob killing. Alessandroni was a master at imitating almost any sound or style—and thus had a long career composing library music, where such versatility was constantly put to the test.
Bruno Nicolai (1926-1991)
Like Alessandroni, Bruno Nicolai enjoyed a close relationship with Ennio Morricone, conducting and collaborating on many projects. He made a specialty of writing scores for dark and violent movies, and he was a master at creating a musical counterpart to onscreen suspense and horror. Tarantino has used his music in both Kill Bill and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But there was a sweeter side to Nicolai’s musical persona, especially evident when he drew on the vocabulary of West Coast jazz, as on this track from 1966.
Armando Trovajoli (1917-2013)
Trovajoli was one of the most prolific soundtrack composers in Italy, contributing to more than 300 films. He could do it all—compose psychedelic rock tunes or serve up faux bossa nova or create sweet pop melodies out of the Burt Bacharach playbook. He had to take on some abysmal projects—coming up with music for Atom Age Vampire (1960), Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1962) and other forgettable fare. But in his spare time, he recorded swinging jazz tracks in the spirit of Oscar Peterson. This jazz-oriented track from the Oscar-winning foreign film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, is one of his better known movie moments.
Roberto Pregadio (1928-2010)
A graduate of the Conservatory of Naples, Pregadio worked as pianist in the RAI Light Music Orchestra before shifting his focus to film music in the late 1960s and 1970s. Here he is in collaboration with Romano Mussolini (yes, the dictator’s son, but also a noted jazz pianist) in a hip, funky score for Kriminal (1966).
Nico Fidenco (born 1933)
Nico Fidenco had a different background from these other film music composers. He was self-taught, and enjoyed his biggest success as a vocalist—I’m told he was the first Italian singer to have a hit single that sold one million copies. His specialty was title songs for movies, and he parlayed this into a second career as a soundtrack composer.
If you still want more, here’s a link to my Qobuz playlist of funky, soulful, and jazzy Italian film score tracks.