The Laudario di Cortona is a mediaeval codex written sometime between 1250 and 1290 and still preserved to this day in the town of Cortona in southern Tuscany. The original manuscript is comprised of a collection of 47 “laude” or sacred songs in vernacular Italian. Initiated in 2016 to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Tuscany and Umbria, the Altissima Luce project is a modern re-adaptation and arrangement of the 750-odd-years-old sacred songs by Italian jazz trumpet player Paolo Fresu and bandoneonist Daniele Di Bonaventura. The hugely ambitious musical programme brings together an all-female vocal ensemble, a chamber orchestra and a jazz quartet around 12 songs from the 13th century codex.

First performed at the Umbria Jazz Festival in July 2016 as an instrumental version, the show was then performed with singers at the 71st edition of the Sagra Musicale Umbra in September 2016 in Perugia. Altissima Luce was recorded in 2017 and eventually released on 12 April 2019 last on Paolo Fresu’s own label Tǔk Music.

Paolo Fresu & Daniele Di Bonaventura - Altissima Luce (2019)
Paolo Fresu & Daniele Di Bonaventura – Altissima Luce (2019)

Born in Sardinia and sharing his time between his native island, Paris and Bologna, trumpet player Paolo Fresu is a hugely prolific artist who started his professional career in the early 1980s. Imbued with a relentless spirit of adventure and an insatiable curiosity, the musician has released hundreds of recordings to date for all the major record labels. He has also collaborated with the “who’s who” of the contemporary world jazz scene and beyond while perfecting a crystal clear trumpet and flugelhorn sound sometimes enhanced by mutes or electronic effects.

Daniele Di Bonaventura is a classically trained pianist and composer who performs professionally as a solo pianist and bandoneonist or in various trios and orchestral ensembles. Daniele Di Bonaventura and Paolo Fresu have collaborated extensively over the years, including on two noted recordings for the ECM record label – on Mistico Mediterraneo (2011) with all-male Corsican polyphonic singing group A Filetta or on In Maggiore (2015).

A synthesis of poetry, sacred song and music, the “lauda spirituale” or ancient chants are dedicated to the worship of Mary in the context of early 13th century Franciscanism. The Laudario di Cortona is also one of the first collections of vernacular Italian set to music in the form of simple polyphonies. The original transcriptions of the songs formed the basis for a contemporary rework for orchestra and jazz quartet.

The first song (“Altissima luce col grande splendore” – Highest light of great splendor) giving its title to the recording exposes the modus operandi adopted by Paolo Fresu and Daniele Di Bonaventura. The record opens with a traditional rendition of the acapella chant by the eight piece mediaeval and Renaissance music vocal ensemble Armoniosoincanto. The singers are then joined by the 13 piece Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, the Chamber Orchestra of Perugia. Muted trumpet, bandoneon, double bass (Marco Bardoscia) and drums (Michele Rabbia) enter next to introduce a trumpet and a bandoneon soli. The ensemble of voices, orchestra and quartet conclude the piece.

Such a variety of instruments and musicians on one recording allows for an infinite number of permutations and arrangements. At times, Altissima Luce morphs into an orchestral soundtrack on songs like “Amore Dolçe Sença Pare”, “Jesu Cristo Glorioso” or as suggested by the animated official video for “Sia Laudato San Francesco”. Following a traditional vocal introduction, both “Laude Novella Sia Cantata” and “Venite A Laudare” turn into a rip-roaring percussion-led improvisation replete with multi effects and electronics.  

“Ave, Donna Santissima” is a magnificent call and response between voices, trumpet and bandoneon while “Laudar Vollio Per Amore” gorgeously concludes the audacious undertaking.

Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

The oft-quoted phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi becomes the motto for the entire record which constantly shifts between orchestral jazz, mediaeval choir singing and improvisation. The delicate balancing act of harmonising voices, strings, brass, percussions and electronics into a cohesive acoustic whole on Altissima Luce is a genuine tour de force.