OAK mix genuine prog moments, with jazz, folk and Italian elements to create a quite fascinating musical cocktail.
What would Ian Anderson have sounded like if he’d been born in Solopaca rather than Dunfermline? For those of you without an encyclopaedic knowledge of geography: Solopaca is a tiny hamlet somewhere in Southern Italy that I suspect nobody has heard of outside of its 3,700 inhabitants. But its one claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of a certain Jerry Cutillo, who is affectionately known as the Italian Ian Anderson. Cutillo is a musician who writes fine ‘70s inspired prog, as well as singing along to it and playing the flute. Spot the similarities? The guy even dresses with strange hats in a very un-Italian way! Cutillo and his collaborators operate under the name of OAK. Why upper case, you might be wondering. Well, the letters stand for three Italian words, or to be precise: two Italian words and a third one deliberately mis-spelt to end up with the English word for a tree. And the three words don’t in any case make any sense together so it’s all a bit odd – even for a so-called progressive band.
Cutillo has been around for quite a while I believe, and Nine Witches Under A Walnut Tree is the final leg of what OAK’s website refers to as a prog trilogy. So, what sort of prog music is it then? Opener Chlodswinda has a very unusual start with mandolins sounding extraordinarily like Zeppelin’s Battle Of Evermore. This gives way to a gentle folk-rock feel with vocals, synths and of course the ubiquitous flute that is so reminiscent of Anderson in style and sound that you really must pinch yourself to remember that this isn’t the man from Dunfermline. It’s a very enjoyable opening salvo none the less. This is followed by Giocanna, a little more upbeat and synth-driven and just when you are convinced it is an instrumental, a very weird vocal section comes in – operatic vocals from a genuine classical soprano (Tetyana Shyshnyak) interspersed with near-spoken phrases from Cutillo. This type of unexpected change in mood and style gives the album a certain charm and certainly avoids it sinking into predictability. Now if you are wondering about the strange titles of these songs then there is in fact a loose concept to this album. Each of the nine songs is the name of a witch – real ones I believe, or at least real people – and according to an Italian legend they met in medieval times under a walnut tree (not too far from Solopaca) to do their witchy deeds. Since belief in witches was strongly present throughout Europe in those times, our nine witches are from diverse locations and the tracks are mostly sung in the native language of the relevant witch. Hence, we get French and German as well as the Italian language used. The Scottish witch is represented by an instrumental, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Ian Anderson had stepped up to sing that one?
The album progresses in its mix of ‘70s prog keyboards and gentler flute or acoustic led folk sections, with many interesting touches along the way. Dame Harvillers, our French witch, has an impassioned opening with grand piano and Cutillo doing his best impression of a French crooner. Polissena is the least Tull-influenced and perhaps the most fascinating track here with a Middle Eastern sounding theme on horn mixing with a heavier chord sequence in the style of Van Der Graaf Generator. The track lets loose in the middle section with great synth playing but then closes with a bit of a whimper with a bass and flute solo! The bass on the album, by the way, is from Jonathan Noyce, who readers might recall spent a decade in Jethro Tull. He no doubt felt at home making this album. The Van Der Graaf Generator link I mentioned earlier is strengthened on Donna Prudentia – a strangely mainstream Italian melodic affair that is embellished by two sax solos from the great David Jackson himself. Not content with impressing us musically, Jackson is also credited with contributing to the English translation of the lyrics!
While Cutillo wears his Ian Anderson influences on his sleeve, there is a lot more here than just a Jethro Tull clone. OAK mix genuine prog moments, with jazz, folk and Italian elements to create a quite fascinating musical cocktail. This is accompanied by an interesting concept and excellent packaging. Well worth checking out.