The Good, The Bad, And The Banjo

My, how you've grown! Mike Rossetto at his first piano
Daniel Corrigan

A déjà view: Multi-instrumentalist Mike Rossetto, nearly lifelong musician, pulls out a photograph of himself at age four. He's smiling meekly before a toy keyboard. "It's the oldest photo of me playing an instrument," he says proudly. Staring at the photo, I can see, somewhere, the 25-year-old Rossetto sitting in front of a spread of higher-tech equipment. The picture leads to other tiny revelations during our conversation, a jumble of stream-of-consciousness exclamations that don't quite make sense but feel appropriate later, especially considered in the context of Rossetto's music. Kind of like a dream that you finally remember when its star appears right in front of you, pouring your coffee or ripping your ticket at the multiplex.

When Rossetto slid into a chair in Minneapolis's Band Box, I felt pretty sure that I hadn't dreamt about him the night before. We met to discuss his solo-project-cum-ensemble Spaghetti Western, which has evolved from Rossetto's guitar work with jazz-fusion combo Auto Pilota and experimental folk duo Jack Pine Savage. Borrowing elements from both of those groups, Spaghetti Western blends skewed takes on traditional folk and bluegrass with artfully arranged tape collages. Their debut pastiche, Do Right By People (Adonis), has been playing in my apartment and car for so long, I suspect it has scored the sideshow of my subconscious. The music inspires a melee of hazy images: a long drive in the fog, a traveling circus, Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1890, after dark.

Rossetto talks like a dreamer. When he speaks, his eyes follow his darting words around the room, and his ideas grow exponentially as he describes them. His solo performances follow the same trajectory, beginning with a loop of banjo or percussion, accreting through an overlay of guitar or an etching of found sound, such as dialogue from The Sopranos or Young Guns ("Playing up the Italian/Western thing," he explains). He has an ear for improvisation. In a recent performance, he captured an enthusiastic "Whoooh!" from a fan and proceeded to weave it into the narrative like a drumbeat.

Like John Zorn's twisted homage to Ennio Morricone, The Big Gundown, Do Right By People contains elements of the nostalgic and familiar--homey odes to Rossetto's Italian heritage, Hollywood soundbites--that have been reshaped and obscured. Then there are the experimental remnants: tapes of conversation and ghostly choral hymns. But first, there's Fred Rogers.

Rossetto wrote his senior thesis at the University of Minnesota on the role of music on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. "I never had MTV at a young age," he explains. "Mister Rogers was where I first heard sophisticated music like rock and jazz. Also where I first heard improv, and where I first saw music put to pictures. So right there, that's exactly what you could say I'm doing now--writing music fit for film and images."

Do Right By People, music for an as yet unrealized filmstrip, opens with "Eastwood's Italy." Footsteps tread lightly over creaky feedback. In the distance, a displaced movie star mutters something in Italian. As with "Eastwood's," most of the album's pieces simmer slowly, with a few circular guitar chords finding their way around a sterilized backbeat, giving Rossetto room to improvise. "Ernestine's Waltz," which Rossetto thinks is perfect for a short film, sounds like a two-step emanating from the red room on Twin Peaks. Here, a dusty Salvation Army organ stands in for an accordion, and mandolin player Nicholas Lemme's classically trained voice provides an added dose of the macabre.

The medley "Sullivan Ferry/Cocture. 1860" finds a balance between Denise Guelker's steely fiddle playing and the organic percussion of a couple of handmade drums and shakers. The song developed after Rossetto and some friends drove through the Appalachian Mountains while listening to the soundtrack to Ken Burns's 1990 documentary The Civil War, particularly a reading of Civil War Major Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife. Rossetto was awestruck by composer Jay Unger's score, which conjured images of a ferry voyage. "Sullivan Ferry" also showcases Rossetto's virtuosity on the banjo, an instrument he can't help gushing about. "You fall in love with it right away, I can't imagine anyone who doesn't. It's the greatest sound you've ever heard in your life." In addition to Ballou, Do Right pays compliments to Rogers's mailman and cultural ambassador Mr. McFeely, and to comedian Peter Sellers, whose two left feet still carried the grace of Gene Kelly.

And like Sellers's carefully choreographed pratfalls, Rossetto prefers to leave his compositions open to interpretation, insisting that the record will take a few listens to pick up on meaning. "If you give somebody a perfect pop song, where the lyrics explain everything, the music explains everything, you basically have modern radio. And it's like music you listen to when you're getting a cavity filled." In the teeth of such de facto Muzak, Rossetto is planning another odd project, an album of Neapolitan folk songs, drawn from an uncle's record collection and carefully arranged with a Western flavor. "Italy's version of the great West," he says. "That would be the true Spaghetti Western."

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