Writing for a string quartet has always presented a challenge for arrangers and composers, especially if within a jazz context and particularly for a group such as the Assassins whose work is largely based on free improvisation. My work in collaboration with the Cusa project has been to develop the base melodies onto several parallel planes on which I successively built arrangements and veritable re-compositions of the original melodies. The goal was to achieve a densely woven general “sound” which would amalgamate and characterize the jazz quartet.” Duccio Bertini

It has been some time that I have wished to incorporate my compositions into the colors of a string quartet. The opportunity presented itself with Duccio Bertini who immediately understood the poetics of the melodies written for the Assassins – a perfect marriage between arrangements and re adaptations of the material involved. In this fourth piece of “FC & and the Assassins” I have attempted to combine the ambivalent nature of my older compositions with the new, with the intuition of a poker player caught between parsimony and hazard. It is always better to have a cheater as a friend rather than an accountant!” Francesco Cusa

1. Spades/Picche
2. The Act Of Killing Music (The King)
3. Clubs/Fiori
4. Dr. Akagi (The Queen)
5. Interludio
6. Diamonds/Quadri
7. Kirtimukha (Hearts/Cuori)
8. Elegia

All compositions by Francesco Cusa expect “Interludio” and “Elegia” by Duccio Bertini
Arrangements by Duccio Bertini

Francesco Cusa, drums
Giulio Stermieri, piano, Hammond organ
Flavio Zanuttini, trumpet, electronics
Giovanni Benvenuti, tenor sax

Daniele Iannaccone, violin
Lorenzo Borneo, violin
Agostino Mattioni, viola
Cristiano Sacchi, cello
Duccio Bertini, keyboards in “Elegia”

Released: November 2018

Another drummer-leader (as well as, like Fioravanti, a prolific composer) is the Sicilian Francesco Cusa who in Black Poker (Clean Feed) combines his quartet The Assassins with the strings of the Florence Art Quartet. The result is an excellent level album, balanced and intelligent, far from the honeyed or merely virtuosic shackles of many jazz / string cocktails. Here the two hemispheres now meet and are now avoided (in the sense that they sound separate) giving the total a certain depth, which is not only cerebral-conceptual, but also effective. Album of great maturity. – Alberto Bazzurro

Francesco Cusa, four years after “Love", releases a new album with The Assassins. This time, however, Giovanni Benvenuti appears on the tenor sax instead of Cristiano Arcelli and the “Florence art quartet" is added under the direction of Duccio Bertini to complete the ensemble. It is never easy to integrate a string quartet with a jazz group with the same number of components, but Cusa brilliantly passes the test, managing to enhance the contribution of classical musicians alongside the contribution of the competent “assassins" at his service. The interaction between the two blocks materializes in different ways, with equal effectiveness. There are parts reserved for strings only, in particular in the two pieces by Duccio Bertini, in which the other instruments are simply silent. In certain situations, however, there is a contrapuntal dialogue between trumpet or saxophone and violins, viola and cello. In some cases the theme and the elaborations of the arias are carried out by Benvenuti and Zanuttini and the strings are limited to coloring the backgrounds with suitable brushstrokes. In different situations, again, the sections alternate with separate sequences, until they meet and proceed all together passionately. Even the jazz quartet breaks up, if necessary, into duets or trios for short sections of the journey. In short, the possible combinations are many and the leader is certainly not the type to flatten out on a single solution. We would not be talking about Francesco Cusa’s band, otherwise….
The music that you listen to is characterized by rather simple motifs that make their way and impose themselves, on which, then, new ideas and stimuli overlap that drag the octet elsewhere, with tumultuous free brackets, moments, by contrast, almost lyrical and solos of saxophone and trumpet marked by a rather free syntax permeated by doubled notes, over-treble, crossing or clash of not exactly orthodox sounds. After a rather extensive circumnavigation, we finally return to the starting point by means of calibrated musical turns.
First of all, the histrionic artist from Catania must be acknowledged for knowing how to choose his fellow adventurers wisely. Welcome, to the tenor, is a perfect counterbalance to Zanuttini and does not make us regret, that is, the still talented Arcelli. The rest of the line-up adequately expands the indications, the suggestions prepared by the Sicilian drummer and resolutely lines up towards the zigzagging routes imagined upstream.
In conclusion, we just have to quote the eclectic writer Riccardo Pazzaglia in the version “Those of the night". If the quartet protagonist of the recording is of this level: “We are all assassins.-Nous sommes tous des assassins … As Jean Gabin said! – Gianni Montano (Jazzitalia)

Francesco Cusa has always been an enfant terrible in the world of jazz. He could be called a cultural agitator who is not only concerned with music, but also with literature, philosophy and art. We find all this in his projects.
“Black Poker" is certainly a particular project in which the drummer from Catania tries to weave new plots between his group, The Assasins, and the Florence Art Quartet, a classic string quartet. At the helm we find Duccio Bertini, composer and conductor, who we find here as arranger of the compositions written by Cusa.
The match is overwhelming, the combination of the two teams works perfectly. The Florence Quartet moves with ease between the twentieth century, starting from Schönberg to get to Penderecki and Ligeti. The strings do not embellish the jazz melody (we are far from Charlie Parker with strings), the two ensembles integrate, dialogue, create new connections. The intent of the project seems to be the construction of a “body without organs", quoting the philosopher Gilles Deleuze “[…] Undoing the organism has never meant killing oneself but opening the body to connections that suppose a whole chain, circuits, conjunctions , subdivisions, and thresholds, passages and distributions of intensity, territories, and deterritorializations … “
Spades / Picche finds the right balance between strings and improvisation with a fantastic Cusa that is immediately enjoyable and then develops a more refined, aphasic drumming, which dialogues with Giovanni Benvenuti’s saxophone and Giulio Stermieri’s creativity on the piano.
In The Act of Killing Music (The King) the chorus is perfectly constructed and magnificently captivating, it knows how to integrate the strings with a simple and effective beat; the subsequent collective improvisation ends with a not indifferent underlying melancholy.
In Clubs / Fiori Flavio Zanuttini’s trumpet is appreciated, gradually leaving space for the piano that continues a frenzied improvisation supported by the drums of Cusa that saturates the environment.
Diamonds / Quadri opens with a fast tempo that suddenly changes to offer the strings the possibility of weaving an airy melody.
Elegia is a minimal piece, the small melodic cells are repeated, overlapping, Bertini contributes to the timbre on the keyboard.
A dynamic, important project that allows you to give new life to Cusa’s songs: an infinite clash, the desire to “… make rhizomes and not take root", to quote Deleuze again, for a multiple, heterogeneous music, which knows how to proliferate without having a hierarchical but reticular, diffusive structure that does not take root: “[…] following the intuition of the poker player, always poised between risk and thrift”, as Cusa recalls in the album cover notes. – Nicola Barin (Sound Contest)

Black Poker is a particular record that has an anomalous but successful structure: on the one hand there is a classic jazz quartet with hammond and without double bass; on the other a string quartet – the Florence Arte Quartet – of chamber extraction. Between these binary instrumental structures there are two different musicians but sharing the same sense of research and risk: the drummer Francesco Cusa and the saxophonist and conductor Duccio Bertini. The latter also signed two songs, Interludio and Elegia, and arranged all the compositions of the disc. The music of Black Poker contains something mysterious: the atmosphere of the record has a fatalistic and at the same time dark slant. It seems that someone is playing with the fate of men, almost like in a Roger Corman film. At times, with due distances, it seems to recall some dark and dark ghosts scripted in Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Alan Parsons Project. But beyond the impressions that may seem abstract there is a concrete record where the string quartet moves not as a support but as a dialoguing protagonist of the jazz soul. The Assassins have a very precise, pressing timbre, which immediately strikes with the attack of Spades / Spades. This is joined by the violin, sharp in its graceful and poetic narration. The rest is done by the second string lines before giving themselves constructively to electronics. Again the main bows of the openings of The Act Of Killing Music and Clubs / Fiori. In both pieces they introduce the theme, alternate with the jazz quartet, change direction and colors and then re-enter the narrative construct. Different is Dr. Akagi, where the trumpet and sax attack give a free bop development to the piece also enhanced by the sound mixes designed by Bertini, who later grants the scene exclusively to the string quartet in Interlude. Diamonds restarts with the winds, in the avant-garde, following a timeline from a filmic sequence. The piano follows the theme backed by a trumpet apparently distant and thin in sound. In Kirtimukha the combo starts very fast and then gives space to the sax monologue which is dampened by the embrace of the strings. The curtain of Black Poker closes with the lyrics of Elegia, a just ending for a total and avant-garde work. The strings independently draw the final scenario of a fascinating disc with a modern connotation. – Flavio Caprera

Singular and successful interaction between a jazz quartet and a chamber string quartet, operated through the mediation of two curious and courageous musicians – the drummer Francesco Cusa, who brought his The Assassins with him, and the composer and conductor Duccio Bertini, who arranged the pieces, mostly by Cusa and in two cases by his own pen.
The work developed starting from compositions by Cusa, on which Bertini worked to compose the part of the string quartet (the Florence Art Quartet which, it should be noted, is of classical extraction) so that the two parts would merge both as musical discourse, and as sound. Listening to the record, something very far from the “traditional" interaction between jazz and strings emerges that it has been possible to hear relatively often at least since 1949, the year of release of Charlie Parker With Strings: here the strings do not accompany, embellish or they refine what jazz musicians express, but interact with full ownership. And this is true not so much when – in “Interlude" and “Elegia" – they take the stage in solitude, performing original compositions by Bertini, lyrically contemporary and which give a different breath to the music of The Assassins, but above all when they are directly intertwined with the sound of the quartet.
It can be grasped well from the start of the record, where – after the rhythmic attack of the jazz band – first the violin in an excruciating way, then the other strings fit into the overall discourse saying new, different, complementary things. The same happens in the more meditative continuation of the track, when the strings even interact with the electronics, and then step aside and leave room for the solo of the tenor by Giovanni Benvenuti – incidentally, a high-class saxophonist who has not yet received the attention it deserves – until the end, a duet between the piano and pizzicato violin.
In the rest of the record, things continue by repeatedly varying the relationships between the two sections of the formation: in “The Act Of Killing Music," for example, the strings introduce the music of the jazz quartet, but also intervene within it, now distancing themselves from the rhythms, now giving a different color, now even joining in unison to dictate the theme; not differently in “Kirtimukha," where the quartet is starting – and with what intensity! -to then let the strings “wrap" the next tenor solo.
Overall, the repeated changes of atmosphere, the references now to orchestral scenarios, now to avant-garde improvisation, the very balanced timbre mixes and the no less careful interchange between a rhythmic system formation, such as The Assassins of the Sicilian drummer, and a lyric , which is a classic string quartet, give life to an extremely modern record, full of elements of interest, as well as a very pleasant listening. – Neri Pollastri (All About Jazz Italia)

“Among the main qualities of the drummer Francesco Cusa is that of experiencing music as a committed reading: certainly between his jazz and the literary story (from linguistic artifice to symbology) there is an invisible connection, identified by one’s own vision ; the fact that he is also a writer ennobles musical subjects, as happened with Black Power, a work that Cusa had long wanted to do, that is to join the efforts of one of his usual quartets (The Assassins, with Zanuttini on trumpet, Stermieri to keyboards and Benvenuti al tenor sax) with those of a string quartet. This circumstance materialized with the publication of Black Poker, a CD in which Cusa reworks music with the intent of the poker player, divided between risk and Avarice. Poker awakens in me indelible memories of a little boy: invited to play for the first time, I quickly understood its pitfalls, very similar to those of life; quick to avoid! Music, however, when well done, can be able to signal situations that are impossible to receive in listening, and the Black Poker of Cusa uses free jazz and strings to spread sensations related to the topics: mindful of Ornette’s experiments Coleman of Forms and sounds, of the string quartet of the chamber symphony of Philadelphia or, even better, of his armolodic organization in Dedication to poets and writers, Cusa and his collaborators tune their improvisations into the right rhythmic and imaginative context of a story similar to a staircase in which within each step there is a universe of moods and events. In the case of Black Poker the figures (king, queen, card poles) claim their survival and there is nothing in the music that does not tend to consistency, even at the cost of crossing over: it is circular jazz, with many intentional imperfections on the tonality. , some extensive techniques and a repositioning on the strings (the Florence Art Quartet with Daniele Iannacone and Lorenzo Borneo on the violins, Agostino Mattioni on the viola and Cristiano Sacchi on the cello), which acts as the right counterweight, thanks also to the experience of the composer / arranger Duccio Bertini, specialized in arrangements for bands and large instrumental ensembles, a real weapon for the music, which alongside a contribution bestowed to the evolutionary dynamics of Cusa’s composition, also injects on his own austerity in the form of interlude or elegy." – Percorsi Musicali

“Another method of pushing an already constituted string section into an anomalous challenge is to mate it with another group. Black Poker (Clean Feed CF 504 CD) does just that, as Italian drummer Francesco Cusa and his band the Assassins with trumpeter/electronics manipulator Flavio Zanuttini, tenor saxophonist Giovanni Benvenuti and keyboardist Giulio Stermieri are joined by the violinists Daniele Iannaccone and Lorenzo Borneo plus violist Agostino Mattioni and cellist Cristiano Sacchi who make up then Florence Art Quartet (FAQ). Although the two quartets each have a track to themselves – with the result too syrupy in the FAQ’s case – Black Poker’s achievement is how well the ensembles’ dissimilar textures integrate. Staring with “Spades/Picche”, the first track, the polished swing of the Assassins, expressed most obviously in processed upsurges from Zanuttini and pensive reed breaks from Benvenuti, is first buttressed and then challenged via pizzicato pops from the FAQ. Sophisticated enough to divide its role on “Clubs/Fiore” into high-pitched violin swirls and mid-range viola and cello vibrations, the FAQ is the antithesis of a clichéd string section. As Benvenuti’s altissimo runs plus Stermieri’s tremolo cadenzas as well as Cusa’s faultless yet hard rebounds move the narrative forward while making it more overtly rhythmic, the string shimmies provide the theme with flexibility and sparkle. Key role reversal occurs in the penultimate “Kirimukha (Hearts/Cuori)”, where the tenor saxophonist’s heart-rending solo is more pulpy than anything the individual strings play and it’s the FAQ’s bent note refrain and string scrubbing plus shrill notes dug out from the trumpet’s innards that ensue the tune returns the head’s jolly march and away from mawkishness." – Ken Waxman

Let’s start with the specifics of this poker game: on the one hand are The Assassins, the jazz quartet, and on the other hand, the “Florence Art Quartet", a classic string quartet. Leading the session is, alongside the Assassins, his drummer, Francesco Cusa, who writes the music and plays it in a quartet with piano, trumpet and saxophone. On the other side is the pianist Duccio Bertini, who grabs the material written by Cusa and organizes it for a string quartet with two violins, viola and cello. The result of this complicated game is excellent music. Sometimes it seems that we are listening to the soundtrack of a film in the best Italian tradition (Morricone, Einaudi, Rota), with dense arrangements and fast and baroque music, full of interesting events and musical solutions. A “zapping" for various environments, with the string quartet playing sophisticated arrangements and jazz playing the guitars with classic rigor and leaving them for improvisations in which the musicians easily navigate without a net. The words show a saxophonist with a fast and melodic phrasing, and it is also right to highlight the enormous delicacy of Cusa’s drums, which he rhythms but also melodies.
There is a lot of writing and organizing work and every second seems to have been carefully thought through. Music has a density of ideas and events rare in jazz. They install and disappear very quickly, and each disc theme has – or appears to have – 20 songs inside. Although there is no bass, the Hammond organ and cello provide this shortcoming and we often have serious loops with a funk. Italy gave letters at the end of 2018 with a series of great records, the Radici Magiche, Flavio Zanuttini with the Opacipapa and now Cusa with the Assassins and Duccio Bertini. For those who are not in the know, I cannot say that he has not been warned. – Gonçalo Falcão

“The ever in-demand Italian drummer, Francesco Cusa, turns up on more than two dozen discs from several recent labels: Auand, Improvvisatore Involontari, Amirani and now Clean Feed. Mr. Cusa is also a member of the Marco Cappelli’s Italian Surf Academy. The only other musician here that I was previously familiar with is trumpeter Flavio Zanuttini, who has worked with Eugene Chadbourne and who has a recent trio disc out also on Clean Feed. Mr. Cusa wrote all but two songs here and a great job of integrating his quartet and the string quartet into a solid singular ensemble sound. The music is often stripped down to skeletal means, never busy or overdone. Each piece seems to evoke a different vibe, feeling or scene, as if we were watching a movie in which someone’s life unfolds slowly. Instead of a stream of solos, there is a good deal of interweaving of themes and parts. Often both horn will swirl around one another on top while the keyboard (usually organ) and string quartet play the written material underneath. There is also quite a bit of unexpected twists and turns when the Assassins play a tight, complex well-written segment. There is nothing free of superfluous going on here, all of the music is integral to the ongoing tapestry/flow. Another incredible yet modest gem from the fine folks at Clean Feed." – Bruce Lee Gallanter (Downtown Music Gallery)