New takes on jazz, pop keep Musica Nuda fresh

Musica Nuda, an Italian duo featuring voice and bass, strips their music to the bare essence.

A quick Google search for Musica Nuda yields some expected results: an official website, a Wikipedia entry, an album inventory, and the like. A little less expected is a YouTube clip of the band performing Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco hit “I Will Survive” — not a jazz standard by any means.

Vocalist Petra Magoni and bassist Ferruccio Spinetti, whose two-night Spoleto debut begins tonight, chop up the tune and morph it into something jittery, staccato and edgier than its original incarnation. The two, who have played together since a linking up at a Tuscany concert in 2003, have made a career of the art of unconventional covers (interpretations of a standard songs).

“We choose great songs from any time and we just start playing them,” Magoni wrote in an email. “We don’t sit down asking to ourselves, ‘How should we do this song?’ We just play, and the ideas follow.”

Those ideas have led to dozens of unique takes on popular songs by The Beatles, Bob Marley, Serge Gainsbourg and even Rodgers and Hammerstein across seven studio albums, including two for storied jazz label Blue Note. Occasionally, they’ll pen an original composition, but Magoni and Spinetti rely heavily on the jazz canon, rock and pop to fill out their sets.

Musica Nuda use the name, which means “naked music,” as a guide for choosing which tunes will work best given the minimal bass-and-vocal setup. Most often, strong tunes built around strong melodies win out. Their most recent album, “Little Wonder,” tackles songs by Bill Withers and Sting; contemporary Top 40 tracks are nowhere to be found.

“There are so many (songs) today that are built only with sounds and arrangements, where melody is only a repetition of few notes and often lyrics are a list of things,” Magoni wrote. “These kind of songs cannot be interpreted successfully by us.”

Interpreting ubiquitous hits like “I Will Survive” in experimental ways is strategic, too. Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association nonprofit collective, said covers can often serve as a “bridge” between performers who need to make a strong impression and the audiences who come into shows with certain expectations.

“It gives a listener a standard by which to compare the performance they’re watching,” Mandel said. “They can learn something about the specific kind of interpretations the performers are watching or listening to and what their interpretation is because they judge it against the original version of the song.”

For Musica Nuda, whose Spoleto stop comes in the middle of a four-month tour that spans three continents, a well-known song can act as a delivery vessel for the duo’s own personality and nuances. Their take on “I Will Survive,” for example, swaps out the original’s sweeping strings and gospel vocals for a burbling bass rhythm and manic, start-stop singing.

Mandel said this kind of changeup works well in delivering the song to new listeners.

“You need to have something original in the songs that’s going to work for someone,” he said. “I think it’s great that you find a song that resonates with you but you have a different way you want to do it.”

As Magoni stressed, it’s ultimately all about connection — no matter how the bridges from musician to audience, or musician to musician, get built in the first place.

“I see music as something to share, especially in playing together but also in listening to other projects and bands,” Magoni wrote. “I think that when a project is sincere and unique, (the performer) can find his own path and audience to exist and grow.”

Patrick Hosken is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.