We should probably get this out of the way up top here: You may not know the name Piero Umiliani, but unless you’ve lived under a rock since 1975 and just recently emerged to experience modern culture, you’ve definitely heard one of his compositions. It was on the Muppet Show:
Of course, Umiliani’s version is more reserved and doesn’t feature a hairy Muppet going ham, but when future generations use Wikipedia to construct a history of the 20th century, Umiliani will go down as the guy who wrote “Mahna Mahna.” But that doesn’t scrape the surface of Umiliani’s history; along with Giorgio Moroder, he helped define the sound of European spaghetti western, softcore and blaxploitation movies, scoring classics like Son of Django, Death Knocks Twice and Orgasmo.
But Umiliani didn’t confine his synth experiments and masterpieces of tone and atmosphere to just his soundtrack work: he also released a bevy of studio albums, many of which are out of print, or never got released outside of his native Italy. The new compilation Grazie! is an attempt to put Umiliani back in his rightful place in the canon of ’60s and ’70s composers, and features a nearly complete career overview, from Umiliani’s experiments with humming and nonsensical vocals to his swelling orchestral work.
“El Micione E La Gattina” is probably the easiest gateway into Umiliani on this comp, since it’s the closest to “Mahna Mahna”—not featured here since it was in a documentary, not a solo album—in spirit, as its fluttering vocals are almost a dry run for the song the Muppets made famous:
If you want a good encapsulation of the spooky heights Umiliani could take his compositions to, look no further than “Easy Rhythm,” a song just waiting to be reclaimed by Baby Driver 2.
Meanwhile, “Nostalgia” shows the way Umiliani could compose searching, beautiful lines using a synthesizer, and then build other arrangements on top of it. The Stranger Things soundtrack might as well have started here.
The highest peaks on Grazie! are the selections from Umiliani’s best album, To-Day’s Sound. The seven tracks run the gamut from seductive organ jazz (“Blue Lagoon”) to slithering funk workouts (“Lady Magnolia”) to the highlight of the comp, “Coast to Coast” a song you can hear soundtracking some Michael Caine car chase movie in your mind, even though it never did.
Umiliani died in 2001, at the age of 74. His music has been steadily reissued in Italy, but his American reappraisal is overdue. Grazie! changes that.
We made a playlist of the songs from Grazie! that we could find on Spotify. Check that out below: