For Russell Malone’s 55th Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2016 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2005

For master guitarist Russell Malone’s 55th birthday, here’s a feature profile that I wrote about him in the fall 2016 issue of Jazziz, and the proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2004.

Russell Malone, Jazziz, 2016:

Before settling into the formalities of an interview in the kitchen of his Jersey City row house, Russell Malone, Southerner that he is, decided to feed his guest. First he prepared ginger lemonade, a 20-minute procedure that included eight squeezed lemons, a lot of ginger, and agave for sweetener. Then Malone shaved daikon, cooked sushi rice infused with butter, fixed a ponzu sauce, seared some pea-shoot greens with garlic and, finally, broiled two slabs of salmon.

Malone worked methodically, washing and drying the dishes and utensils after each stage of the process. He was dressed well — cream-colored linen slacks; a forest green shirt from Thailand with gold brocading, untucked — but didn’t wear an apron. We spoke as he cooked, and continued to speak as we ate lunch, trading opinions and scurrilous gossip, discussing family and mutual acquaintances. Ninety minutes later, it almost seemed a shame to turn on the digital voice recorder.

The subject at hand was Malone’s spring release, All About Melody (High Note), on which the 53-year-old guitarist and his quartet — pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III — address an American Songbook ballad; two American Soulbook torch songs; a spiritual; and originals by jazz icons Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Heath, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Lee and Sonny Rollins. Malone also presents his own ballad, “Message to Jim Hall,” directly followed by a brief voicemail from the late iconic guitarist.

Neither notions of high concept nor narrative arc inform the program, Malone says, not even his decision to follow his dedication to Hall, who famously played on several early-’60s recordings by Rollins, with Rollins’ “Nice Lady,” which Malone learned while touring with the saxophonist in 2010. “Those songs are fun to play,” he says. “When I make a record, I want the songs to flow naturally, to hold your attention, just like playing a set in a club.” He affirmed his close friendship with Hall. “Jim would call to tell you how he felt about you,” Malone says. “He was big on taking the time, effort and thought to write a letter, get the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mail it. I have a stack of his handwritten letters. I didn’t get around to writing Jim a letter, but I did get around to writing that tune for him.”

For a unifying thread, Malone suggested the title, edited from HighNote proprietor Joe Fields’ suggestion, “It’s All About the Melody,” which, he says, seemed too preachy and dogmatic.“This could have titled any of my other records, because that’s always been my attitude,” Malone says, before fleshing out the core aesthetic principle that infuses his previous 11 leader recordings since 1992 and numerous sideman or collaborative appearances with — to name a roughly chronological short list — Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick, Diana Krall, Benny Green and Christian McBride, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ron Carter and Rollins.

“I’m as influenced by singers as by instrumentalists, and whenever I learn a song, particularly a standard or a ballad, I listen to a vocalist’s rendition,” he says. “I want to learn not just the harmonic structure, but the story, the lyrics — everything. Those things go through my head when I play them. I try to sing through my instrument.”

In that regard, Malone mentions his unaccompanied reading of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he heard growing up in Albany, Georgia. “If you noticed, I only played the melody,” he says. “Sometimes a strong melody, good changes and a good story is enough. That’s my thing these days.”

Malone adhered unstintingly to this stated criteria for song selection and play-your-feelings interpretation on both All About Melody and its 2014 HighNote predecessor, Love Looks Good On You. The latter date transpired four years after Triple Play, a trio recital that was Malone’s only studio recording during a six-year, four-CD run with MaxJazz, a fine boutique label that ceased operations after the death of its owner, Richard McDonnell.

“I was working so much, it wasn’t a priority to do a record if nobody would get behind it,” Malone explains. Several labels suggested he join their roster, but none followed up. “My attitude was: Your loss; if you ignore me, I’ll keep forging ahead. Then Joe Fields contacted me. People who’ve worked with him told me he’d support the records. Joe seemed to be the only guy interested in someone who plays like I do.”

He referenced the phrase “interview music,” coined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, Malone’s dear friend and colleague from before the guitarist moved to New York from Atlanta in the late ’80s until Miller died in 2013. “Certain musicians talk a good game, and sound deep and interesting, and it gets over,” Malone says. “But writers don’t consider people who play like me as cutting edge. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective — devoid of melody, swinging, blues and, heaven forbid, any black elements — are described as pushing the music forward. That’s complete bullshit to me.”

He recalled a brunch gig with organist Trudy Pitts in Philadelphia around 1990, playing tunes for “older people who wanted to hear some melodies.” One of Malone’s core influences, Kenny Burrell, working in town, was in the house. So were a group of college students. “Whenever I played something a little outside or rebellious to what was going on, these kids went, ‘Yeah, man — whoo-oo!’ Instead of thinking about the music, I started to think about impressing them with my crazy, dissonant shit.”

After the set, the admirers offered compliments: “Yeah, you were really pushing the envelope; you’re taking it out.” Malone thanked them, proceeded to Burrell’s table, and sat down. Malone recounts: “I had the nerve to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Burrell, you hear what I’m working on?’ He put his arm around me, and started chastising me like I was his son. He told me that what I’d played may have worked well in another situation, but it didn’t work here. You have to play what the situation calls for, which means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Any time you’re playing to prove something, it’s not honest. I never forgot that. And I never did that again.”

[BREAK]

“I am flexible,” Malone says. “I take pride on being open enough to play with anybody.” He’s played “Moon River” and “The Christmas Song” with Andy Williams on The Mike Huckabee Show. He’s shared stages with B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole; channeled the pioneering electric guitarist Eddie Durham in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; played the blues with Clarence Carter and raised a joyful noise with the Gospel Keynotes. He’s played high-level chamber jazz with Ron Carter and supported Dianne Reeves in a two-guitar format with Romero Lubambo. He’s rehearsed outcat projects with Bill Frisell and James “Blood” Ulmer. He visited Ornette Coleman’s loft once for a marathon of shedding.

Malone grew up in a Pentecostal church, where he discovered the guitar. He traces his openness to the experience of playing it there from age 6 to 18. “It fascinated me how these church mothers singing spirituals would move people to tears, or to get the Holy Ghost and shout in response,” he says. “That’s when I started to really listen — the singers might start singing in any key, and not always at the same time, so I learned to be flexible throughout the guitar neck.”

As he entered his teens, Malone memorized his first guitar solo from Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, had “epiphanies” from B.B. King and from “country” guitarists like Chet Atkins and Merle Travis on Glen Campbell’s TV show. In 1975, “on a school night when I should have been in bed,” he saw George Benson play “incredible things” on “Seven Comes Eleven” on a PBS homage to John Hammond “that let me know there was a whole other level to aspire to.” Malone soon purchased The George Benson Cookbook and the double-LP Benson Burner. “A gentleman in my church who played guitar noticed that I was trying to play this stuff,” he continues. “He liked Wes Montgomery, and he laid Smokin’ At the Half Note and Boss Guitar on me. Those four records set me on a course that I have not deviated from.”

That course followed autodidactic pathways. “I had enough sense to know that something triggered George Benson’s interest in playing guitar like that,” Malone says. “I read that George was influenced by Charlie Christian, then that Charlie Christian was influenced by Eddie Durham and Lester Young, and had influenced Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and so on. I didn’t have skills to write anything down, and I never transcribed a solo. I like the way I learned because I trust my ears. I’d pick things up and remember them.” He sought advice from lesser players who understood theory, as, for example, when he saw “Misty” in the Real Book, spotted an E-flat-major-VII chord, and asked a roommate to play it. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been playing all along.’ From there, I learned how to identify what I saw on paper. I still ask questions.”

After garnering experience on chitlin’ circuit revues that included Bobby Rush and Johnnie Taylor, Malone spent much of 1983 in Houston with Hammond B3 practitioner Al Rylander. In 1985, just before he turned 22, he moved to Atlanta, where he quickly established bona fides on transitory engagements with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson and O.C. Smith. In 1986, he joined Freddy Cole, who offered a master class in the nuances of blending with a singer before firing Malone after several months because, the guitarist recalls, “I wasn’t there yet.”

Malone first visited New York in 1985. He promptly received a lecture on the virtues of sonic individualism from bassist Lonnie Plaxico after they played “Stablemates” at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater. “I respected Lonnie, because he’d played with Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon,” Malone says. “He asked where I was from. He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got good tone, good feeling, and you really hear those changes.’ Then he said, ‘I hear that you like Wes and George and all those guys. You might be able to get away with playing like them in Atlanta, but not here. Those guys were able to break through because they didn’t come here trying to sound like somebody else. They had their own thing, and people eventually caught on.’”

Two years later, Jimmy Smith took an Atlanta engagement, and invited the local hero to sit in for a blues, “The Sermon.” “After the head, I played all my pet licks and generated some superficial excitement,” Malone says. “Then Jimmy went into a ballad, ‘Laura,’ which I didn’t know. You can’t just hear your way through it, because it moves harmonically, with a lot of twists and turns. That’s when I found out I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. After he’d finished embarrassing me, Jimmy got on the microphone and said, ‘Whenever youngsters sit in with us, we like to make sure they learn something.’ He looked at me. ‘Now, did you learn something, young man?’”

After that set, Malone approached Smith at the bar to thank him for the opportunity. Smith, a black belt, turned and stuck his index finger in Malone’s solar plexus. “Let me tell you something,” Smith said, finger still in place. “I knew all those guys you’re trying to play like, and I also taught them. Don’t ever get on my bandstand with that bullshit again.” Then he invited Malone to his hotel room to play for him, telling the youngster about his life and experiences until 6:30 in morning. A year later, Smith hired Malone for his Southern and Midwestern tours.

“I’ve been around a lot of the older guys,” Malone says, reflecting on a cohort of associations that includes Smith, Rollins, Hall and Ron Carter. Another mentor was guitarist John Collins, who replaced Oscar Moore with the Nat King Cole Trio after quality time with, among others, Fletcher Henderson and Art Tatum. “John saw Andrés Segovia when he was a serviceman in World War Two, and remembered that he played the whole guitar, compared to young guitar players who focus on single lines like a horn player,” Malone says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re selling the instrument short. In the right hands, it can function as an orchestra. I never forgot that.”

He cited an encomium from Benny Carter, who was 94 when he heard Malone play his “All About You” on Marion McPartland’s Piano Jazz. “Benny told me he liked the way I treated ballads and my own songs because I respect the melody and don’t treat them like blowing vehicles,” Malone says. Dr. Billy Taylor — who himself sat at the feet of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum during formative years — learned Malone had been spending quality time with Carter. He said: “You’ve been around the real guys, doing it the right way, the way we did it coming up. You know what’s up. Nobody can come along and bullshit you.”

Perhaps the accumulated weight of these validations helps Malone sustain philosophical equanimity in processing the inequities he discerns as he approaches his own elder statesman years. “I meant what I said about critics who have racist agendas and jump on things that are devoid of ethnic elements,” he says. “But my attitude now is that what anyone decides to play ain’t my damn business. I’m just trying to play good music, what feels right, and at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for what I do. When I hung out with Ornette and Blood, I wasn’t concerned about trying to push the envelope. I was looking for a different musical experience. I’m not going to change who I am. I don’t classify my favorite musicians, like Hank Jones, as ‘modern.’ I steer away from that word. I see them as timeless. That’s how I want to be.”

SIDEBAR

“It’s all in the hands,” is all Russell Malone will say about his plush, full-bodied, instantly recognizable tone. “Everybody hears their sound in their head, no matter how old they are. I just heard a recording of me with a gospel group when I was 16. It sounds like me — the feel and everything else. You refine the nuances and subtleties over time, but it’s going to still sound like you.”

He points to a Gibson Super-400 standing by an armchair in his living room. “Kenny is the reason I play that guitar,” he says. “Just before I joined Jimmy Smith, he did a concert in Atlanta. He needed a Twin amplifier, and I had an old one, so I brought it for him to play his Super 400 through. I decided that if I ever made some money, I’d get one.

“I modeled my sound after him, Jim Hall and Mundell Lowe. They get this big, beautiful, round sound, where you can still hear the wood. Kenny picks great notes, plays great tunes. He also sings. Great composer. Master musician.”

Malone continues: “What attracted me to George Benson was the drive in his playing. He showed us that you can be a great musician and still be successful. That whole thing about being a starving artist never worked for him. It never worked for me either. I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full. A lot of people have disparaged George for ‘selling out.’ That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. The way I look at it, he cashed in on his talent.”

On a previous occasion, Malone had offered a list of guitar heroes that also included Chet Atkins, George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery. “I love everyone on that list, but Wes really sets my soul on fire,” he says. “I’ve loved every record I’ve heard by Wes Montgomery. He never played a bad note. Always got a good sound, good taste, and swung all the time.” —TP

 

Russell Malone Blindfold Test, Downbeat, 2004:

1. Ted Dunbar & Kevin Eubanks, “Fried Pies” (from Project G-7: A Tribute To Wes Montgomery, Vol. 1, Evidence, 1993) (Dunbar, Eubanks, guitars; Rufus Reid, bass; Akira Tana, drums; Wes Montgomery, composer)

This is a Wes Montgomery tune, Fried Pies. It’s two guitar players. This guitar player, whoever he is, is playing with his thumb, and he doesn’t seem to have good control. It would lay in the pocket better if he played it with a pick, I think. I have no idea who this is. I mean, this is just okay. It’s funny when you play a tune like this, that’s already been done right once. I almost never play songs by my heroes, because unless you can bring something to the table that’s equally as good or better than, what’s the point of playing it. Now the second guitarist is playing it. He sounds good. He seems to be more in the pocket than the other player. He’s got some fire, too. I like the bass player and the drummer; they’re locking up very nicely. Is that Kevin Eubanks? Ah!!! Ha-ha! Yeah! Now, that makes sense. This record was done about ten years ago, right? Was that other guitar player William Ash? I have no idea who the other player was, but I recognized Kevin immediately. There’s a certain way he attacks the notes. He’s not playing with the pick, he’s playing with his fingers, but he has a certain attack. That’s the reason why I was able to distinguish him. He plays very nicely. 4 stars for the bass player and drummer, because they really locked in well. Hell, 5 stars for Kevin. The other guitar player played nicely enough, but I would have liked it more if he’d been in the pocket. 3 stars for him. I’ll give the piece 3 stars. [AFTER] That was Ted Dunbar? Wow! I loved Ted. I never got to meet him. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. I heard Ted play before, and he could definitely play better than this.

2. Jonathan Kreisberg, “Gone With the Wind” (from New For Now, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Kreisberg, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Mark Ferber, drums)

This is nice. Is that John Abercrombie? I have no idea who it is, but he plays very nicely. He has a nice touch. The sound of the organ threw me in the beginning, because it sounded like one of those cute Farfisas or Wurlitzer, but now it sounds rich. Boy, this guitar player is killing! Oh, that’s Jonathan Kreisberg! So that must be Gary Versace on organ. I can’t remember the drummer’s name, but I think he plays with Jonathan every week. Jonathan’s a good friend of mine. Wonderful player. I’ve gone to see him a few times and listened to him, and once you become familiar with a person, you become accustomed to what they sound like. Everybody has a sound. Jonathan is younger than I am; I think he’s in his early thirties. I hear a lot of people talk about young guys don’t have a sound, which I think is total bullshit. Everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice; it just depends on how familiar you are with that person. If you listen to a person enough, then you will be able to distinguish it. That’s how I was able to distinguish Kevin on the previous thing you played me, and this is how I was able to distinguish Jonathan. There are certain things you key in on. Here it’s Jonathan’s sound and the ideas that he plays, and his touch. I love this tune, Gone With the Wind. I like that they took an old standard, and did something different with it. It sounds like they’re playing it in 6/4. Jonathan has chops in abundance, and one thing I like about his solo is that he really took his time and said something beautiful on the tune. Guys with that kind of ability to play whatever they want on the instrument sometimes have a tendency to overstate. But he didn’t do that, and I appreciate that approach. 4 stars for Jonathan.

3. Joel Harrison, “Folsom Prison Blues” (from Free Country. ACT. 2003) (Harrison, guitar; David Binney, alto sax; Rob Thomas, violin; Sean Conly, bass; Allison Miller, drums)

Man, this sounds like some of the sanctified music that I grew up hearing in my church. Oh, this is grooving. Is it Derek Trucks? Wow! I LIKE this cat, whoever he is. See, this is one of the things that guitar can do. It can bend notes, it can wail, it can cry. Whoo, man! Now, this was fine until the horn player started to play. He’s probably a bad cat, but he’s not really adding anything to this performance. Is it Bill Frisell? Oh, this is Folsom Prison Blues? The Johnny Cash tune. I didn’t recognize it without the lyrics. The guitar player, whoever he is, he just got right to the heart of the matter. But the horn player, though he’s probably a great musician, listening to him play is kind of like eating crabs. You’ve got to go through so much to get so little. He’s not really doing it for me. But the guitar player got right to the heart of the matter. Mark Ribot! It’s not Mark Ribot? Dammit. I give up. Joel Harrison? I’ve never heard of him. I’m going to go out and get some Joel Harrison records, man. That’s one of the ways I like to hear guitar played. Because the guitar is such an expressive instrument. It can do so many things, man. That’s going into the CD collection. Joel Harrison. 5 stars. I loved him. I’ve seen Dave Binney’s name, but I don’t know him. I like the bass player and the drummer. I like the whole band. Oh, I know Allison Miller. She’s great!

4. Rodney Jones, “Summertime” (from Soul Manifesto Live!, Savant, 2003) (Jones, guitar; Will Boulware, Hammond B3; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Kenwood Dennard, drums)

Whoever this is, I hear a very strong George Benson influence. The tune is Summertime. Rodney Jones. Which record is this from? Soul Manifesto Live? Okay. This is just okay. I’d like to have heard him pay closer attention to the melody. This is a personal thing with me. What he’s playing is great. That tune has such a beautiful melody. I’d like to hear a little less embellishment of the melody. It’s a little bit too much guitar for me. Now, Rodney’s bad. I’ve heard him play a lot more musically than this. It doesn’t do it for me. I love Rodney; he’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite guitarists, but I don’t feel this. I’ve heard him play a lot better. 2½ stars.

5. Jim Hall-Geoff Keezer, “End The Beguine” (from Free Association, Artists Share, 2005) (Hall, guitar, composer; Keezer, piano)

Mike Stern? No? Okay. Oh, I like the dissonance. The guitarist sounds like he’s picking close to the bridge. It sounds like he’s playing one of those solid body guitars. That’s cool. That doesn’t offend me at all. Mick Goodrick. It’s not Mick Goodrick? Ah, that’s Jim Hall. [LAUGHS] Yeah, go ahead, Jim! That’s Geoff Keezer. I heard them play this tune at the Vanguard when they played there a couple of years ago. These are two of my favorite musicians. Geoff Keezer is one of the greatest piano players walking the planet today. He can do anything; he’s so versatile. What can you say about Jim? He’s a magician. He’s like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat! Wouldn’t that be something to go see a magician, and then the rabbit pulls him out of the hat. That’s the way I see Jim. He’s such a quirky, unorthodox kind of guy, but he’s always musical. Never anything for the sake of being different. Everything that he plays and does has a purpose. One of my favorite things about him is that there’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein, and that’s okay to do, too. But Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too. 5 stars. Give Jim Hall the Milky Way. In the beginning I said Mike Stern and Mick Goodrick, but even though I was wrong I wasn’t too far off-base, because I know Jim Hall has influenced both of those players. What threw me in the beginning was that Jim was picking towards the bridge, and when you do that, it makes the tone of the guitar thinner, more brittle, and that’s not how I’m used to hearing Jim. But what gave it away was just the touch and the ideas.

6. Nguyen Lê, “Walking On The Tiger’s Tail” (from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail, Nonesuch, 2005) (Lê , guitars; Paul McCandless, oboe; Art Lande, piano; Jamey Haddad, percussion)

I like this. Really thick harmony. Thick chords. Is that a bass clarinet? Is it Adam Holdsworth? Nels Cline? Oh, wait a minute. Dave Fiuczynski. No? Okay. Damn. Whoever he is, he’s a heck of a player. I like it. Whoo! Ben Monder. Not Ben? It sounds spacious. It’s out there, but there’s a groove. I mean, you can pat your foot. It sounds good and it feels good. Is he European? [Yes.] This is good. I think I would appreciate this better if I was listening to these guys play live. After a while, it all starts to sound the same. There was some stuff that moved in certain spots, but now it’s going on and on and on. It doesn’t really do anything for me. But I liked what led up to this. I have no idea who the guitarist is. 3 stars. There’s no denying the ability. Everybody can play. That cannot be denied. Nguyen Le? I’ve heard him. He’s good! I’ve been meaning to check out more of him. I have nothing but respect for him, but as far as this performance, I’d appreciate it more if I was sitting there listening to them. I have some homework to do. There’s so much stuff out there. I’ve seen this guy’s name, and I have heard him play and I liked what I heard. What I heard by him was acoustic, and it was beautiful.

7. Bill Frisell, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from East-West, Nonesuch, 2005) (Frisell, guitar; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums)

I like this. He’s getting some very beautiful colors out of the instrument. Nice voicings. Is that Ben Monder? No. I like Ben. “My Man’s Gone Now,” a Gershwin tune. This is really pretty. Is that Paul Motian on drums? Is this Frisell? Aha. He does a lot of different things. He does a lot of things with swells and he uses effects. You never know what kind of bag he’s going to come out of. Oh, yeah! He’s a very wonderful musician, and he’s a very nice guy, too. I have to be honest with you. For a while, I had a problem with listening to guys like Bill Frisell and Metheny and Scofield, a lot of the white players. Not because they were bad musicians. It’s just that whenever white writers would write about these guys, I always got the feeling that they were making them out to be superior to a lot of the black players. So for a long time, I didn’t listen to these kinds of players, but after having met them, I found out that they don’t think like that at all. These are very nice men and they’re great musicians. 3 stars. This was very good. I like listening to things like this, but after a while I like to hear some time. I like to hear guys deal with time. But Frisell is great. He’s a wonderful musician. But for a while I didn’t want to hear guys like that, because of the way certain writers would write about them. But having met them, I know that they don’t think like that at all. These are very soulful guys. They’re just about the music.

8. Calvin Newborn, “Newborn Blues” (from New Born, Yellow Dog, 2005) (Newborn, guitar; Charlie Wood, organ; Renardo Ward, drums)

I like this. This is home here. This is where I live. Whoever this guy is, he likes B.B. King. That’s not B.B., is it? But he likes B.B., whoever he is. I know some critics might look upon this kind of thing as being dated and predictable and not pushing the music forward and whatever, but I NEVER get tired of this, man. The blues, man. To me, jazz needs that. I have no idea who this guy is, but give him the Milky Way, too, whoever the hell he is. I love this. I love the band. I love the way they’re locking in together. This is great. He’s not playing anything slick or fancy, but it makes sense, it works, and it sounds great. Oh, yes, yes, YES! Oh, yeah. Cornell Dupree? Calvin Newborn! Know how I knew? The touch! That’s what I’m talking about. All the stars in the universe. I’m very suspicious… You’ve played some great stuff today. But I read about a lot of players who the critics write about as players who are pushing the envelope or players who are breaking away from the tradition. I’m very suspicious about players who are described that way, because to me, all it means is that they deleted all of the ethnic elements out of the music—or the black elements out of the music. Players who adopt a Eurocentric perspective seem to be the ones who are described as pushing the music forward. I mean, I know the music has to move forward and everything, but come on, man. If you don’t have this, you got nothing. You might have something else, but you need those ethnic elements to have jazz, man. Some people may disagree with me, but that’s just the way I feel. Right on, Calvin Newborn. Bend those notes. Play that blues. [LAUGHS] Yeah! That’s how I feel about that one. Listening to him… I got the same feeling as I got when Joel Harrison played. I don’t care what color he is. I’m sure he’s white. But he is not afraid to acknowledge the blues, those black elements. He’s a brave white man who is not afraid to acknowledge that in his playing. My hat’s off to him.

9. Baden Powell, “Samba Triste” (from Live A Bruxelles, Sunnyside, 1999/2005 (Powell, guitar, composer)

This is just okay. Whenever I hear people play solo guitar, especially on the nylon string, I like to hear a lot less sloppiness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m nitpicking. I know it sounds like I am. But I have to tell you how I feel. This is a little sloppy for my taste. This doesn’t really go anywhere. If there is a melody, it’s damn near nonexistent. The tune is weak and I think it’s poorly played. I have no idea who this is. Whoever he is, it’s probably a legend. But this is a pretty poor performance. Is it Barney Kessel? Well, I don’t know if he did anything on the nylon string anyway. Bad guess. Bill Harris? He’s a guitarist who lived in D.C. who did some things on the nylon string guitar. No, this is not good. 1star. That’s Baden Powell? That’s surprising, because I’ve heard him play. I feel really bad that I don’t like this, because I love Baden Powell. He’s a monster player. I love the way he plays. But this is not a good performance. I’ve heard him play on other things, and the touch is a little more delicate than this.

10. Paul Bollenback, “Too High”(from Soul Grooves, Challenge, 1999) (Bollenback, guitar, arranger; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Jeff Watts, drums; Broto Roy, tabla; Stevie Wonder, composer)

This is a catchy tune. The band is swinging. Is this Too High? Yeah. That’s a Stevie Wonder tune. This is nice. They put a lot of thought into this. I have no idea who the guitar player is. Now, the guitar player has got some chops. Once again, a very strong Benson influence. George is all over the place. Is it Paul Bollenback? Okay. [LAUGHS] I know his ideas and his touch. Very nice arrangement. He put some thought into this. It’s very well played. Is that Joey on organ? Byron Landham on drums? Billy Hart? Whoever he is, he’s really locking in, man. He’s swinging, laying that pocket down. That’s Tain? Whoa! That doesn’t surprise me. He played on my all-ballad record, Heartstrings, and Tain, man… He’s got the whole history of the drums. There are a lot of young drummers coming up nowadays who are influenced by him, but I don’t think they’ve really checked out what makes Jeff Watts, Jeff Watts. He’s got Kenny Clarke, he’s got Baby Dodds, he’s got Elvin, he’s got Tony—he’s got everything. And he’s incorporated all of these influences and came up with his own thing. Yeah! 4 stars. With Tain, swinging is not an afterthought. Whatever wild and crazy things he does, it’s all rooted in swing. It’s all about that groove. It’s never an afterthought for him.

11. Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Brooklyn Sometimes”(from Deep Song, Verve, 2005) (Rosenwinkel, guitar, composer; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)

Kurt Rosenwinkel. That’s Kurt! He’ s a great musician. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s always very musical. I have quite a few of his records around here. He’s a wonderful musician. Plays the piano. Knows the instrument and the history of the music. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a phenomenal player. That’s his latest release on Verve, Deep Song. I have it. That’s the beauty of being in New York. You have so many different types of musicians here. So many different types of music to take advantage of. I always tell young players when they come here, don’t just get locked into one thing. You may have your taste and your preferences, but go out and hear all kinds of different things. Go out and hear these different kinds of players, because you may find something you’re able to use. That’s why I love being in the city, because I get to hear all kinds of players on any given night. 4 stars.

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A 2012 Downbeat article with trumpeter Paolo Fresu, a 2012 Blindfold/Winefold Test with Fresu, and the complete interview for the Downbeat article

Earlier today, I uploaded an omnibus post documenting my encounter with Enrico Rava at the Barcelona Jazz Festival in 2011. The following year, 2012, I returned to Barcelona to do another Downbeat Blindfold/Winefold Test, this one with the magnificent, mystical trumpeter Paolo Fresu, who I also interviewed for an article of reasonable length. The order here is, first, the article; then the Blindfold/Winefold Test; then the complete interview that generated the article. (I’ll be conducting a public interview with Fresu in Milan on Nov. 4th.)

 

Paolo Fresu Article:

On Tuesday, November 13th, his last day in Spain after a string of consecutive concerts—duos with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa in Madrid, Malaga, Seville, and Granada; a duo in Manresa with nuevo flamenco guitarist Niño Josele; a performance in Barcelona two nights previous with the Alborada String Quartet, and, the previous evening, at the wine club Monvinic, a programmatic solo suite of eight compositions that refracted his impressions of eight different Catalan vineyards—Paolo Fresu took a day off from playing the trumpet and flugelhorn. Fresu slept in, then descended to the lobby of the Hotel Gran Havana with his bags and instruments and checked them at the desk. After grabbing an espresso and a few bites of croissant at a café, he proceeded to Monvinic, where he devoted his attention to the nine musical selections—each matched to a separate glass of wine—comprising the DownBeat Blindfold/Winefold Test. Later, after a lunch of couscous salad and a bottle of beer, he returned to the hotel lobby for a conversation.

“I am happy when I can play with different bands every night, because it’s so creative—each time, good questions and a new answer,” Fresu remarked. He described a summer 2011 project, undertaken for his fiftieth birthday, involving 50 concerts in 50 nights at 50 different locales in Sardinia, the Italian island that is his homeland, using solar-powered generators for amplification. “I like to change, to jump into the projects. It’s easy for me to do, because on all of them we have a good level of communication. And the first thing you need for communication is the sound. If you share your sound with the other musicians, it’s very easy to play and learn music with them. If the sound is good and we have good relations, you can find a good place in any music without a problem.”

In a few hours, Fresu would return to actualizing this principle on the road, catching an evening flight to Geneva, where, the following evening, he would apply his big, round sound to a triologue with accordionist Bebo Ferra and soprano saxophonist Gavino Murgia. On next evening, he would perform a solo “action” in Lausanne connected with an art premiere; on the next, another duo with Sosa in Conhillac; on the next, a performance in Toulon with the Corsican choir A Filetta and accordionist Daniele Di Bonaventura in conjunction with the 2011 ECM release Mistico Mediterraneo. From Toulon he’d proceed to Soresina, in northern Italy, for a duo with pianist Dado Moroni, then a second day off before concluding this 14-night tour in Cenon, France, again in duo with Sosa, with whom—and Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum—he recorded Alma [Otá] in 2011.

“For me, Paolo’s voice is a mix of Chet Baker and Miles Davis with a bit of his own Mediterranean touch,” Sosa said, describing what it feels like to play with his frequent partner. “Sometimes his voice is like a little bird, sometimes an angel drawing me to a special direction—a little voice that you can listen to in your dream.”

Sosa recounted their first meeting, perhaps a dozen years ago at the festival that Fresu has curated since 1988 in his hometown, Berchidda, a farming village of 3200 souls near the northeast coast of Sardinia.

“It was Paolo’s concept to present a band at the main stage, and then a special project the next day in a different part of the island,” Sosa said. “He invited me to play solo by a eucalyptus tree. In the middle of the concert, I heard a trumpet. I looked around. It was Paolo on top of the tree. I thought, ‘Wow, my man is crazy.’ I switched to play some real conceptual Latin thing, and he followed. I said, ‘Hey, my man is in the tree, but he listened to what I do.’ He’s got the freedom to create a moment and a space and be himself, no matter what happens.”

“Why not play over the tree?” Fresu asked rhetorically. “The tree is one of the elements of this concert. For me, place is very important in music.” He mentioned a Berchidda encounter under that eucalyptus tree with Tunisian oudist Dhafer Youssef and Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Lê; a duo with Bill Frisell “in the middle of nowhere”; and a Dadaesque meta-event with pianist Uri Caine, his frequent duo partner since the middle-aughts (documented on Things (2006) and Think (2009) [EMI/Blue Note]).

“Uri was in the train station in my village,” Fresu recounted. “The train stopped. Uri played ‘I Love You Porgy.’ The train started again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrived, Uri was there with the same piano and the same song.

“In contemporary society, we think about jazz music in jazz clubs or in theaters. It’s always the same dynamics—you’re in your seat, you wait for the musician, the musician arrives, you clap, he plays, and then you go home. The relationship between the place, the music, and the people is a magical thing. If we are together in a new place, in a mountain or by a lake or the sea, or in a small church in Sardinia, or a hospital or a prison, the energy and feeling is completely different. It’s not comfortable, and this is nice for the music—you know you need to exert more energy, play better than always, because the place is bigger than you. Communication is a political word, I know, but it is very important. Every concert is a kind of tale, but we need to read the same book.”

Fresu didn’t mention it, but according to Caine, “thousands of people” attended the 50 concerts in 50 places marathon. “Paolo wants music to be a way to show something else,” he said. “We play a lot of standards, but also Sardinian and Italian folk music, and classical and baroque music. He’s always thinking about the moods, and he gets into them, which makes it easy to play. As you play over a period of time, you focus on the details, the different things you can do within those moods. That seems to capture the imagination not just of the people who are playing the music, but the audience.” Whatever the context, Caine added, “he sounds very lyric and can also swing.”

[BREAK]

In Fresu’s opinion, his ability to refract diverse musical dialects into a holistic conception stems in great part from the quality of his relationships. “I have played with the same people for many years,” he said. As a first example, Fresu offered his postbop-oriented Italian quintet, in which he’s played with saxophonist Tino Tracanna, pianist Roberto Cipelli, bassist Attilio Zanchi, and drummer Ettore Fioravanti since 1983. He noted his long-standing trio with pianist-accordionist Antonello Salis and bassist Furio DiCastri; the decade’s tenure of the Angel Quartet (Nguyen Lê, guitars; DiCastri, bass; Roberto Gatto, drums); and the still-ongoing eight-year run of the Devil Quartet, with Ferra on guitars, Paolino Della Porta on bass, and Stefano Bagnoli on drums. He cited his seven-year association with Caine; a decade-plus of breaking bread with Yousef and Lê; and five years with Ralph Towner (the latter documented on the 2009 ECM disk Chiaroscuro) and the Mare Nostrum trio with accordionist Richard Galliano and pianist Jan Lundstrom.

“It is fantastic,” said Fresu of such long-haul partnerships, “because finally we have one sound. You hear a concert live, and the first thing you remember is the sound of the concert. It’s like the first idea of the menu, and then you go inside and think of the saxophone player or the pianist. If the cover isn’t so good, then maybe the rest isn’t important. When I started my quintet and quartet, the first thing was to create a good cover for the music, which wasn’t easy. After three or four years, you can go everywhere, and it’s all like your music. It’s important when you play a standard that your version is different than the 2,000 versions before.”

A self-taught player, Fresu refined his ears and developed the notion of music as conversation during a long apprenticeship in Berchidda’s marching band, “My brother had played trumpet for them, and gave it up,” he recalled. “When I was 11, I asked the maestro to let me be part of the group, which I had been following in the street, and when he gave me the first score, I knew it very well. From 1972 until 1979, when I was 18, I played for them, and also weddings with small combos and dances in the square.” He discovered jazz soon after matriculating at the Conservatory of Cagliari, at Sardinia’s southern tip, when he heard on the radio an unidentified bebop trumpeter. “I was completely shocked at this fast playing, and was impressed by the gymnastics. Then I heard Miles—‘Round Midnight,’ 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles on the Harmon mute. I thought, ‘OK, this is my idea of music’ because there was a lot of silence, and it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many months trying to play exactly like this. The attrazzione of the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this.”

Not long thereafter, he heard a cassette of Miles playing “Autumn Leaves” from the In Europe album of 1963. “I knew it as ‘Le Foglie Miele,’” Fresu says. “Although I listened every day for a week, I couldn’t hear the theme, which was distorted and complex. That was my first lesson that jazz was freedom. It is possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

“When I think about Miles, I think about the architettura, the system of constructing the music in my quintet. I also liked Chet and Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Dizzy, too, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, always an even, quarter-note swing, and also creative in that you play one melody and then try to move the melody in another way. I like to be very close to the tradition, not to play it exactly, but in this way, and then I like to go very far with other things. Today’s musicians have a big responsibility to connect the past with the music’s future. Every one of the nine trumpet players we heard today tried to find it.”

This imperative to connect ancient and modern, to find common ground between Sardinian vernaculars and musical dialects of other cultures, deeply informs Fresu’s intense partnerships with Sosa, Youssef and Lê. Towards this end, he interpolates into the flow real-time electronics, both to lengthen the notes from his trumpet and flugelhorn, whether Harmon-ized or open, and to augment his acoustic tone with a lexicon of celestial shrieks and rumbly whispers. During the two Barcelona concerts, he also showcased an extraordinary circular breathing technique, which he learned on performances with Luigi Lai, “a big maestro” of the launeddas, an indigenous polyphonic Sardinian instrument.

“I developed this, but nobody showed me,” he said. “It’s just that I am very fond of Sardinian traditional music, and jazz and classical started to mix with it. Maybe that relationship was the door to my playing projects with people from Brittany or Vietnam or North Africa or Cuba. One day I was flying from Paris to Tunis. When the captain said, ‘We’re arriving in twenty minutes,’ I looked out the window, and there was Cagliari. It’s just across the water from Africa. Also, the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years; the people from Alghero, where my wife is from, speak fluent Catalan. So there’s a relationship between Morocco and Spain and Sardinia, which is why Cuban culture is not far.”

Sosa himself perceives a close connection between Cuban and Sardinian folk traditions. “You can hear the counterpoint of the guajira in the canto a tenore,” he said. “They have something called mamuthones, a mask the country people use to put away the spirit. We have the same thing in the abakua tradition in Cuba.”

To explore and illuminate these ritualistic connections, to evoke palpably such spirits of the past is Fresu’s primary goal in deploying electronics, which he considers a separate instrument. “It’s primitive, archetypal, mystical music,” he said. “I started using electronic stuff just to preserve the sound quality when I’d change to Harmon mute on stage, because the sound engineers knew nothing and fucked it up. As I played with it, and listened to people like Mark Isham and Jon Hassell, who is the master for everyone in Europe who uses electronics, I discovered different possibilities of harmonizers and delays.

“I like very much to stay in many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Sometimes you go inside the new one, and it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes you enter a new room with another window or another door. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past. It’s not music from any particular countries. It’s emotional music, like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food.”

[—30—]

************

Paolo Fresu Blindfold Test (Raw):

[WINE DESCRIPTIONS ARE IN ITALICS]

1. Brian Lynch, “Wetu” (from Unsung Heroes, Hollistic Musicworks, 2009) (Lynch, trumpet; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Rob Schneiderman, piano; David Wong, bass; Pete Van Nostrand, drums; Louis Smith, composer)

López de Heredia Rioja Viña Tondonia blanco

This work of Brian Lynch is a tribute to musicians that has some influence, the “heroes” of the past, in this case the fast tempo reminds us the bebop.

To keep the legacy of our grandfathers and make of each bottle a tribute of them, is the goal of the family López de Heredia. They kwon that all what they do and what they are, is thanks to the received legacy. Their wines have the unique taste of the traditional old fashioned style of white Rioja.

I’ll try to speak in English, and sometimes in a kind of Esperanto language—Italian, Sardinian, Spanish, and Castiliano. [WHILE MUSIC IS PLAYING] It feels like “Donna Lee,” but it’s not “Donna Lee.” I don’t know who is the trumpet, but this is fantastic. He’s a young one. More or less? [Middle-aged.] It is mainstream jazz, but it is very interesting language with trumpet. It’s between Miles sometimes… It’s like Miles, some phrases, and sometimes it’s a bop player. I don’t know which name is the tune. Some phrases, it’s like “Donna Lee” from the endings. [MUSIC FADES] I don’t know who is the trumpet player, but this is a good one. I like very much! I don’t know which is the theme. I think it’s an original theme. But the idea is… It’s like “Donna Lee,” the Charlie Parker tune that starts for the ending. Perhaps we can put on the ending just for the theme, because it’s very interesting. [SINGS OPENING REFRAIN OF “DONNA LEE”] Yeah, it’s nice. I like it. I liked also the short solo of the alto player, that this was the ending… The starting of the solo was like Paul Desmond and this kind of area. I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Maybe it would be Roy Hargrove or one of those, but maybe not.

[“As a young trumpet player, after you discovered jazz, was bebop… Everyone knows you love Miles Davis and Chet Baker, but was bebop also important to you?”] The first trumpet player I heard in my life was on the radio, because there was not a sound system at home—like this, but also the basic one. It was on the radio, and there was a bebop player. I don’t know which one. It was the first time for me with jazz. It was completely new music. Maybe it was Clifford Brown or Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd or one of those. I was completely shocked about this. But not for… I was completely shocked for this kind of faster playing. It’s not possible for human people to play the trumpet like this! This was my first approach with jazz.

And then, after this, I heard Miles. The first one was “Round Midnight,” 1956, Columbia, with Coltrane and Miles with the Harmon mute also. And I think, “Ok, this is my idea of the music,” because there was a lot of silence. The Miles sound was amazing, incredible, because the sound of “Round Midnight,” when Miles started with the theme, it’s like the voice of Miles is there. I spent many, many months to try to play exactly like this. [LAUGHS] I remember finally I buy one sound system (it’s not like this one) and one microphone that I put in the sound system, and with the headphone I try to play one note, and the same elsewhere with the Miles sound.

So the first approach with jazz was the radio, and I was very impressed about the gymnastics of the music. The second one was Miles, and it was completely different. So the attrazzione for the music was not how many notes we can play, but one note and the silence after this. The strange thing is that I was in Sassari. Sassari is the town near my small village, just 70 kilometers, and every day I take bus to go there—round trip. People that were a jazz fan were playing in the cave in one cantina there, and they invite me to play with them. I played before with dancing groups for the square in Sardinia, the (?—12:31) or mazurka and polka and valse, and the Stevie Wonder covers, and Lucio Dala, the Italian pop star.

I played also the “Autumn Leaves” theme. The name in Italian “Les Foglie Morte.” [SINGS REFRAIN] One day the piano player gave to me one cassette with the theme of “Autumn Leaves.” I say, “Ok, but I know this theme.” But he gave me the cassette, and said, “Ok, go home and try to listen to this one.” I was at home, and for one week, every day, I heard the cassette, but the theme was not there; “Autumn Leaves” was not in this cassette. After one week I come back to Sassari and say, “Sorry, it was wrong information; the cassette is not this one, because I know the theme of ‘Autumn Leaves.’” But the version was Miles in 1963 in Joan Les Pins. The theme was completely different. The distortion of the theme was complicated. This one was my first lesson about jazz, that jazz was the freedom. It was possible to play very simple things in a very complicated way.

Then, after Miles, Chet was the other one that I liked. I heard also older trumpet players. But not Louis Armstrong. I know about Louis Armstrong many years after, and I know that this way is the same for me as Enrico Rava and Kenny Wheeler, a lot of European players, who think that Louis Armstrong is a very, very old age, you know… But finally, probably, he’s the main one or the best one, very modern for this period. The swing of Louis Armstrong, the sound, the idea, the relationship between melody and idea was incredible. So maybe Louis is the best one finally

[“Back to the piece we played… I don’t know how many times you’ve seen the Blindfold Test, which is optional, but strongly urged, from 1 to 5 stars.”]

The trumpet player maybe is 4 stars, but I stay at 3½ because I don’t know what happened after. [AFTER] “It’s from an album dedicated to his influences, trumpet heroes, but lesser-known trumpet influences.”

2. Wadada Leo Smith, “Spiritual Wayfarers” (from Heart’s Reflections, Cuneiform, 2011) (Smith, trumpet, composer; Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, electric guitars; Angelica Sanchez, piano; John Lindberg, acoustic bass; Skuli Sverrisson, electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff, drums)

Goyo Garcia Viadero Ribera del Duero Valdeolmos

Free Jazz.

Goyo García Viadero represents the freedom, the return to the origins, to the “natural wine” without any intervention. The spontaneous fermentation of the indigenous yeast makes a wine that expresses itself in a free way, far from the uniform style and rigid forms characteristic in the modern wines of Ribera del Duero.

Some phrases… I like the idea of the mix with electric guitar and the feeling of the tempo. It’s not easy, because he played just a few notes. The piece is under construction. I like the music, the mix between sounds and electric guitar. It’s like Miles’ idea in the ‘70s. I like this kind of thing, intervenzione of the trumpet that is… It’s no theme. Or it’s a little theme that is a little bit “Jean Pierre” in some moments. The trumpet player…I know it is not him, but the sound of him in some moments is like Don Ellis. But it’s not him, and it’s very far from Don Ellis, but the idea of the sound, especially in the highest register, is like him. But I don’t know who is the player. 3 stars. [AFTER] I know this record. I have this record. [LAUGHS]

3. Wallace Roney, “Pacific Express” (from Home, High Note, 2011) (Roney, trumpet; Antoine Roney, soprano saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, keyboards; Rahsaan Carter, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; John McLaughlin, composer)

Jerome Prevost Champagne La Closerie Fac-Simile Rosé

Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are some of the greatest trumpeters in the history of Jazz that influenced the career of Wallace Roney.

Jerome Prevost has a characteristic style with wines aged in barrels, with a deliberate oxidation, that adds complexity. Disciple of Anselme Selosse, (who is one of the most influential producers and with a best reputation in the last times in Champagne) you can recognize the keys of the style of the master in his wines.

I don’t have any idea who the trumpeter is. Is it an American trumpet player? A black trumpet player? A young one? [No. Your age.] Is this one of those like Roy Hargrove or… [MUSIC ENDS] I don’t know who is the trumpet player. The sound is like Miles in the ‘80s, and the trumpet player plays like Miles—not exactly like Miles, but the idea of the construction of the phrases is like Miles. I like very much the soprano saxophone solo, the sound and the architecture of the solo, but I don’t know who the trumpet player is. I like him, but in this case I prefer… I like the trumpet player, but I was not convinto about the idea of the solo, the construction of the solo. It was always without the dynamics, and I prefer the second one, for example—the saxophone solo. The sound is nice, but something that is not in a good way—for me, of course. 2½ stars. [AFTER] Ah, I understand now the kind of tune that they’re playing and the idea of the music.

4. Ron Miles, “Guest of Honor” (from Quiver, Enja, 2012) (Miles, trumpet, composer; Bill Frisell, guitar; Brian Blade, drums)

Valdespino Sherry Fino Inocente

“Miles plays brilliantly, singing the melodies with a tone bright and vocalized, tinged with melancholy…” –Down Beat

This wine has one of the most pure and precise aromatic and stylistic definitions. It is made with grapes that come from a unique single vineyard. Probably the Macharnudo vineyard, where grow the grapes of this particular wine, will deserve to be among the greatest names of the world of wine. Tinged with the melancholy of a glorious past.

This is like a kind of European idea for the composition. [MUSIC ENDS] I liked the tune. I liked the idea of the tune. It would be very close to the Fellini mood, like Nino Rota. The theme is very nice, with a lot of sense of humor. The sound of the guitar player is like Frisell, but it’s not him. But I don’t know who is the trumpet player. Because he played just the theme, and there’s no solos, nothing, and it’s not easy to find it. [“what did you mean that it’s a European idea of composition?”] That it’s the idea where the melody is very long, and it’s not solos inside, and… Well, the idea of the song would be like Enrico, for example. Sometimes Enrico writes a composition where the theme is the most important thing in the record. This one is without solos, and the melody is very long, and all the information about the song is inside in the melody. Then also, of course, the interplay between the guitar player, the bass player, and the drummer. But the idea of the composition for me is very European. So for these reasons. It’s difficult to rate this. I liked very much the song. Maybe 3½, because finally I like very much the idea of the music. I have no questions, because if I like it, I like it. [AFTER] Wow. [Vittorio: He loves your music.] Ah, that was Bill! It’s strange, Bill. Because the sound of Bill is more ambient, reverb… Here it was very dry. The reason why I thought it was not him—but it was very close to him, of course.

5. Etienne Charles, “J’ouvert Barrio” (from Kaiso, Culture Shock, 2011) (Charles, trumpet; Brian Hogans, alto saxophone; Jacques Schwartz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums)

Springfield Robertson Sauvignon blanc

Fusion Jazz with Caribbean rhythms

This wine represents the perfect fusion of a French grape planted in South Africa, where develop its own personality. The grape Sauvignon blanc comes from the Loire Valley, and the wine there is austere, fresh and with restrained aromas. But in other parts of the world, like in this case South Africa, the wine becomes lush, with exotic perfumes of tropical fruits, without the loose of its essence of a dry fresh wine.

This is the school of Freddie [Hubbard], the idea of his… But the record is different, because Freddie was more… He played with a lot of dynamics and different ideas at the same time. Is it a black player or a white trumpet player? American? [Not from the United States.] [MUSIC ENDS] The music is a kind of mix with Latin jazz. But the language is not in this way. It’s modern jazz. I liked the mix between both languages. I liked the song. I liked the interplay between the musicians. The piano player is fantastic. I like also this idea, the mix of the Latin rhythmic parts with the theme. I don’t know who the trumpet player is, but I like him. The sound sometimes is very close to Freddie for me, in some moments. But the difference is that Freddie was always very…started the solo here, and finish with incredible projection…projezzione, the solo… So he played sometimes like Freddie Hubbard, but then he left this idea and go into new ones and new… He had a lot of ideas and he started with one, and then it’s finished, and then he goes to another one. But I don’t know who the player is. 3 stars. [AFTER] Where is the trumpet player from? [He’s from Trinidad.] He’s a young guy? [About 30.]

6. Tom Harrell, “Journey To The Stars” (from Number Five, High Note, 2012) (Harrell, solo flugelhorn and overdubbed trumpet chorus, composer; Danny Grissett, piano)

Bruno Lorenzon Mercurey Cuvée Carline

In the last years the greatest wines for some critics and some amateurs, has been those that use to have a lot of color, body and concentration. The grape Pinot Noir, fight against the difficulties, the lack of color and power, with its intense perfume and its delicate character.

And into a glass of wine becomes the favorite for the aficionados.

The wines of Brune Lorenzon have a soft velvet texture, with a fresh and persistent taste. And the aromas are delicate and penetrating, pure aromatic lyricism.

This is an American guy? Yes? He’s young. No? I like the sound and the idea of the two trumpets, the harmon mute. But the sound is like a European trumpet player. For example, the Italian trumpeter, Flavio Boltro, plays with this idea. I don’t know if he’s on flugelhorn or on trumpet. [Ralph Alessi: “flugelhorn”] I like also the sound of the Harmon mute. Sometimes a lot of trumpet players, when they play with the Harmon mute, the sound is not… For me, the sound of the Harmon mute is the Miles one! When the Harmon mute is so small… I like, for example, for the European ones, the sound of Palle Mikkelborg—that is one of the best about this idea. This is the first one that plays also a little like myself. It’s different, of course, But the idea of the phrases and the sound, the Harmon sound and the flugelhorn sound, is more or less the same. In this song, the construction of the phrases is like the short ideas, so one here, the other one here, but every one is in relationship with each other. Finally, it’s akind of small colors, a lot of different colors, but with just one line. There’s a kind of impressionistic music. The piano plays the same thing. It’s like minimal music, or ambient music. Then, over this, so that the flugelhorn is floating over it…and the color of the Harmon mute is the last stroke. Of course, it’s just piano and trumpet. So the difference between this one and the pieces we heard before is that here you have no interplay, but the piano is just the carpet for the ideas. The sound is very nice. So everything is in the perfect place. I don’t know who it was. I had ideas about the European ones who play…not exactly, but like him. But I don’t know who it is. In everyone I ask you if this is a young guy or not, and you say, “no, it’s not very young,” but the problem is we don’t know… I am 51, and for me, I am very young, and my perspective about the age is completely different from before. Because for me, the young player are the people who are 25 years or 30—maximum—years old. Maybe not for you. [I’m 57.] You’re 57. [So you’re young.] Because for me, the young trumpet player is all the guys who were growing up with me. For example, Roy Hargrove or Dave Douglas or people like that, are young people, and Ralph Alessi is a young person, but maybe not for the other. It is very sad! 5 stars. No, 4. [Why did you say 5 and then correct?] No, it was a mistake. It was a lapse. A Freud lapse. [AFTER] Of course ! [POUNDS TABLE] So now everything is clear. [“He’s very popular in Italy.”] Yeah, I’m played with him also. He’s one of my favorite trumpet players. Because the sound is fantastic, and he plays with a lot of emotion, so every note is the good one. This is the reason why, when I heard it, my idea was transferred to Europe, because we have a lot of trumpet players who can play like him—not with the same quality, but… And he’s also very close to me because the idea about the music is the same.

7. Dave Douglas, “Frontier Justice” (from Orange Afternoons, Greenleaf, 2011) (Douglas, trumpet, composer; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Vijay Iyer, piano; Linda Oh, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Navazos-Niepoort Andalucia 2010

“The recordings focus on short, informal sessions featuring Douglas with different groups in an effort to bring music quickly from the studio to the fans. Reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Workin,’ Steamin,’ Relaxin,’ and Cookin’ albums on Prestige Records which, according to jazz lore, were recorded in just two days and mostly in single takes. Many albums of the 1950s and 60s were recorded this way, and Greenleaf looks to this style of recording as a model.”

This wine represents the recover of what was supposed to be the Sherry wines in the XVIII century. An effort to recover an style of wine and lost techniques. The layer of yeast that covers the wine for a few months appears in a spontaneous way and adds the peculiar taste to this wine. The wine comes from a single vintage, without the traditional blending of different vintages, and the long ageing in barrels,

I know that horn player from the three notes, just like this, and also for the construction of the music. It’s a lot of information at the same moment, and I like this. The saxophone player sometimes is like Lovano. I don’t know who is the piano player. I’m thinking about Uri [Caine], but it’s not Uri. Is the drummer Clarence Penn? Also, the sound is Dave, but it was easy for me when he had the three notes, the chops that I know. The exact moment that he played those notes, I know. [AFTER MUSIC] Dave Douglas. Finally, one! After six… [APPLAUSE] It’s very interesting, because I think about him because the construction of the music was very complicated, so it’s much information at the same time. But then, the moment that I know that it was Dave was when he played three notes in the highest register with one special inflection of the tuning that I know. It’s nice. I like the song. The feeling of the song is like Wayne Shorter compositions from the Miles period. I like also the saxophone player, who played a little bit like Joe Lovano, but it’s not him, of course. I have no idea about the piano; I was thinking about Uri, but it’s not him. I thought the drummer was Clarence Penn, but it’s not. 4 stars. [AFTER] I think about Linda, but I was not sure, because we were playing together last year in Sardinia, with a new project, with me, Avishai Cohen, Enrico Rava, Dave, with Uri, Clarence and Linda Oh—one concert there.

8. Fabrizio Bosso-Antonello Salis, “Domenica a sempre domenica” (from Stunt, Parco Della Musica, 2008) (Bosso, trumpet; Salis, accordion [fisarmonica])

Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

Some describes this joint of Antonello Salis and Fabrizio Bosso as the joint of the refinement and the fury.

The piedmonts’ grape Nebbiolo, always represents a contrast between its refined perfume, pungent, intense and enchanting, and the fury of the texture and the acidity in he palate. A rough and harsh texture due to the tannins of the grape, that sticks in the palate, in a pleasant way; and a fresh and tasty acidity that increases the delicious bitterness of the wine.

[LAUGHS] That’s Antonello. And maybe…I wait for… The trumpet player is Fabrizio. I know the sound of Fabrizio; I know it very well. Here, for example. It’s a good mix between the mainstream… [‘Tiger Rag’ section] Yeah, the accordion, the fisarmonica (because it’s different) is Antonello Salis, an Italian player. The crazy one, who is also a piano player. But I know, because the sound of the accordion is Antontello, and then he sings… He’s a good friend of mine, and we started together in 1985, I think, and then we play a lot as a trio with Furio di Castri. We’ve done many, many projects together. The duo project. He was inside my Kind of Porgy and Bess for BMG. I remember the first time that I met you in the office of Daniel (?—53:33) in Paris a long time ago. The trumpet player is Fabrizio Bosso, one of the best European players. Fabrizio is amazing. He’s a little crazy. For me, he’s one of the best trumpet players in the world. He needs just to be a little bit maturo… [RALPH: Mature.] Yes. He’s a young player… Trento… For me, it’s young, but it’s not young. 2 stars for this, because I think it is not… I am sorry for this. These are both good friends. But I give 2 stars because it is not communication. So everyone plays in one room. [LAUGHS] Each one played fantastic, but not together. It’s not a good example for jazz. Because Fabrizio played a lot of information. So the difference between the duo and the Dave Douglas tunes is that in Dave’s music there’s a lot of information at the same time, but everything is in a good place. Here it’s a duo that play and speak together a different language. And when we play a duo, we need to play together, because otherwise it’s nothing. No? I like very much Antonello… Antonello is my love, because Antonello is Antonello. It’s not possible to compare Antonello with a piano player, with an accordion player. Antonello is Antonello, for his life, for his human approach with life. He is a genius. He is an immense musician. When I speak about Antonello, it is not possible to compare him with other musicians. Fabrizio is a very good player, incredible technique, sounds fantastic. He needs just to be a leader in the groups. He’s a fantastic soloist. The best performance from him is when he played 8 bars in the solos for the pop stars or something. He played 8 bars, and I heard this and said, “Wow. Incredible.” Then, when he plays music… He loves sometimes, you know, the goal. But he has time to grow up. He’s a very nice friend of mine, and I write the liner notes for his record with a symphonic orchestra—not the last one with Nino Rota, but the one before.

9. Christian Scott, “Spy Boy/Flag Boy” (from Christian aTunde Adjuah, Concord, 2012) (Scott, trumpet, composer; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Lawrence Fields, keyboards; Kristopher Keith Funn, bass; Jamire Williams, drums)

Fritz Haag Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Juffer Sonnenhur

The whisper technique of Christian Scott imitates the human voice playing trumpet.

Andreas Larsson, Best Sommelier of the World 2007, described a wine in the shortest and, probably, most wonderful way that I ever eared. He described this particular Mosel Riesling like this: “This wine is like: Ummmm, a blow of fresh air”. Onomatopoeia, the human voice in its most primitive estate, to express in a brief and clear way the scented perfume, deep and pungent of this wine, that is at he same time delicate and fine.

Is the trumpet player American? [“American.”] I know him. I know the idea of the sound, the quality of… I know who is this trumpet player, but I don’t know the name. It’s the most close to Freddie for me. The trumpet has a very heavy sound, and the idea of the intonzaione (intonation) and vibrato is like Freddie—but it’s not him, of course. The record is not very old. [Yes, it’s a new recording. And a younger player. Even if you were younger, it would be a younger player.] It’s one of those new…what’s the name of…the black guy… I was thinking about Ambrose Akinmusire, but it’s someone else. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Christian Scott. I don’t know him? Is he young? [He’s 29. He’s done three or four recordings. He has a contract with Concord. He’s Donald Harrison’s nephew.] He’s a nice player.

***************

Paolo Fresu (Nov. 13, 2012):

TP: …blog-site. They might have taken it off the radio.

PF: Because we’re playing together, two eyes. The first one was two years ago, because I invited Dave for the master class in the Stage… I am also Director to the Jazz State in Sardinia in the summertime, for 24 years now. Every year we have a short master class for three days for all the students. There are 120 students. Steve Lacy was there, Sheila Jordan, Ralph Towner, Enrico, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Liebman…

TP: There’s a record I downloaded on which you play a couple of tracks with Dave Liebman.

PF: Yes, but this is a very old one. This is my second one… In 1985. My first record under my name was 1984. The title is Ostinato, with my Italian quintet. The second one was with my Italian quintet plus Dave.

TP: I can get these details later. But it sounds like your educational activity is one way you formed performing associations with other musicians.

PF: Yes.

TP: It’s a very good one.

PF: Well, I was born in Sardinia. Sardinia is an island, and my small village is an island inside of the island. So nothing happens there. Except now, because the festival is 25 years; it’s one of the bigger festivals in Italy now. You can imagine that the village is 3,000 people, and during the festival we have more than 35,000 people there. It’s amazing. It’s in August, between the 9th and 16th.

TP: Is there enough room for everyone?

PF: Well, it’s not 35,000 people in one day. But we have two hotels, and camping, and bed-and-breakfast. It’s incredible, because it’s a lot of energy.

TP: What is the economy of the village? A fishing village?

PF: It’s a rural economy. But it’s 20 kilometers from the sea. It’s nothing to do with the sea. So the economy there is a rural economy. So the land and cow and a lot of farms. My father was a farmer, so he was not an artist, no bourgeois…

TP: You don’t come from a bourgeois family.

PF: He was… Well, we are, because my father and my mother are still alive. My father is 88 and my mother 86. It was a very poor family, so it was nothing to do with art. So a lot of energy…he spent a lot of money for my studies. Because I did electronic studies before.

TP: I noticed that. Which puts your sampling, the electronics in your music…

PF: Well, I don’t know if there is a relationship with this. When I started with the electronic stuff, it was because… I think that in jazz, the most important thing is the sound. We have a lot of parameters in the music—sound, and then the melody, and then the harmony, and the construction, and the dynamics, and a lot of different things that finally we put together. For me, the sound is on the top. It’s the first one. If the sound is not good, the rest is nothing. It’s like when you build a very big house, if you don’t put the first stone in a good position, so after…

TP: Is your brother a good trumpet player?

PF: No-no-no, my brother was in the marching band, and then he…

TP: He gave it up.

PF: Yes. I see this trumpet—I was very young—at home, and my dream was to touch this 0instrument and play. When I was 11 years old, I asked the maestro from the band to be a part of the group, and he said, “Ok, you can play the clarinet or the tuba.” I said, “No-no, please, I need to play the trumpet, because we have one trumpet at home, and this is the reason why I play trumpet.”

TP: Did your brother teach you? Did you have a teacher?

PF: Nobody teach me. When I started in the band, I know everything, because when the band was in the street I followed them. This was my dream. Finally, when the maestro gave me the first score, I said, “I know this one very well.” “Why?” “I know, because I…” This one was my first school, and then I played for weddings many years with small combos, and in the square for dancing music, until… From ‘72 until ‘79, more or less.

TP: From when you were 11 until you were 18.

PF: Well, yes. In the last part of this experience with dancing bands, I tried to play a little bit the “Nucleus” composition from Ian Carr. But it was very funny, because when we were playing this music, all the people in the square, the old people stopped completely, saying, “What’s happened?”

TP: Did you develop a sound pretty quickly on the trumpet?

PF: No. When you play with the marching band, you are very lucky, because we started to play very quickly with 50 people together. It is fantastic. When you get to the conservatory, for example, the piano player don’t play with nobody for 8 years. This is terrible. This is completely stupid. You stay home, play scales and everything for 8 years, and then finally you can share the music with each other. For me, it was fantastic.

TP: It’s always collective.

PF: Because I was very young. It was like the Dixieland bands. You play with other people. The guy that plays just in the back of you plays the same thing, but it’s different. Plays different. You say, “Wow, fantastic.” We play the same notes, but he played a kind of abellimente(?)… For me, this was really incredible and fantastic. But it’s not good for the sound. The maestro is the one maestro for all the instruments—trumpet and trombone and tuba and clarinet and saxophones. The techniques were very bad. When you share the music at 11 years old with other people, the most important things is the communication, but not the quality of your sound. Because your sound is one small part of a very big picture.

TP: A lot of people can develop a good sound on an instrument, but not a lot of people can develop an approach to music where it’s like a conversation. Which you seem to have had from the beginning, and seems to be characteristic of what you do. I’d think it’s why you take on so many projects.

PF: yeah. I think that I was very lucky also, because my first group was my Italian quintet. My Italian quintet is a really Italian group, because the drummer is from Rome. It was 1982. The drummer, Ettore Fioraventi, is from Rome. The piano player is from Cremona, the bass player is from Milano, and the saxophone player from Bergamo. And I am from Sardinia. I was in Sardinia, I lived there, and the other people was Rome, Cremona, Milan, and Bergamo.

TP: Do you consider yourself as part of Italy or as Sardinian?

PF: Sardinia is Italy, but it’s an island. We speak another language. So we have a lot of different things to Italian. So when we travel to Italy, we go to Italy from Sardinia. Politically it’s Italy, but it’s an island—it’s completely different.

When I started with this group, it’s the group that exists now, so it’s 29 years with the same people. We recorded between 16 and 20 records together. The human relation with those guys was fantastic, and it was my first school to play and to speak with. I was very lucky, because in this group the communication in life and in music was really easy. After this, the rest of the groups… When I think about music, I think about the good relationship with the musicians first, and then it’s easy when you find the good ones to play together. Because otherwise, no…

TP: For instance, this coming week, you’re going to be working… You’ve worked with a string quartet that includes your wife. Then you did the solo yesterday. You’re going to play a trio tomorrow with Bebo Ferra and…

PF: Gavino Murgia.

TP: A few days after that you’ll play a duo with Richard Galliano…

PF: …and I was here with Omer, and then I play with Uri…

TP: And this is your life, going around to play with different people.

PF: I like this. Listen. If I tour with the same people for one week, it’s too much! [LAUGHS} Sometimes in the summertime, for example, I play 50 days, 60 days without a day off, everywhere in the world, and I am very happy when I can play a lot with the different bands every night, because it’s more creative. So every night, you have a night with good questions and a new answer. Of course, I like to play also for one week with my musicians, because the level of the music every night is better. But finally, I like very much to change, to jump in the projects. Depending, because if you are all the same, it’s very easy. If you need to change yourself and to change everything in the music, to find the door… You have a lot of doors here, but if you need to find a good one every night, maybe it is a mistake. So for me, it’s easy to play with different projects, probably because in all the projects we have a good level of communication. And the first word for the communication is the sound. If the sound is a good one, you have nothing to explain and nothing to speak with people.

TP: Where I’m going, and maybe you’ll think this is a silly question, is: do you relate your ability to do that… That’s not something that everybody likes to do. Do you relate your ability to do that to these early experiences as an ear musician in the marching band, being surrounded by other voices, other sounds? It seems as though you were initially an ear musician, a street musician, and then you evolved into a refined art musician who mastered the technique of the trumpet, and arranging, and different languages and dialects, absorbed a lot of different canons of music.

PF: Yes. Well, I started with the marching band, and I think the marching band and the small combos after was an incredible school for music, the music that was inside. Then I was in Siena, the Siena Jazz Stage, in 1980 and 1982, two years, like a student. Then in 1985, I started to be like a professor in the same stage. Me and Enrico were the professors. So in 1980, was not the class of the trumpet, and in 1982 Enrico was the professor. I was with him for five days. So it was not my master…

TP: In one of your biographies, it says you ‘discovered’ jazz in 1980.

PF: Yes.

TP: That’s pretty late.

PF: Incredible, yeah. Because 1980 was the first time, and then in 1985 I was professor in Siena with the big master, like Enrico Pieranunzi and Enrico and Gianluca Trovesi and Franco D’Andrea, and everybody that was my idols before.

TP: So your ears must have developed tremendously during the years with the marching band, though I’m sure you were doing other things as time went on.

PF: Yes. I stopped with the marching band… I play with the marching band also now. So when I am in Sardinia… For example, for Easter or for Christmas-time, when I am there, I go and I play, because this is my life. Anyway, we have now with the marching band a new combo. The maestro was my student, and we start now with a kind of funky orchestra with very young people like a legacy of soul thing. It’s nice, because this is the (?—16:05) for the village.

But between ‘80 and ‘84, I heard a lot of jazz at home. The school for me was this. Because I was in Berchidda; Berchidda is far from the big cities. Cagliari, the capital, is 250 kilometers, and it’s 6 hours by train. The unique way for me was to learn jazz with the records. I put the records of Miles and Chet and I tried to play exactly like them, and the solos transcription. This one was my school. No professor, no that… Then, of course, I tried to play with people.

TP: Is that also how you developed your sound, or did you have a maestro for trumpet?

PF: No, the maestro for trumpet was in the conservatory after.

TP: So that’s where you refined your sound. Or had you developed it before? In other words, did you have bad habits that someone had to break you…

PF: No, nothing. So the unique professor was the guy that was in the conservatory just for classical music, of course. For example, the system of circular breathing that I developed was just myself. Because in Sardinia we have one special instrument that’s named the launeddas, which is the oldest polyphonic instrument in the Mediterranean area.

TP: Evan Parker has mentioned that instrument as inspirational.

PF: Yes, of course. I played with the big maestro. The name is Luigi Lai; he is a big name. We play this instrument with his collaboration. The technique that I used with the trumpet yesterday night came from this area. But nobody showed me. It was just that finally the jazz and classic started to mix with the traditional music, because I am very fond of the Sardinian traditional music. So my idea was to go to the university to get the laureate with the very big ethnomusicologist in Italy whose name was Roberto Milleddu. He was like Alan Lomax—the big name. I started with the university in ‘82, but then I stopped immediately because it was not time for the university.

But my big love in music was jazz and traditional music. Maybe this relationship between jazz and traditional music was the door to go into the music. For this reason, I play a lot with people from Brittany, people from Vietnam, and African projects, and Sardinian projects, of course. So I like very much this kind of connection with the… Because I love really the classical jazz. I like very much Miles. I have 2 or 3 records that I tried to play exactly like this.

TP: One of them is the record with Rava, where you play the…

PF: The Montreal. We have another record where we play Chet, Shades of Chet. For example, I have the two records, the Philology ones, where I play Porgy and Bess, the Miles and Gil Evans version with the transcription of Gunther Schuller. Another record also where we play Birth of the Cool. I like very much to be very close to the tradition, and to play not exactly, but in this way, and then, I like also to go very far with other things that (?—20:40) finally. So the contemporary musicians today have a big responsibility to put in connection the past with the future of the music. It’s not easy, because when we heard the 9 trumpet players today, every one is completely different. I think that every one tried to find it, so that they have a good relationship between the original music of today with the big and heavy tradition from the past.

TP: But you have a very fresh approach when you play the tradition. Your lines seem fresh and you always seem to be thinking about melodies. You’ve played one melody after another over the past two days I’ve heard you, and listening to the recordings, whether if it’s complex changes, or playing along with the sample and doing a celestial shriek from the heavens thing…whatever you’re doing, melody seems very important, and something you’re able to access.

PF: Absolutely. In these parameters in jazz, the first one is the sound and the second one is the melody. When I heard Miles and Chet Baker… The idea in this moment were three different ways, Miles and Chet, Clifford with all this kind of bebop players, and the third one maybe was Freddie Hubbard. Another one was Dizzy, but Dizzy was really difficult. When I travel a lot with Enrico, we speak about the trumpet players, and Enrico says, “when I heard Dizzy, I don’t know nothing about this music; I like this music, but I don’t know in my mind, I don’t know in my head. When I heard Miles and Chet, I know everything, and if I KNOW everything, I can play everything.” Because the melodies are different… It’s a kind of diatonic approach with the music. One note, and the second one is just there, and the third one is just there. It’s not like this, you know… I am in this line. For example, for this reason I like very much Tom Harrell and all these kinds of players who try to construct one melody…a very simple melody, sometimes with a very complicated course. We can choose just one note and not the other one, and this note, because the note before was different and the note after was different…

TP: One thing I’ve noticed also is that a lot of Italian players don’t feel alienated from American swing tradition as something they can embrace, whereas in other countries there’s a more prevalent feeling that their own cultural traditions don’t necessarily jibe with playing in the American tradition. It seems that you, Rava, other Italian players I know like Dado Moroni or Petrella, feel very comfortable with African-American jazz tradition, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit them from expressing their individuality…

PF: Italy is like this. It’s very long. It’s not a big country but it’s very long. We have the north, we have the center, we have the south, we have the two islands, and we are exactly between Africa and Europe—especially Sardinia. Finally, Italy politically the relationship between the South and the North is very complicated. If you travel from the south to the north, you meet people, and the taste of wine and cooking and faces and the dialects are different. If I speak with people from Naples, sometimes I don’t understand nothing. So if I speak Sardinian language with people from Rome or from Milano, it’s nothing to do with Italians. It’s more far…

TP: Well, Italy wasn’t a nation until the 1860s.

PF: Yes. In politics this is a big problem, but in music it’s fantastic, because we have a lot of jazz players in Italy who try to mix jazz with opera, with music from Naples, with the mitteleuropa for the heart of Europe, the jazz with music from the Mediterranean, Africa… We have a lot of people who play incredible bebop, who play exactly the language of the bebop, people who play like Enrico with fabulous melodies. So finally, Italy is a kind of country that is in the middle of the world, and this is the reason why the jazz today is the music that is a photography about the Italian of today. We play jazz, but we have a lot of kind of jazz in Italy, because the country is very long. We have a lot of cultures and musics and foods and idioms and everything. I don’t compare the Italian jazz with the jazz, for example, from France or from Germany. I don’t know if the Italian one is better or is the first one, the second one, or the third one. But it’s true that Italian jazz is different than the other countries.

TP: I think in France, the African influence is more pronounced, just because so many West Africans live there…

PF: I agree. When I started to live in Paris, where I lived for more than ten days, Paris to me was the door to the world. Because in this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, Paris was the most international big town in Europe, for me more than Berlin and more than London. Why? Because Paris was in relationship with Caribbean people and then to people from the (?—28:40) island and the …(?)…, and people from Africa. Italy was a little bit more closed to this world. But the relationship between Italy and the world in jazz was Italy and America direct in the ‘80s. It was the reason why we started to play exactly like the American musicians in this moment. So the jazz standard for us was “Stella by Starlight” and “My Funny Valentine,” and all the American jazz standards. But we have also…

TP: Might that also connect to operatic traditions?

PF: Yes.

TP: Some American songbook material is linked to light opera and so on…

PF: Absolutely. Now we have incredible Italian songs that are like the jazz standards. For example, “Estate” is one of those that, when Chet started playing, Bruno Martino said, “Wow, this is a nice idea.” So you have a lot of standards everywhere, but at this moment, in the last part of the ‘80s, the reference for us was the American jazz, of course. This is our school, our milk.

Now it’s a little bit different. Because the reference was in American music. It was important to know this music, to learn the language. But now, after this, we can go everywhere today. And the background of Italian music is very rich. Then we can look forward and try to mix a lot of elements from the Mediterranean, from the opera, from also all the Italian music in jazz… This is the reason why you have a musician who plays jazz with Mediterranean music, that plays bebop, other musicians who play jazz with other kind of music… Italian music is very rich.

TP: Many flavors. For you, speaking about the grounding, you could make a metaphorical case that you’re in dialogue with North Africa when you make recordings with Dhaffer Youssef, that you’re in dialogue with Asia when you play with Nguyen Le, or in dialogue with Cuba and the west African diaspora when you play with Omar Sosa, or with the American Tin Pan Alley tradition when you play with Uri (who is kind of a doppelganger for you; you’re similar personalities); or with Ralph Towner a different stream.

PF: Yes.

TP: It seems that these dialogues aren’t just notes and tones, but that there’s some broader philosophical inquiry going on. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I’m wondering how you regard the broader implications of the projects over and above just listening and reacting, what’s embedded in what you do.

PF: First, Africa is more close… One day I fly from Paris to Tunis. At the moment the captain says, “We are ready, we’re arriving in 20 minutes,” and I look from the windows, and Cagliari was there. Cagliari is just in front to Africa. Finally I think we have an incredible relation with the North African musicians.

But the rest is that I think it’s really that if the sound is… If you share your sound with the other musicians, for example, with Uri or with Ralph Towner or with people from Africa, it’s very easy to play and it’s very easy to learn music with them. I think that this is very important. It’s important if you know which is your way music, after it is also important to change the duration to the music, to learn something for you first. Sometimes I make the experiments with people from different countries of the world, and I don’t know if the final result is good or not, of course—we need to ask the audience. But it’s important to try to do something with them.

Anyway, Uri is very easy. We speak the same language. Also with Ralph… With Ralph Towner it was a little bit more difficult, because the sound mix between acoustic guitar and trumpet was not so easy. It’s two different dynamics. And Ralph’s compositions sometimes is not really jazz; it’s another music. For example, with Uri it was pretty fast. With Ralph it was a little bit more difficult. With people like Dhaffer Youssef or Nguyen Le, it’s very easy. So depending about the music and which kind of music…

But then, if we have a good relation with each other, you can find a good place for you in any music without a problem. Also with the strings or the other projects.

TP: There are two other things I want to ask you about. One is the way you think about electronics in relation to your sound. The impression I got (and I’m sure you have hundreds of people telling you what they feel when they hear you play) when I heard you last night on the last piece, which is obvious because it’s Bach, is that the trumpet has this celestial quality, the voice of Gabriel, but then also you use the electronics to impart the celestial shriek. I’m wondering how these ideas filter into your concept of sound? Are you thinking about the heavens? Are you thinking about the properties of the trumpet in an empirical way?

PF: I started with the electronic stuff just for the quality of the sound. I spent a lot of time to play exactly like Miles in 1966, in 1956, and finally, when I was on stage, the found was completely fucked up. It was completely different. It was a shit sound. The sound engineers don’t know nothing. I’d change the trumpet with the Harmon Mute, and the sound of the Harmon Mute was not there. It was really, really difficult always. For me, the sound was the most important thing, and if the sound is not good, the rest of the music is nothing. For this reason, I decided to buy the electronic machine just to be myself on stage. It was my responsibility now to put a little reverb and the equalization added.

When I started to play with electronic stuff, I covered a lot of different possibilities, harmonizers and delays, and I said, “Wow, it’s amazing, an incredible instrument. So I can use this inside my music to be more rich and creative.” But the first idea was to use the machine just for the quality of the sound and the pure sound. The rest was after.

Then I heard people like Mark Isham, for example, and the best master for me, who is the best one in this, is Jon Hassell. I played with him. We have a record together. He’s the master for everybody, for people who use the electronics in Europe, like Nils Petter Molvaer or Arve Ericsson. All those guys think about Jon Hassell first.

Finally, the electronic stuff is another instrument. When I play, I use four different instruments. The first one is the trumpet. The second one is the flugelhorn. The third one is the trumpet with Harmon Mute. For me, it is another instrument when I play with the Harmon mute. I think differently in my head. The fourth one is the electronic stuff. So it’s important that when you start to use the electronic stuff, you think the music different. Because otherwise, the machine, the electronic machine, the risks that can cover you, and you are more like this, and the electronic stuff is like very (?—39:28). The idea is to use the electronics just for molto descriptzione… I am the boss in any case.

TP: I think one of the dangers with that might be doing something just because you can, or exercising taste, or making it suit your own purposes instead of suiting its purposes.

PF: I know, I know. For example, I don’t use the MIDI system with the electronic stuff. I don’t play the trumpet like saxophone, because it’s completely stupid. I don’t play the trumpet like a guitar or like a keyboard. So all the sound of the trumpet goes into the machine, and finally the sound of the machine is more or less natural. So it’s the same sound of the trumpet, but a little bit different. This is my philosophy.

Also, when I think about the electronic stuff, I think to the past of the music… It’s not the future of the music.

TP: It’s like the Corsican voices, which are representing something very ancient.

PF: Yes. For me, the electronic stuff is like the primitive music, the archetypal music. For me, the electronic stuff is like Africa. It’s like mystical music. This is very strange, because when you think about electronics today, it means we think about the future, the technology. But for me, this technology is the best way to go back in the past. And this is very interesting, because it is another idea about it. Electronic suggestions is also emotion…it’s not cold, but it’s important that it will be warm…

No, it is a big risk, because sometimes… For example, with the string quartet it was a big risk because it was alone with the trumpet there, and because the string quartet is incredible, is the perfect architettura in music. It’s four voices, perfect, and it… If you play inside in the string quartet, the risk is to destroy this perfect architettura with the trumpet. If you use trumpet and electronic stuff, the risk will be very big. Also for the dynamics, because you use a sound system, the sound of the quartet is more or less acoustic…

I know. I know that it is a big risk to play electronics. Sometimes you don’t need it, because finally the acoustic sound in music is the more puro, and when you use the electronics it is important to think about the nature of sound of the instrument, otherwise it’s very… Maybe it’s nonsense, because…

TP: Can you describe the arc of the concert with the string quartet? Was it a program you were doing for the first time, or…

PF: No, it is a program that we know. With the string quartet, we change the repertory every night because the music is right over the place when we play. For example, the idea to start with a musician in the audience, this can change every night. Because if the sound of the theater is a good one, it’s perfect. Otherwise, it’s not possible. The first one was a traditional song for Sardinia, for the choir. The last one that we played the encore was also a very famous Sardinian song, the name is “Ave Maria,” but with a new idea, that the arrangement was in 3/4, and changed every chorus the key. Other music was from myself, the music for movies…

TP: Music you’ve composed for movies.

PF: Yes. I like it very much. And some music was for the European minimalist composers, like Karl Jenkins. Sometimes we play something from Michael Nyman. In the past from Arvo Part. Also, we play a lot of different music in repertory. Baroque music, because I like very much the baroque music, like Monteverdi or Handel for example.

TP: There’s a great trumpet lexicon in that music, too.

PF: Yeah, of course. Vivaldi and Bach, and Handel, too. Finally, the music that we play…the range of the music is very different sometimes. But the sound of the project is always the same. This is the key… This is a kind of passport, too, to go in different rooms. So we use the same key to go in the different rooms. The key is the sound, and if we have a good sound we can go in the different rooms, completely different. This is my idea. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.

TP: You have many, many rooms.

PF: I have many, many rooms, because I think that…

TP: You really do. More than most.

PF: I like very much to stay in many, many rooms, and sometimes also to try to open the new rooms. Because you try to open the new one, and sometimes you go inside and nothing…it’s completely empty. There’s no window. There’s nothing. It’s dark. But sometimes we open the new one, and you have a new room with another window or another door, and you go, you go, and you try to recover this scopelita(?—46:44) always in your things. So my philosophy is to try every day new things, but also always in relationship with the tradition and with the past.

TP: Please describe to me also in some detail what you did yesterday at Monvinic.

PF: Yesterday, the first tune was from Alma, the record with Omar. It was just the theme of Alma. I decided before which music, more or less, for the wines.

TP: Well, you told me it was sort of a joke.

PF: Yeah, I think that is a joke. The strange thing is that after the performance every winemaker say to me, “Ah, fantastic. The pieces that you played for my wine was perfect for this.” I am not sure, of course. This is the joke, because we try to put together the different philosophies. I think that the unique thing that we can share in jazz and wine is the gusto…the flavor of the life. Then my suggestion is just one part of the…the…the…suggestion.

But finally… For the last wine, for example, the idea to put Bach, the Goldberg Variation, for the last wine and the Hilliard Ensemble with Arvo Part was because this wine was a meditation wine. So when I heard Bach, for me it’s a kind of meditation. Also, the piece, when I’m playing with the deejay music was because the producer of this wine is a deejay player. Also, the piece when I play with the voice of Chet Baker was because with this wine, my idea was to put a relationship, the flowers of this wine with the voice of Chet, that is a little bit feminine. It’s a joke, because I don’t know after if everything was… Also, the long notes…

TP: When you walked around.

PF: And do you know what say the wine producer after this? He said, “The long notes was perfect because we have a lot of tramontana, which is the wind… The tramontana is the wind from the north that is very cold. Because for us, this wine is incredible because we might with the tramontana every day, and the long notes was like the wind, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah. This is fantastic, because it’s like when you play in concert every night, you don’t know. So you know what you think about the music, but you don’t know if, for the audience, your sound goes here, goes here, goes here, and everybody can come see… The music can arrive in different parts of your…

TP: And for a different person, it can come in a different…

PF: For each one, it can be completely different. This is the mystery of the music, and it is fantastic, of course.

TP: I think the piece that engaged me the most might have been the fourth one. You played a long, dark theme that made me think about Mingus…

PF: Ah, ok. This one was a South American song, a famous one. The name is “Que Sera, Que Sera,” from… Chico Buarque. This idea… I changed the song there, because the idea was this wine for me…the flavor of this wine was like South America. There I played just the theme of the song that was really clean and like the taste of this wine.

TP: but I still would like to know (and perhaps I’m asking the same question in different ways and will get the same answer) whether you have explicitly metaphysical intentions with your music? Are you trying to make the trumpet sound like something other than a trumpet, like that celestial voice that I hear in a story of your own devising, or when you do Sonos e Memoria or Ethnografie, those projects, are you trying to evoke some broader story apart from just abstract sounds?

PF: Nice question. Honestly, I don’t know why. I know just that, especially with electronic sound, I can go there in music, and I know that when I open the door and I go in the room that I know, in this room we have a lot of doors, and we’ve put the music in one place where the music is not from Sardinia, it’s not from any countries in the world, but it is music for everybody. So I start from here, and I go there, and when I arrive there…

TP: From in back of you to far ahead of you. [DESCRIBING HIS GESTURE]

PF: Yeah. When I put the music there, this music is not from any countries. It’s just music from… It’s emotional music, and everybody can keep something to… It’s like a table with a lot of plates. Everybody can take something for food. In this case the emotional part of the music is the most important. There’s a physical thing in music. I play this strange position, because I need to find the good relationship between myself and the music and sound. For example, I play sit down sometimes, especially with a small project, like with Uri… I play sit down with Ralph Towner, with the strings. Because if I play sit down with a good chair, I can find the good emotional relationship with the music. In this case, I hope I play well. Otherwise, if I don’t find the good relationship with myself, the music is nothing. It is like a train that goes pretty fast, and you say “Where is the train?” “Ok, it is there.”

There is a rationale. I think that I have two different approaches with the music. Rationale, Cartesian. The second one is completely, completely…

TP: Are there two, or are they intermixed?

PF: Yeah, finally I need to put together those different phases of the music. If just one is there and the second one is far, the music is not good. If just emotional part, the music is there, and the rationale is not there, it is the same. For me, the good concert is when I put together the two parts of my music, and then these two parts of the music I can try to share with the musicians, with the play and communication, and then with the audience. But if we don’t find it, and then you don’t find that good relationship between the musicians, the audience is there… I say, “Ok, but it’s nothing happening.”

TP: Omar was telling me a story last night that I think he’s repeated a number of times about your first meeting…

PF: Yeah, I was on the tree.

TP: You were on the tree. I can’t quite get that out of my… Not only were you in the tree playing, but he said you were following his line of thought and… So two things strike me as something that not necessarily every improvising musician would do. One, the idea of being in a tree and playing a trumpet, and the other, playing the trumpet without telling him that you were going to play the trumpet.

PF: I think that the first question is the same question. To be on the tree or to be on stage to tell the musicians which is the ….(?—57:31)…. is the same question, because we speak about the place and the space of the music. In the last 20 years, for me it is very nice when I can play, for example, open air in a very strange place, like in the mountain, close to the lakes, or under the tree. Last year, in the 50 concerts in Sardinia, we were playing under two eucalyptus with Dhaffer Youssef and Nguyen Le. The concert was there and the audience was the ground.

TP: And you were in the tree.

PF: Yes, also. For example, with Uri, I asked him one time in my festival to play a crazy project that was called From Station To Station. Uri was in the train station in my village. The train stopped there. The audience go. Uri playing “I Love You Porgy.” And then the train starts again. We go by car to the next station. When the train arrives, Uri is there with the same piano and the same song. This is the strange joke with the places.

I think that in music the place is very important. Because if you play in the good place, you play well; if you play in the wrong place, you play wrong music. It’s also important because in the contemporary society we think about music just in the jazz clubs for jazz, and in the theater. So the theater, it’s always the same dynamics. You are with your seat, we wait for the musician on stage, the musician arrives, then claps, and then plays, and then finishes, and then you go home. The difference is if we are together in a new place, for example inside Nature, or in a small church in Sardinia… Because the energy and the feeling is completely different. Because you need to put more energy in your music because the place is not the same. It’s not comfortable like always. This is very nice sometimes for the music, because you know that you need to play better than always, because the place is more bigger than you. This is not bad. Because Toscanini, he say, “A la perto si jocobocci(?—1:00:30)…” Toscanini’s personality was very strong. That means in English, “Open air you play just with balls.” Of course, for the classical music and for the big orchestra. But sometimes, I play in the open air places where the feeling was really-really-really fantastic. No stage. Is nothing. You put your feet on the ground. The audience are without seats. Was incredible, because everyone was there just for the music, and the place is really big, and finally you need that the music is bigger than the lace. And the music growing up, and finally la maggia of the music… In the 50 last year it was always like this. It was 50 concerts in 50 places, incredible places, the nourad(?—1:01:41), the strange building for Sardinia, and we were in the prisons, we were in the hospitals—we were everywhere. In those places, the magic thing was the relationship between place, music, and people. Because this is very, very important.

After fifty years, my question is what I like to do for the next fifty, or the next thirty, or the next two years. I think that the idea is, in this part of my life, the most important thing is to put the music in the middle, like to get the people, and play good music, but also to use the music for communication. Communication is a political word, I know. But it is very important. Because if I play jazz for myself, it is ok for me. I can go forward. But it is important that you can share the story with people, with your musicians, with the audience, with the places, and to looking for new ways for music.

TP: Maybe that’s one reason you use polyphony so much.

PF: Maybe.

TP: I think I understand why you were in the tree with Omar Sosa, but what I still don’t get is why… When you started playing, he wasn’t expecting to hear the sound. Right? You surprised him? I know you were booking the concert, so it was the right of the…

PF: It was the same surprise like two days ago when I started a concert in the auditorio with the strings around the people. Because when you start with this, we put the people into the perfect atmosphere for the concert. I think this is very important. Because the place is very important.

TP: So stagecraft is part of it.

PF: Yes. But sometimes the place is very dangerous for you. Because if the place is very big, the music will be a little bit fragile. If you start with something, the audience will say, “What’s happening?” They’ll finally understand which is the way and which is the tale for his concert. Because every concert is a kind of tale. But we need to read the same book. Which is the language of the book in Italian, in English, in Spanish, or in German language, I don’t know, but the same book. Then everybody can understand. Sometimes this is… The performance in music is interesting because you put the music and the audience in the place, in the middle of something that you know, but you know which is your duration, but maybe not the audience.

TP: I know I’m harping on the story, but Omar related it with such delight… But I want to know why you decided at that moment…

PF: To play there.

TP: This was a solo concert of his, right?

PF: Yes.

TP: It wasn’t scheduled to be you and he. It was schedule to be he. And he didn’t know you were going to play.

PF: Well, because it was open air. There were a lot of trees there. The music was fantastic. And finally I decided to play with him. Now, he asked me before, “Maybe…” This is the reason why my instrument was with me. But finally, I think, “Ok, I play something with him now—but where? It is stupid that I play just close to him. There was no stage. Nothing. One tree was there. The place was a lot of trees. So the nature of things is that I go over the tree and play there. To be a part of the… Because in the festival in Sardinia, it’s a really special festival, because we have a big stage in the square, blah-blah-blah, and then all the other concerts are the free ones, the morning and afternoon, is inside the nature. This is fantastic, really fantastic for everybody. Last year, for example, Bill Frisell was a duo in the middle of nowhere. So now, people arrive, walking for 25 minutes. The music is really a part of the nature, and it is fantastic. And why not to play over the tree? Because the tree is one of the elements of this concert.
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TP: Sosa also said, as he’s been playing with you and spending time in Sardinia, he’s noticing correspondences between the structures of the music in Sardinia and abakua music, Afro-Diasporic music that aren’t necessarily explainable.

PF: No.

TP: Do you see this as well? Is carrying on a career in which you play duos with people who embody so many other cultures a way for you to do musicological or ethnomusicological investigations? Perhaps I’m being abstract here, and you don’t think this way at all, but you have to be fluent in all these languages.

PF: Of course.

TP: You cant just be dialoguing with Omar, and not know anything about Afro-Cuban music, I don’t think.

PF: No-no. But I think the Cuban music, for example, is more close for me than the American music. Because the Latin part of this world and this music is Cuba, it’s very close to Sardinia finally. Because in Sardinia… I speak with a bit Castiliano, fluent, because the language for Sardinia is very close to the Spanish language, because the Spanish people were in Sardinia for 300 years…

TP: Barcelona held it.

PF: Barcelona. My wife is from Alghero. Alghero is the place in Sardinia… Spain is here. Sardinia is here. Here is Barcelona; here is Alghero…

TP: This was how long ago?

PF: This was 400 years ago. The people from Algheros play fluently Catalan language. So finally, the Aragona and the Catalan people…that this music came from Morocco, so the Africans. So the three people is like Morocco and then Spain and then Sardinnia. It’s the reason why Cuban culture is not far.

TP: Not when you put it that way. When you play American music with Uri, those standards like “Darn That Dream”… The first one has more American standards…

PF: “Everything Happens To Me.”

TP: A couple are a little brighter tempo than that. You sound like someone who had grown up playing that music, and someone who knows the lyrics, and it was perfectly natural but very erudite, and soulful at the same time.

PF: Yeah. Because I know Chet. In this case, Chet more than Miles. When I think about Miles… I hope now that I have my personality and the sound is myself, of course, but we need to drink milk when we are small. You know?

TP: Wine later, milk first.

PF: Wine later. Yeah, maybe. When I think about Miles, I think about the idea of the architettura of the music, for example. The system of construction of the music in the group for my quintet. But when I think about the jazz standard, maybe Chet is the first idea. Very lyrical, and the tempo always [TAPS QUARTER NOTES} in tempo, swing, and… I like this music, because finally it is very melodic and also creative in that you play one melody and then we try to move the melody in another way. It was very easy to play with Uri.

TP: You and he have a lot in common, I think.

PF: Yes, because we have the same idea also about it. For example, we like the classical music and the baroque music, and then we can play pop songs, and Handel-like pop songs… Handel was a pop star anyway, in the past. With Uri, it’s really, really easy to play. We don’t speak about music ever in those 8 years that we’ve played together. Sometimes we make the soundcheck on stage, and we start with something, with one standard, and say, ‘Ok, you know this one? Ok, go. Tonight we play this.’ Because with Uri, the most important thing is, it’s not the material that we play, but the attitudes with music. We can play…

I play with the same people for many years. My Italian quintet is 29. I think it is probably now the oldest jazz group in Europe, or one of them. In 1984, the first record together. The same people. Exactly the same people. We have a concert now the 7th of December. We are the same five people—more older than before, of course. The Angel Quartet was ten years, more or less. The new Devil Quartet, we released a record in February—now it’s 8 years. The trio with Antonello Salis and Furio diCastri, for many, many years. Now the project with the string quartet is maybe 8-9 years. With Uri, 7 years. With Ralph, 5 years. So when you play with the same people for many, many years, it is fantastic, because finally we have one sound. The sound is like Miles with his quintet with Wayne Shorter, with Coltrane, with George Coleman, or the trios of Bill Evans. So when I think about the history of jazz, I think first about the project, and then I go inside the music, the musician. Because for me, the SOUND of Miles is here. It’s like an identity, kind of. It’s very heavy. Or the sound of the quartet of John Coltrane. Wow.

So the sound of this music is the history of this music first, and then… So when you heard a concert live and you go home after, the first things that you remember is the sound of the concert, and then you say, “Ok, the saxophone player was fantastic, and the piano player, too, but the first idea of the menu is this—then you go inside…”

TP: The opening page, and then open the book.

PF: Yes. But if the cover is not good, then maybe you…ok, maybe the rest is not important. So the sound of the jazz in the past was the history of this music, and then, of course, Miles and then Chet and then Charles Mingus. But the architettura of the music for me was very fascinating. Because when I started with my quintet and my quartet, especially the real groups, the first thing was to create a good cover of the music, and for the cover, it’s not easy. You need to work a lot with the different covers, and then you can decide that this one is the good one. But after three-four years. And when the project is there, you can go everywhere. You can play jazz, you can play mainstream jazz, you can play standards, you can play pop, you can play world music.

All of this music is your music. It’s like when you play one standard for many-many-many times, many years. If you start to play “Round Midnight” or “My Funny Valentine” for ten years, after ten years you don’t know who was the composer—because YOU are the composer, the new one. I think that this is fantastic for jazz. I don’t know why you choose this standard or another one, but finally, it is important that this standard is YOUR standard. Because you play “Round Midnight”… Because 2,000 incredible players played “Round Midnight,” but it is important that when you play this version, your version is different than the 2,000 versions of before. This is very difficult.

TP: Two more questions, then I think I can let you go. You’re a prolific composer as well as an improviser, more for programmatic music, it sounds like—for dance, for film, for soundtracks, there’s a long list in your bio. I’m wondering where composition fits into your sense of yourself as an improvising performer.

PF: Well, I am a prolific composer because I have a lot of projects. I don’t write music if I am not one destination from them. I write music for film, for movies… When the people ask me, I write music during my flight or in the train, and then I need to sit at a piano to finish the material, of course.

I have two different lines in my composition. The first one is that I can write something for the musician, and I ask the people to change totally my music. This is the first one. The second one is the music that I write, for example, for movies or… One of them, my favorite composition, is “Fellini.” “Fellini” is a piece that I wrote the day that Fellini died. In this case, I asked the musicians to play exactly this song like classical music. This is the two different lines. So the first one is when I think of the composition like a classical composition, and I need that the people play exactly like this, and the second one is when I put the music on the table and this music can go everywhere, and it changes completely.

Then, I have a record under my name where I have none of my compositions inside. For example, the record with Mistico Mediterraneo, I have no one piece that was signed by myself. Because finally, the most important thing is the music. The music is not a composition, but the music is the FINAL result. If I play with Michael (?—1:20:25) and his composition is a good one, I don’t need to suggest my material, because like to play his material. So I think that for jazz, one of the durations is to use the material that we have. It’s not important if this one is mine, the other one is yours, this one is… It’s important the way that we can put together all this. Sometimes also the composition is very important, because it’s a good suggestion for the musicians. But finally, I play sometimes concerts with my groups where I decide the music on stage. Normally, we start on stage with nothing. We have no list, no track list, no idea about solos—nothing. So we go on stage, and I start with something, and then everybody follows me.

TP: Who is this that you do this with?

PF: With my quintet. With Omar, for example. Sometimes I play one concert without my music. Because it’s not important. It’s important that in this moment you know that you need something, and it’s like you are blind and you take something from the bag. You don’t know which is the material, but you know that in this bag you have something that you need in this moment. Is this for yourself, or is this a standard for other musicians from your band?

TP: Last question. When you were talking about your relationship with Omar, and the connections between Cuba and Sardinia, that’s one way, obviously, in which your background as a son of Sardinia has an impact on your musical production. Can you talk about other ways this manifests, how your Sardinian roots impact your musical identity?

PF: At first, I told you that I am a very big fan of the traditional music for the world. All the traditional music is for me… When I am home, I heard at home jazz, of course, but baroque music and classical music and music for the world. Because it is very close to jazz, in any case. I think that… So jazz today is nonsense word. Because which is the jazz today? Is it the music of Louis Armstrong? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Miles? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Ornette? Yes, of course. Is it the music of Keith Jarret? Yes. All the trumpet players that we heard today is jazz. But Louis Armstrong and Ornette is two very far worlds… It is jazz. All is jazz. But jazz is a very big, big world. Now, til the ‘80s to jazz, the reference was the music for the States, but now jazz is the music for every country in the world.

TP: One thing that’s interesting, though, is that there now don’t appear to be so many degrees of separation between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman? It seemed that way in 1960, but now continuities are evident, even between players who played with both of them, like, say, Garvin Bushell, the reed player, who played in the ‘20s and on John Lewis’ Jazz Abstractions project.

PF: Yeah, absolutely.

TP: So those big gaps don’t seem quite so big in 2012.

PF: Absolutely. The memory and the history is there. So all this, we can go so far. But finally, this is rare… This is rare that ….(?—1:25:27)…. is another color. But finally, the history of jazz is an amazing metaphor for the reality of today. It’s incredible. It’s fantastic, in a way, because everything that was there is a kind of mathematical world that you can move a little bit always, but it’s there. It’s elastic. It’s fantastic.

The idea is that…the example is the music of Cuba and the music of Spain, the salsa music and flamenco music. All these countries speak the Spanish language. All of these countries use the same words. But the Spanish language that we speak in Spain is…the melody, the swing of this language is completely different than the Castilian that people speak in Cuba. This is the reason why the Cuban people play Salsa and the Spanish people play flamenco, because two different histories. The melody of the idiom is different, and the music is exactly close to the idiom. So if I am from Sardinia, and to play jazz in Sardinia, my swing is different than the people that live in Rome or Milano, because the idiom that I play in Sardinia is different. Idiom, language, and music is the same thing. If I play another language, probably inside, the melody of the music will be different, because the melody of the other language is different.

This is very interesting, because this is the reason why the orchestra that played the Strauss valse in Vienna plays different than the Strauss valse in Rome. It is another culture. It is another culture. It is another history. It is another language. I think that the language and music is perfectly inside… This is probably also why black people in America play—not always but sometimes—different than the white people. Well, yes, now I know. The correct word is the “slang.”

TP: Slang.

PF: The slang of the language of the language is the photography of your background, and if your slang is different, you play different, because the slang is in the music and the slang is in the language. And the slang is your biography. The slang is your family, is your society, your history, your background. For me, Sardinian people that are growing up with the cow and the land in Sardinia, with a very poor family, it was ridiculous to play jazz exactly like Charlie Parker. You need to learn this language, and then you put this language in your world and you look forward to know if you have something to mix with this. I think it is very simple.

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A 2011 DownBeat Article, Blindfold/Winefold Test, and Full Interview With Enrico Rava

I’m flying to Milan tomorrow night for a ten-day stay at the Milan Jazz Festival, at which I’ll be conducting public interviews with Enrico Rava (Nov. 1) and Paolo Fresu (Nov. 4), and a public Downbeat blindfold test with Stefano Bollani (Nov. 10). I last spoke with Rava in November 2011, during my first visit to the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where he submitted to a Downbeat Blindfold Winefold Test at Monvinic, “the cathedral of wine,” where the wizardly sommelier matched a different vintage to each tune. I also interviewed him for an article of decent length. This post begins with the article, moves on to the Blindfold/Winefold Test, and concludes with the complete interview.

 

Enrico Rava Downbeat Article, 2011

In a few hours, the 400 concertgoers would be gone, the chairs removed from the floor, and Barcelona’s beautiful people would descend on Luz Da Gas, a fin de siècle cabaret, to dance and party until dawn. But now, toward the end of Enrico Rava’s set, the 72-year-old Italian trumpeter was cuing his quintet to segue from “I’m A Fool To Want You” into a tune that felt not unlike the imaginary soundtrack to a scene of disequilibrium in a Fellini movie.
After projecting the melody with dark tone and soulful articulation, Rava, with a gesture evoking Marcello Mastroianni, cupped his trumpet to his side, closed his eyes, leaned back and began to sway as trombonist Gianluca Petrella, 36, filled the room with resonant melody. His eyes remained shut as the band dropped out for Giovanni Guidi, 25, to launch an adagio, Keith Jarrett-like variation, transition into a quasi-tango and morph into a boogie-woogie on steroids. Rava opened his eyes and blew, spitting out fragmented, epigrammatic phrases from the Cecil Taylor playbook that coalesced into louche, strutting lines before resolving into the spiky lyric theme.
Rava wove together much of his cogent, 80-minute suite from the nine originals—ballads contemplative and noirish, songs informed by Italian and Brazilan folk music, groove tunes propelled by New Orleans and bebop beats—that constitute Tribe, his seventh studio outing for ECM since 2001, and the first featuring this personnel. A highlight is the leader’s simpatico with Petrella—their intuitive polyphony, breathe-as-one unisons and idea-trading solos. Another is the rhythm section’s control of dynamics and tempo—they’re kinetic without bashing and move seamlessly between soft rubato and high-energy feels. Six tunes hearken to various spots on Rava’s timeline; the session sounds summational, old master Rava and his acolytes taking stock of the raw materials that define his oeuvre.
The title track, he noted, leads off the 1977 album The Plot, a product of Rava’s first go-round with ECM, with his working quartet of guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. “Giovanni liked it and said we should play it,” Rava said earlier that day, referencing his pianist. “I was surprised he’d want to play a tune I recorded so long ago, but it sounded like I wrote it yesterday.”
Speaking softly, in excellent English, Rava offered an exegesis. “I feel all my bands are like a tribe,” he said. “Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization where nobody owned anything, everything was for everybody, and everybody used what they needed. It’s a perfect idea of democracy. In a jazz group, when it works, that’s what it really is. No one renounces their ego, but you don’t impose your ego on everyone else. It’s a perfect harmonic situation, like the cosmic balance, where everything is right. Maybe I bring a line, some chords, a little point where we meet and play what I want, but I leave everyone freedom within that frame to find what to add or take out. That way, I think the musicians who play with me give their best, better with me than when they play their own thing.”
Rava acknowledged Miles Davis’ impact on his predisposition for convening “not only good players, but musicians who are open to this music’s entire history” as a way to conjure consistently fresh contexts for creative flow. “Whenever my band starts becoming routine, even a very good routine, I change,” he said, noting that no quintet member except Petrella was with him 10 years ago. “Every tune we play, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. The day I get bored, fuck it, I’ll do something else.”
His affinity for full-bodied trombonists—he’s shared front lines with Roswell Rudd, Ray Anderson and Albert Mangelsdorff—dates to childhood in Turin, when he absorbed his older brother’s Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong recordings. “Listening to the trombone made the mechanism of their music so clear,” he said. “Already I loved the trumpet players, but I whistled all the trombone lines.” He got one at 14, from the trombone player in a local Dixieland band. A few months later, he joined the band, “but my father didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. I was so bad at school that the trombone was locked in a closet, and that was the end.”
A self-described “black sheep” and academic under-performer, Rava dropped out of school and started working “from the bottom” in the family business. Towards the end of 1956, Davis, Lester Young, Bud Powell and the Modern Jazz Quartet came to town. “I’d been listening to Miles’ records like ‘Blue Haze,’ and he was already my favorite,” Rava said. “But I didn’t imagine it could be so incredibly strong in person. The sound was filling the room. I kept the adrenalin; I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. Then I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself, playing with the records by Miles and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker. I wasn’t planning to be a musician. But after a few months, they started calling me at jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people.”
One of those people was tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who suggested Rava make music his profession. “One day, I woke up and told my father, ‘That’s it.’ It was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome in my little car to play with Gato. We played ‘Half Nelson,’ ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ everything by the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane. From then on, it was all natural and easy.”
Barbieri joined a group led by trumpeter Don Cherry in 1965, while Rava—now deep into Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler’s Spirits—joined soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s ensemble, playing Thelonious Monk and Carla Bley tunes in a quartet with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Rava recalled, “Since our improvisations had no relation to the tunes, we decided not to play the heads anymore, just to improvise from zero. That so-called ‘free music’ became the song of the young people’s revolution in Europe—it had a heavy political connotation. But at a certain moment, this amazing freedom became a routine, a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But when I played a melody, I immediately heard, ‘No, this is not free-jazz.’ It became almost like religion.
“In fact, by the late ’70s in Italy things got ridiculous, like Dadaism 40 years too late. We’d play a concert that was a Happening, where one guy played on top of a roof while another was on a horse. From the Fluxus point of view, maybe it was interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.”
By this time, Rava had spent much of the previous decade in New York. “My idea was to go where whatever you like to do happens,” he said. “You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, all the people I wanted to meet.” Given entree to the “new thing” crowd by Lacy and access to clubs by drummer Charles Moffett, who befriended him, Rava gigged with trombonist Roswell Rudd; sat in with Archie Shepp and Hank Mobley; heard Ayler and Jackie McLean at Slugs, and Davis and Monk at the Gate; partied at Taylor’s loft; delivered “political movies” by radical Argentine filmmaker friends to the Black Panther headquarters in Harlem.
“One thing I got from American musicians is when you play, you play like it’s the last time of your life,” Rava said. “We didn’t have this in Italy. The country was still very formal, we all looked like bureaucrats. So it was very impressive to be in New York. All these colors. Vietnam veterans marching in the streets. Kenny Dorham, one of my idols, came to watch me rehearse with Roswell. For a while I was looking at myself from outside, like a movie about an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening, and the main character was me. My first review in DownBeat was for a concert that I did with Roswell in ’67. It was almost incredible, something that until a year before had been a dream, a fantasy I never expected to happen. When I started doing this in Italy, to be a jazz musician only—like a poet, an artist, not just a professional musician—was like wanting to be the chief of the Sioux tribe.”
These days, Rava is generally acknowledged as the informal chief of a thriving tribe of Italian jazz folk. But he shoots down the notion of a generalized “Italian” style. “From hearing my mother play classical piano and what I heard on the radio, I naturally tend towards the lyrical,” he said. “But whereas the music in Argentina or Venezuela, even Spain, has a clear cultural background, it’s different in Italy, which exists only 150 years as a nation and is made by completely different regions. People in Sardinia have a very strong music that Alan Lomax described as prehistoric. So do people in Sicily. But I am from Turin, where the music is from the mountains, and it’s horrible. I might like Sicilian or Sardinian music, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know the codes. If I speak my dialect in Sicily or Calabria, they don’t understand me. It’s really much further away than New Orleans. The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is opera.”
In fact, Rava paid little attention to opera until marrying his second wife, Lidia Panizzut, “an opera freak” who inspired his intriguing cusp-of-the-’90s projects L’Opera Va and Carmen, which he performed earlier in 2011 with a French string quartet. “She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata and Tosca, and suddenly I found out that this thing is fantastic,” he said. “It’s incredible to see them make all that stuff work together. Then I felt like Puccini was the real father of the American musical. When I did ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ it was like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ’50s or ’40s—so beautiful, no?—or in a Gil Evans situation, which I did in Europe thirty years ago. But two records were enough. The context is too strict. With classical people you cannot say, ‘OK, I play one chorus more.’”
This will not be an issue with Rava’s next ECM project, a suite of Michael Jackson songs to be recorded after a performance three weeks hence with the Parco della Musica Jazz Lab, a 10-piece band that he artistic-directs, at the Rome Jazz Festival.
“[My wife] laughs at me, because every morning, when I wake up, still with the eyes closed, I take my trumpet, which I have very close to my bed, and check whether the lips vibrate on the mouthpiece,” he said, describing a ritual he started after reconstructive dental surgery two years ago. “I used to consider myself more like a guy who organizes sounds”—he blew into a phantom trumpet—“and then sings, but I never fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music. But in my sixties I started practicing much more. I gained an octave. I found the right mouthpiece, the one Miles used to play, a Heim #1. Everything was going good until these implants. Of course, I lost that octave!
“Over the last two–three months it’s coming back. If I vibrate the trumpet, my wife knows I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. ‘Oggi vibra,’ ‘Today it vibrates.’” DB

*****

Enrico Rava Blindfold/Winefold Test (2011)

1. Roy Hargrove, “My Funny Valentine” (from EMERGENCE, EmArcy, 2008) (Hargrove, flugelhorn; Frank Greene, Greg Gisbert, Darren Barrett, Ambrose Akinmisure, trumpets; Jason Jackson, Vincent Chandler, Saunders Sermons, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone, arranger;
Bruce Williams, Justin Robinson, Norbert Stachel, Keith Loftis, Jason Marshall, saxophones; Gerald Clayton, piano; Danton Boller, bass; Montez Coleman, drums.

Wine: Emilio Lustau, Jerez-Sherry, Solera East India (Palomino): “A slow, deliberate, almost melancholy number, but with a full, opulent big band backing. We have chosen a fortified wine with intensity and persistence. Its sweetness offers volume and density. A wine which needs time and deliberation. Its toasty aromas of nuts transport us to an autumn setting, melancholy decadence, beauty and serenity.”

Rava: This is tricky. [AFTER 2 MINUTES] I have no idea who it could be, although… It’s very let’s say traditional playing, but it’s somebody that plays very well, has a big sound. I don’t hear that big personality. It could be somebody like Chris Botti or somebody like that. [REPEATS REMARKS] I was saying that I have no idea who it can be, because it’s a very traditional way of playing. He plays very well. He has a really good sound. I thought it was a flugelhorn, by the way. He reminds me, in a way, of a trumpet player who I just saw a video of—a DVD of this cat, called Chris Botti, who was playing exactly “My Funny Valentine.” I know it’s not him, but it reminds me of him. Who is it? [Roy Hargrove] No. [Italians mutter remarks] No! It’s incredible. I must say, I don’t know that well Roy Hargrove, but the little I know, I like him a lot. But I would never recognize him. I’m used to hearing more…how can I say… But I was very surprised when you said Roy Hargrove, because to me it didn’t sound like him. I’ve heard him playing a little bit like that in one record, the one with Shirley Horn, which was the homage to Miles Davis. But this was pretty different. But this was pretty different. Here it really sounded much… I’m used to hearing Roy Hargrove more wild, in a way. I could give it 3 stars. But only 3, because, although the arrangement was very good, the trumpet was played very delightful, but it didn’t really go anywhere, in a way. But it was very nice. It was nice to be out with a nice girl to dinner and have this record playing.

2. Avishai Cohen, “Art Deco” (from INTRODUCING TRIVENI, Anzic, 2011) (Cohen, trumpet; Omer Avital, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Vina Von Siebenthal, Valle del Aconcagua Carmenere 2007 (Chile): “A contemporary, modern, energetic and intense trumpeter. Chile is one of the so-called new world countries and a paradism in the elaboration of modern wines, with a strong presence of mature fruit edged with hints of aging in new oak. Dense, full and substantial wines. Ripening the Camembert grape can pose problems. It needs to be taken to the limit of maturity to avoid aggressive textures and vegetal notes.”

Rava: The tune is a Don Cherry tune. It’s called “Art Deco.” By the way, I am going to play this tune tomorrow. Donald Cherry. The trumpet player should be… Because I just played with him. It should be Avishai Cohen. Personally, I love the way he plays. Besides, I love the person, too. He’s one of the greatest today. [What is it about the tune that appeals to you?] The tune is fantastic because it had the roots in the real tradition of jazz. It could almost be a Dixieland tune, in a way—a New Orleans tune. But at the same time, it allows you to open up… It’s one of those tunes that have no limits. It is not limited to a certain period. It could be played by a New Orleans player, or by a free player. It’s very open and very easy to remember, too. I love melodies. It has a very catchy melody. It’s very smart, but is very poetic at the same time. One of the best tunes Don Cherry brought—although he brought so many beautiful tunes. But this one stands out. I love the way Avishai played it. On the little intro, he did something really… There you kind of got me, because I didn’t know who it could be, but then I recognized the attack. He has a very special way of playing. 5 stars for the tune, for the beautiful trumpet, and for the beautiful cat.

3. Jerry Gonzalez, “In A Sentimental Mood” (from Y El Comando de la Clave, Sunnyside, 2011) (Gonzalez, flugelhorn, congas; Diego “El Cigala”, voice; Israel Suarez “Piana”, cajon; Alain Perez, guitar)

Wine: André and Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Savagnin, 2007 (France): “This number conveys the lament, the pain, the sentiment of flamenco (which we also find in the blues) expressed through the language of Cuban music and the improvisation of jazz. The wines from the alpine region of Jura have and always have had a lot in common with Andalusian wines, due to very similar winemaking techniques. Fusion? French spirit with an Andalusian accent.”

Rava: I have no idea. No idea. I think the idea is very good. I don’t think there is too much happening so far. The idea is nice, trumpet and voice. But then I’m not so sure they really interact… Maybe that was the intention, to keep something so quiet. [RAVA IS ASKED TO SPEAK UP] I was saying that I have no idea who he is. I think the idea was very good, to have this voice and trumpet interacting, but it is not really happening too much. It’s ok. I would give 2½ stars. Anyway, it is my taste. Maybe it is fantastic. But the way they did it, it didn’t get to me. [AFTER] Now I know why I didn’t know who it was, because I really don’t know at all Jerry Gonzalez’ music. Maybe I never heard him play. So there was no way to know him. He’s a good player anyway, of course. But today, everybody is good. [What do you think about this hybrid idea, of playing an iconic song like that in a very context than it’s normally done, with Cuban rhythms, as they did?] As I said, I think the idea is really good. Anyway, I think that every idea is good as soon as there is an idea. The problem is when there is no idea, but when there is an idea, it’s good. The only thing, I’m not crazy about the way they materialized this idea. But the idea was good. I was taken by the music. I was listening to it. Except I was waiting for maybe the two of them to have some more… I didn’t feel they interacted very much. But maybe it’s just me.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Marcin Wasilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurekiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Krzysztof Komeda, composer)

Wine: Prager, Wachau Riesling Federspiel Steinriegel, 2010 (Austria): “Modern and contemporary European jazz which transports us to a cold and mysterious place, yet also has a rich lyricism. The Riesling grape has an acidic, deep, hard, almost aggressive structure, yet is also refreshing and smooth, with beautiful aromas that flow from the glass and hang suspended, offering us subtlety and tonality.”

Rava: Here again, I don’t really know who it could be. It’s one of these new cats that play the hell out of the trumpet. It could be one of them. I’ll just say one name. It could be Ambrose. But it’s not. [Peter from Bremen Festival: The trumpeter is your age. Or almost.] Is my age. Impossible. Nobody is my age. Except dead people. Dead people are my age. He’s my age? [He’s a contemporary of yours.] A contemporary of mine. American? [No, not American.] I don’t know who could play like that in Europe, in this style. [Explain.] The people I know, that I like, that I know them, that I know the way they play. One is the Danish guy, for instance, but it’s not him… What’s his name, the Danish guy that I admire… Allan Botschinsky, but it’s not. [Peter from Bremen: It’s your record company.] [TP: You’re giving too much information now!] I don’t think I can get him. It was very nice. The guy was playing beautiful. I was not crazy about the tune. In fact, there was no tune. It was really a rhythmic phrase, but it was very good trumpet playing, and I’m very amazed that you say he’s a contemporary of mine and he’s European. Because Europeans of my age, the only is Tomasz Stanko—it’s not him. [It’s not?] No. [It is.] It is? Well, let me tell you that I know Tomasz so well, I’ve played with him so many times, and I would never recognize Tomasz. I never heard him play so straight and to phrase in such an orthodox way. I didn’t even know he could. I knew he was very good playing a certain thing. But I didn’t expect him to play like that—to play THIS. For me, it is a big surprise. I almost don’t believe it. I should see the picture! But being Tomasz Stanko, the only thing I can say is I hope he reads this in DownBeat and he listens to what I am going to tell him. Tomasz, you are playing really unbelievably. Congratulations. I always liked you, but I didn’t know you could play so well, like in this record. 5 stars for Tomasz. Not for the tune. The tune I didn’t really care for. But 5 stars.

5. Eddie Henderson, “Popo” (from FOR ALL WE KNOW, Furthermore, 2009) (Henderson, trumpet, composer; John Scofield, guitar; Doug Weiss, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Wine: Bodega Mas Alta, Priorat, Artigas, 2008 (Garnatxa, Carinyena): “A classical education, experimentation, and then back to the classical roots of hard bop, this is the journey of Eddie Henderson. And so we consider Priorat to be the alter-ego of Eddie Henderson. An historic wine region that was reborn in the 1980s through experimentation and reinvention, and has since returned to its roots byi giving more and more importance to its traditional varieties, the Garnatxa and Carinyena, and trying to concentrate more on expressing balance anxd freshness without losing any of the strength and body of the terroir.”

Rava: The problem is that when they play with the Harmon mute, they all sound alike. They all sound like Miles. That’s why I never play with the Harmon mute. It could be many people. For instance, Paolo Fresu sounds like that a lot—but it’s not him. It was nice. A nice feeling, a nice… It wasn’t particularly exciting for me. I’ll give it 3½ stars, whoever it is. It was a very good trumpet player, of course. But everybody today plays this instrument very well. I always say that we should have killed them when they were kids! It’s nobody I know, or maybe somebody I heard once or twice. [AFTER] He’s a trumpet player I don’t know too well. I used to hear him when he was playing with Herbie Hancock in the ‘70s, and sometimes I happened to meet him in some festival, but I don’t really know what he’s doing, so there was no way I could recognize him. Anyway, he sounded very good, of course. But the tune itself didn’t kill me.

6. Kenny Wheeler, “The Lover Mourns” (from WHAT NOW? CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass)

Wine: Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Pinot Noir, Devil’s Corner, 2008 (Australia). Wine: “The Pinot Noir grape well reflects many of the ideas that we find in the music of Kenny Wheeler, like delicacy, lyricism and poetry. Intense delicately suspended bouquet, smooth textures, and a restrained freshness and tension in this wine from the coolest region of Australia.”

Rava: This is an enjoyable piece, like 4 stars. The whole tune has a nice atmosphere. The trumpet player is excellent. There’s many people who can play like that. I must say that as much as I knew very well all the trumpet players of the ‘50s and ‘60s, now I have a certain problem with today trumpet players, because they all play to a very-very high level, but at the same time it’s very difficult to recognize… When you’re talking about trumpet players of the past, you hear one note of Chet and say, “Oh, this is Chet”; one note of Miles, “this is Miles; one of note of Clifford Brown… Everyone had a different technique, a different tone, a different… Today, I don’t hear that. Now, maybe it’s my ears that are not as good as they used to be! That is another possibility. This one had something I knew. Maybe once you tell me who it is I’ll say, “How could I not?” [AFTER] Oh, Kenny. Okay. This is another thing. As much as the Harmon mute, the flugelhorn tends to unify the sounds. Everyone, even my aunt, with the flugelhorn gets this beautiful warm and dark sound, but it takes away a little bit the personality of the trumpet player. Of course, Kenny is someone who I know very well. We even toured together with… I’m sorry. I should have recognized him. But I didn’t. It was a nice tune. Very enjoyable. Who was the piano player? John Taylor? Ah, that’s why it was so good.

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “What’s New” (from WHEN THE HEART EMERGES GLISTENING, Blue Note, 2010) (Akinmusire, trumpet; Gerald Clayton, piano; Bob Haggart, composer)

Wine: Bodegas Marañones, Vinos de Madrid, 30,000 Maradevies, 2009 (Garnacha). Wine: “We find many parallels between the two young talents of Ambrose Akinmusire, the new prodigy on the renowned Blue Note label, and Fernando Garcia, the young self-taught winemaker, who is working to recuperate Garnachas from the old vines of the Sierra de Gredos. With a very contemporary approach to winemaking, he aims for a fresh wine style, with little intervention, in an attempt to provide the maximum expression of the vineyard.”

Rava: Is that Uri Caine on piano? No? It sounds a little bit like him when he does this. [AFTER PIECE IS COMPLETED] Dave Douglas? No. I thought so from the sound of a certain phrase at the beginning. Then I thought no, but he’s the only one who came to my mind. I really liked what the trumpeter did. It was very natural, flowing, and also harmonically it was very interesting. The way the tune started, that they didn’t play the head, they started improvising—it was a very nice. It was a good idea. Nothing special, but anyway a good idea to play “What’s New” like that. It was a very nice duo. I have no idea… [Older players? Younger?] Well, at this point… Every time I say it’s a young one, it turns out to be 80 years. But this one sounds to me like a guy in his forties, 45 or 50 or something like that. Or maybe not. It’s a 12-year-old! You cannot say. I don’t know who it can be. Who is it? 4½ stars. [AFTER] Oh!! I swear I was going to say that. No-no, really. It’s true. I was thinking Ambrose. I only heard one record of Ambrose, but he plays much more…how can I say… I wouldn’t say… It’s not a negative thing; it’s a positive thing. There shows up most of the time more of his amazing technique. He’s one of the trumpet players who has really impressed me enormously lately, so much that I wanted to have him next year in the festival of which I am the director. That tells you how much I like this guy. What I heard of him on only one record really impressed me. He really goes up and down this instrument. Now, here it was much… I liked this thing very much. In fact, although I said 4½ stars, I could even say 5. The thing is, it didn’t last long enough. It was a bit short. 4½ for the tune; 5 for Ambrose.

8. Wynton Marsalis, “La Lamada De La Sangre [Blood Cry]” (from VITORIA SUITE, EmArcy, 2010) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Marcus Printup, trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, trombones; Sherman Irby, Ted Nash, Walter Blanding, Jr., Joe Temperley, saxophones & woodwinds; Dan Nimmer piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums.

Wine: Bodegas López de heredia, Rioja Viña Bosconia Reserva, 2002 (Tempranillo, Garnacho, Mazuelo, Graciano). “Wynton Marsalis was the arch revivalist of classicism in the 1980s. Impassive to criticism, he sought to rediscover classical jazz. The López de Heredia bodega is an excellent example of classicism, tradition and resistance. Almost all of the bodegas in Rioja, whether large or small, succumbed to the siren song of modernity. At López de Heredia, the third generation chose to maintain the legacy and character of their forebears despite the changes all around them and the pressures to alter their style. Now, faithful to this tradition, they are still the landmark winery they have always been.”

Rava: That’s a Miles phrase from Sketches of Spain. Is that trumpet or cornet? [I don’t know.] It sounded like an homage to Miles, some citation from Sketches of Spain, and then at the last minute it sounded like a kind of thing for Duke Ellington, with this kind of “Django”… It could be Dave Douglas. [Not Dave.] But it could. It could! It’s not forbidden. But it’s not. And it is… [Talk about the piece a little.] The piece got me. I like it. In fact, I’m glad I did this Blindfold Test where I didn’t get nobody except Avishai, because it gave me the will now to go out tomorrow here in Barcelona, where there is a very good store, to buy some records. Really, I heard something that is very interesting. I realize that… Maybe in my playing it doesn’t sound like it, in my groups and my music, but I’m still listening always to the same thing that I’ve listening to for fifty years. I still listen to Bix, to Satchmo, to Miles. So there’s a lot of things I don’t know, I don’t listen, and it’s probably a big mistake. So this Blindold Test gives me… Now I feel like going out to buy stuff. And also to retire, because people play so good.

As far as this piece, the composition was very interesting. It was a very nice arrangement, and the sound was… There was some Gil Evans stuff in it. In fact, in a way, it reminded me of some of Gil Evans’ things fifty years ago with Johnny Coles—even the way the trumpet player sounded. Because there was some Miles in it, but of course it was not Miles. It’s a nice record. I would like to buy it, in fact. But I have no idea who it is. I couldn’t even tell you now if I think this thing had been done today or forty years ago. In fact, this is another thing that confirms what I have been saying all the time, that the last big change in the language was done by Ornette in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and from then on, we still metabolize whatever we’d been doing before. Sometimes I listen to Maria Schneider doing some fantastic thing, but it could be something recorded thirty years ago. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way. In fact, I love it. Or some trumpet player 22 years old playing stuff that he could have been doing in the ‘60s or the ‘50s. I will give it 4½ stars. I could give more, but 4½ is a lot of stars. I wish I’d get 4½ often. [AFTER] You see, for instance, I have many records by Wynton Marsalis. I would never recognize him in this tune. He sounds different. It’s the same thing you did last time when it was Wynton playing some old stuff, and there was no way somebody could…unless you know that he did it or you heard the record before. Just the day before… Usually at home, to have fun, I play with records, and one of the records I play very often is Wynton Marsalis’ record Live at the House of Tribes, where he plays only standards. If you compare what he played on that record with what he plays on this record, there’s no way you could say it’s the same person. Also if you hear him play From Slavery to the Penitentiary, it sounds like another, third one. So what can I say? Anyway, ok, I didn’t recognize him; the tune was beautiful. It’s very interesting, because that makes my judgment much more real, because I was not influenced by… Of course, if I knew that this guy was Ambrose, or someone else… That’s why I say I love it. It makes me want to go to buy the record.

9. Amir ElSaffar, “Al-Badia” (from INANA, Pi, 2011) (ElSaffar, trumpet, composer; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Zafer Tawil, oud, percussion; Tareq Anboushi, buzuq; Carlo DeRosa, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums)

Wine: Ferrer Bobet, Must. “Amir ElSaffar is an important contemporary trumpeter who fuses jazz and traditional Iraqi music, being a master of the traditional maqam style. Grape must symbolizes, surely better than wine, a cultural closeness. Sweetness and density which fuse with the exotic rhythms of the Middle East.”

Rava: Is the player American? [Yes, American with a hyphen preceding it. He’s a first-generation American.] I don’t know him. I’ve heard a lot of things like that in Europe, like a trumpet player from Lebanon, Ibrahim Malouf. It wasn’t him. I’d imagine that later on they develop. But then they were just playing the head. It’s not the kind of thing that drives me to… It’s one of the things that you can do. Who is it? [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him. The only one I know is Nasheet Waits. I’m happy I heard a lot of good trumpet players. That’s for sure. It makes me feel like going out to get some more records, and stop listening to Bix and wasting my time!

 

***********

Enrico Rava (Barcelona, Nov. 11, 2011):

TP: You have a mute called the Peace-Maker mute, so nobody can see you…

ER: Yes, so nobody gets angry at me. My wife doesn’t…heh-heh… Peace is made, you know, thanks to the Peace-Maker.

TP: Did you develop it?

ER: No, I didn’t invent it. It’s something I bought years ago. It doesn’t exist any more. I tried to buy one again because this one is kind of dying, because it fell too many times—now it’s breaking up. But I didn’t do it any more, unfortunately.

TP: Let’s structure this conversation. Let’s talk about your group, your association with these musicians, the recording Tribe. You’ve done three recordings with Petrella on the front line. Talk about the process of making a record with Manfred Eicher. Do you go into the studio with a notion of how the record is going to sound when you get out? Or do you go in with the material you’re working with over that period, and then Manfred Eicher assembles it, as he often does? That’s a long-standing relationship.

ER: It’s not always the same. For instance, when I came back to ECM in 2004, with the record Easy Living, I had a band that played a lot. We played a lot, and we had a big repertoire. We didn’t record for a long time. So I went to the studio with everything… I could choose within my repertoire, and the material was ready—no problem. Then with the trio with Paul Motian and Stefano Bollani, and also with the duo with Bollani, it was really invented during the recording session. On both records, I brought some new tunes, and we played probably for the first time in the studio. Manfred, of course, was giving his opinion and kind of giving some input to us. But particularly with the duo, because on the duo, Bollani and me, we played a lot. We already made some records…

TP: On Label Bleu?

ER: On Label Bleu, but also on Philology. So I wanted to have completely new material. And since with the duo we play also some standards, and I wanted to play only original material, so I brought a bunch of new tunes that I wrote for the occasion, and Bollani brought a couple of tunes. It was a record invented in the studio. In fact, the record doesn’t really sound like the duo usually sounds. Even now, when we play, we’re still playing the standards thing. I think it was very interesting how it changed the music in a studio, making a record with new material for ECM… It changed so much. [WAVES TO GUYS IN BAND]

TP: Let’s talk about the band. I can find this out for myself tonight, but for you how does sound of the band on the recording differ from a live performance?

ER: It really sounds very different when we play live. You’ll see tonight. First of all, I think that studio music is a different music than live music. For instance, when you play live, there is also the visual aspect of it, and the excitement of the people, blah-blah. Something that if you hear it on a record, it might sound too long or annoying or whatever, when you hear it on a concert, looking at the musicians with the people around you, it works. But it doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. In fact, for me it’s very rare to hear a jazz live recording that I really like. Some of them are fantastic… When it happens, it’s fantastic. Sometimes, for instance… I bought them because I am a collector. I bought the complete live recordings of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Besides the fact that there are some amazing, extraordinary moments, like there is a Charlie Parker solo… But altogether, it’s almost impossible to listen to, because you’re just listening to long solos, you don’t really remember what was the tune at the beginning. But it worked. You can feel that people were very excited. But when you hear it at home, sitting down, you don’t enjoy it that much.

So in this, I agree very much with Manfred Eicher, because the record is a different thing. You think also how the music is going to be listened to; under what conditions people are going to listen to it. For instance, on this last record, he has a lot of very contemplative tunes. When I play live, I wouldn’t do that. I would have maybe a couple of moments like that, but I wouldn’t do like in the record, one after the other.

TP: Like those three towards the end.

ER: Yes. But I think in the record, it works. I wouldn’t do that live, because live you need something else. Also, live you get some energy from the people, you give it back to them, they give it back to you, so you get into a different… In fact, Manfred Eicher, last time he heard the group live, in Munich, he thought that we should make a record live, just to have another view of this band. But of course, if at some time we do that, it would be a live performance, and it would be different than the usual performance because you are conscious of the fact that you are recording it. So trying to be …(?—8:27)…

TP: There’s a title, Tribe, and a number of the tunes have titles with a tribal connotation. One is called “Choctaw,” for example. Is there some kind of implied narrative or extra-musical story to the recording that you’re thinking about while making it, or is it pure accident?

ER: Well, sometimes it’s pure accident. Sometimes… Tribe comes from the idea that I have that… Besides, it was the title of a tune that I wrote in 1977, and recorded for ECM with John Abercrombie. Giovanni Guidi, my piano player, who is 25, I think, liked it so much, he said, “Why don’t we play that tune?” I didn’t even remember. I was surprised that a young guy wanted to play a tune I recorded 30 years ago. But we played it, and it really worked; it sounded like I wrote that yesterday. But besides that, I really feel with the band, with all my bands… I always feel like a tribe. We are like a tribe. Once I read that the Cherokees had a social organization that there was no sense of… Nobody owned anything. Everything was for everybody, and everybody used what he needed, and it was a perfect kind of idea of democracy. I don’t know if it’s true. But in music, in jazz, in a jazz group, that’s what it really is. When it works, it’s a perfect democracy that would probably never exist in reality, where everybody gives what is needed, everybody receives what is needed. Nobody renounces to his own ego, but…he doesn’t impose his ego to everybody. That’s when it works. When it doesn’t work, it is totally… But when it works, for me, this is the great experience of playing this music. For me, beside musical reasons, there is the reason of being in a perfect harmonic situation, where…so being in contact with a real balance, like the cosmic balance, which is the same balance of the body balance inside, where everything is right. When something is wrong, you get sick. So for me, this is the great experience of this music, and it’s something that, as far as we know, in jazz… Well, in all music, that way. But in jazz, it is particularly evident.

TP: Let’s explore that a bit. Because it’s still your vision, your sound, your band.

ER: Yes.

TP: You don’t seem to use much written material in arrangements. You set up situations where your bandmates have a lot of initiative.

ER: Yes.

TP: Then you bounce off it.

ER: That’s what it is.

TP: So you’re trying to create this situation.

ER: Yes.

TP: There is some agency involved. The situation doesn’t happen by accident.

ER: No.

TP: It happens because you want to create a situation like that.

ER: Yes. I must say I got that from Miles. Because I know that was the way Miles was organizing his music, especially with the quintet with Coltrane and with Miles. But the first thing is the choice of the musicians. I need musicians that… Besides they have to be good players. That of course. But also, they have to have the same vision that I have, and also to be open to the whole history of this music. They must be able to…you know… And then, I bring maybe a line, some chords of a tune, maybe a little point at which we have to meet and play what I want to be played. But for the rest, the example, the metaphor of that is if we are five people who have to paint, to make a painting on a white wall all together, and each one puts what is needed and doesn’t put… Finally, we are a painting that is made by a group of people because it’s logic… I might say what kind of feeling I would like to have, or I must make maybe an example. Not musical. I will say no. I am talking about maybe… I might talk about a book, or about the situation, the weather, whatever it is. In this, I also have the lines I write, the chords I give, but then I leave everyone to find what to add or what to take out. That way, I think that the musicians who play with me give really their best. In fact, talking also about the groups I had in the past, many of those musicians playing with me, they played better than ever—and they admit that, too.

TP: They played their best with you, you mean.

ER: Yes. Even better than when they play with their own thing. This is not me. I am not me telling that, but they are them, themselves, telling me that. Because I leave them really total freedom within the frame, which is the idea I have of the music and of that particular tune. But it works.

TP: But it’s not entirely altruistic. Another reason why Miles Davis did that, and I presume why you do as well, is to stay fresh and not repeat yourself…

ER: Absolutely.

TP: …and get feedback from fresh young minds.

ER: Absolutely. No-no, the altruism has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that I like to have a music that reflects what I think, but at the same time that it is fresh and it is surprising. I need to be surprised by the people I play with. In fact, whenever a band I have starts becoming into a very good routine…but routine, even if it’s a very good routine, I change. I change musicians. I change someone. The only one that is still the same in this last maybe ten years is Petrella. But with Petrella, besides that he’s an extraordinary musician, we also almost a telepathic thing when we play together. In fact, Petrella has his own projects, very interesting, very good, he played a lot…they have this group with David(?—17:12) (?)> He plays with a lot of people. But he always is free when he has to play with me. He always tries to be able to play whenever I call him. Because we have this thing together that works. It could work forever. Maybe it will not. But it could.

TP: You played trombone before you played trumpet, right?

ER: Yeah, but not really. I tried.

TP: For purposes of an interview, I want to ask you… You’ve played a lot with trombonists. The Roswell Rudd connection…

ER: Yes. Ray Anderson. Albert Mangelsdorff.

TP: I see a connection between Petrella and Ray and Roswell in the tonality, and the way they get around the whole trombone…

ER: Still, I like the instrument, and I love the musicians, of course. They were great. But I love the instrument. In fact, when I was a kid… I started listening to jazz when I was really very young. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. My first big myth was, and still is, Bix Beiderbecke—and Louis Armstrong.

TP: You told me you have Bix in your car.

ER: I do. I have Bix and Louis in my car. Now I’m going to have all the new guys! Because next Blindfold Test I will get all of them! But so far, in my car… I will tell you what I have right now in my car. I have a lot of Lester Young. I have almost all Bix with Frankie Trumbauer. I have Hot Five and Hot Seven, Louis Armstrong. I have a couple of Miles. I have a Monk record. And I have a bunch of Michael Jackson records. That’s what I’m talking about in this last year. I am listening to those records all the time, all the same. Then maybe I will change, but… I don’t have an iPod. I like to have a CD. I have the thing in the car.

TP: I don’t have an iPod either.

ER: You neither. I don’t know how it works. I have no idea.

TP: I’m too lazy to download the stuff. Who needs that?

ER: Me, too. I like everything to be ready for me.

TP: But back to trombone. There’s a sort of expansive tonal thing. It’s funny.

ER: When I was a kid… Because listening to Bix and his gang, you know, “Jazz Me Blues” or the “Jazzman Ball,” or Armstrong Hot 7… Listening to the trombone, I understood the mechanism of this music, how it works. Because many people never understand. Sometimes they ask me, even now, “but why do you improvise? What do you do? How…” Listening to them, it was so clear, and the trombone made it so clear, that I remember more the trombone line when I was 8-9 years old than everybody else’s line—although I loved the trumpet players already. But still, I remembered all the lines the trombone was playing. So I was whistling all those lines. So eventually, when I was maybe 14, there was a Dixieland band that… [(?)Alma Turba(?)—21:38], they played pretty good… They had a trombone player who was a very good technician, but it was totally arhythmic. He had no sense of rhythm. And they knew, because I was always hanging around in the record store…they knew that I was whistling all those trombone parts. So they bought me a trombone and they said, “Ok, you have to learn the trombone as fast as you can.” So I drove… I was maybe 14. I drove my neighbors and my family crazy. But after a couple of months, I was able to play almost decently certain parts of these tunes. So I got into that band immediately, except that my father (I was very young; I was 15 at this point) didn’t want me to come back late at night, so it was a tragedy. Then I was so bad at school that eventually the trombone was locked in a closet. I never came back.

TP: They locked the trombone up so you’d do better in school.

ER: That’s it with the trombone. So that was the end of my career as a trombone player.

TP: Just a digression. What sort of family do you come from? Intellectuals?

ER: I come from a bourgeois family, middle-high class, let’s say…

TP: They had a business?

ER: My father had a business. It was a family business. On top of it, he was also an economist, so he had an office. I was supposed to become a lawyer or something like that. My older brother, who is the one who had all the records that I listened to when I was a kid, of course he was very successful at school, had a very brilliant career as an economist—still is very respected in that field. Me, I was a dropout. I dropped out of school when I was 16.

TP: A ne’er do well, as they say.

ER: I was really the black sheep of the family. They were very worried about me. So then I started working in the family business.

TP: What was the business, if I may ask?

ER: It was an international transport business. I had to go to…how do you call it… Well, it doesn’t matter. It was a horrible gig. On top of it, my father thought that since I was supposed to become, with my cousin, the owner of the business, I had to start from the bottom, so I did the most horrible work, and I would wake up early in the morning, and on top of it I was working on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sunday morning. I could see really my life like in a tunnel. I said I will never…

But then, when I bought a trumpet, I did that because… In the meantime, I was listening to a lot of records. I had a lot of records, and I was crazy about Miles. I’m talking about Miles of the ‘50s. 1952, “Blue Haze,” that groove, all these records. When Miles came through Turino, it was ‘56, with…

TP: Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet…

ER: Yeah, and the French people, with Rene Urtregger… There is a record of that.

TP: “How High The Moon.”

ER: Exactly. And “What’s New.” And so, when I saw that concert… Already he was my favorite—he and Chet. But when I saw that concert, really I… Because although I loved what I was listening to, I couldn’t imagine that in person it could be so incredibly strong. And yet, such an amazing charisma that even… Because in the concert there was also Bud Powell to play alone. Even with Bud Powell and Lester Young, still everybody was looking at Miles, even when he wasn’t playing, when he was just standing in a corner. The sound… At the time, they didn’t have that incredible system or sound engineering, so it was almost acoustic, and the sound was filling the fucking room. I was totally shocked. I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days because I was still… I couldn’t turn myself down. I kept the adrenalin. And then, after a week or something like that, I bought an old trumpet and started learning by myself.

TP: Oh, you’re self-taught.

ER: Absolutely. 100%.

TP: How about theory? Also self-taught?

ER: Absolutely. But I must say, my mother was a classical piano player, so I was listening to music, in fact, even before I was born. [PATS STOMACH] So I know a lot of things that I don’t know theoretically. But I wasn’t planning to be a musician. I was just trying to play with the record, particularly the easier tunes like “Solar,” “When Lights Are Low”… I was trying to learn those tunes, and I did. After a few months, they started calling me at the jam sessions with amateurs, and eventually I found myself playing with very good people. I met Gato Barbieri that way. He told me why don’t you do that seriously?

TP: But by then you were in your early twenties.

ER: Yes.

TP: So until your early twenties you were working in the family business and playing trumpet on the side.

ER: Yes.

TP: You said that Chet Baker also moved to your town.

ER: Yes. Because my best friend, who was a bit older than me, was his drummer when he came out from jail. You know that he was in jail in… Anyway, he was in jail in 1961 in Italy, one year, where he… By the way, he learned Italian very well. He spoke beautiful Italian. So when he came out, he was very popular, because the trial was a lot of scandal and everything…

TP: Like the Amanda Knox trial fifty years before.

ER: That kind of thing. Exactly. So he became very popular in Italy, and he had a band with my best friend on drums, and so when they had a day off he would be at my best friend’s house, sleeping there for two days. Whenever I knew… Whenever my friend, Franco, called me and said, “Chet is here,” I would just stop whatever I was doing, and go to Chet and stay with him. I couldn’t even talk because I was so paralyzed by this, just looking at him, that I couldn’t even put two words together. I was listening to him, bringing his trumpet and things.

In the meantime, my life was getting better because I was playing with better and better people. And then Gato told me, “Why don’t you just…you know, fuck that work?” and I said, “That’s right,” you know. One day I said to my father… I woke up and I said, “Listen, that’s it,” to my father. So it was a family drama that lasted forever, because my father was really mad at me for the rest of his life. One morning, I left for Rome to go to play with Gato, with my little car, and it was fantastic. From then on, it was all natural and easy.

TP: One thing led to another?

ER: Yes. Because from playing with Gato, that led me to play with Steve Lacy. Steve Lacy brought me to New York, and I started playing, I don’t know, with everybody, and eventually I met Cecil Taylor, all these people, and I was in Escalator Over the Hill, and then I played with the Roswell Rudd band. Then I started touring Europe with my own group, with John Abercrombie—that was ‘72. Then Manfred Eicher contacted me in New York, and I did my first record for him. Everything was, say… After a difficult beginning, everything was, I must say, very easy. I was very lucky, too, to be at the right moment.

TP: I played you the track by Stanko yesterday, and there are certain parallels in the way your musical aesthetic evolved. You both started off… I’m not sure how self-taught Stanko was. But you started off loving Miles and so on, then you started off playing very open music and speculative improvising, and were part of that whole aesthetic of the ‘60s, and you’ve gradually come back to playing harmonic music, within structures, and a very lyrical quality, where melody and lyricism is very important. That’s not to compare you to Stanko, but just a measuring point. Can you discuss the aesthetics of the early ‘60s and mid ‘60s when you were starting to establish your name and your sound?

ER: Yes. But let me say about Stanko, it’s funny that you say that… He studied. I think he went to the conservatory. I think he played in a symphonic orchestra for a while. It’s funny, because I met Stanko in ‘63, one year before I decided to be a musician, in a festival in Bled, in Yugoslavia, and immediately we had a very good rapport, because we liked the same music, we liked… Just to stay that I’ve been knowing him for such a long time. Anyway, I started listening to, and even playing with a trombone, Bix and all, but then of course, the one that opened the door to me for modern jazz really was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet, which is still for me one of the most imaginative groups I ever heard. Chet was amazing. From then on, I got into that. So when I started playing, I was trying to play in between Miles and Chet, and I played that music. With Gato, we had a band…we played all the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane in ‘64. We played “Half Nelson,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

But then I was listening to Ornette and this kind of turned me on very much. And then Gato went with Don Cherry and I went with Steve Lacy, and all of a sudden, this music that was just coming to Europe on records, like Albert Ayler’s Spirits and all that… All of a sudden, playing with Steve, we decided to open completely, not to play the heads any more, just to improvise from zero.

TP: It’s interesting, because Lacy was so into structure, even when he broke structure…

ER: I know. But in fact, even when we’d play completely free, it was kind of radical. As far as I know, we were the first band that played like that, without even a small head, without talking before. Our rule was that we don’t have to talk… In fact, in the beginning, the first two weeks that I played with his quartet, which was ‘65, we were playing Monk tunes and Carla Bley tunes. But then the improvisation was free. So this is exactly how it went. After a couple of weeks, I said to Steve, “Listen. It seems we improvise something that has no relation with it; why don’t we just start improvising…” So we tried one night, and it became our… For two years we played only like that. This was related to a lot of things. It was related also to what historically was happening. That music, the so-called “free music,” became the song of the young people’s revolution… Like, in Paris in ‘68, they would be playing that for the young people who were marching. It became… It had a very heavy political connotation. So we felt part of a musical movement that was also social and political.

The thing is that, at a certain moment, I felt that this amazing freedom that we had, it was freedom at the beginning, but then it became a routine. It became a routine with a cliche finally less interesting than the bebop cliche. That’s the way I started feeling. I started feeling that if a music is free, you should be free also to play a melody if you want. But no. Because if I play a melody, immediately, “No, this is not free jazz.”

There is a story that is true (I don’t know who told me that; I think it was Eberhard Weber) that they were playing at the Free Meeting in Baden-Baden by Joachim Berendt. I was there many times, too. He was playing with Wolfgang Daumer, I think, and they were playing completely free. Then at a certain moment, I don’t know why, Wolfgang started playing kind of on a tempo and in time, and immediately Berendt stopped. “Stop. Remember, this is a FREE jazz meeting.” So that tells you how un-free it could be, this thing…

TP: It sounds very Germanic.

ER: It is, in fact. [LAUGHS] But that happened for real. In fact, sometimes maybe… I remember when I was in Buenos Aires with Steve Lacy and Moholo and Johnny Dyani, sometimes the three of us, me, Johnny and Louis, we would go to play with Argentinean musicians to play some standards. We felt we had to get out… It became almost like a religion.

TP: There’s a parallel to the development of some aspects of the European Left.

ER: Yeah. But in fact, in Italy in the late ‘70s, things got really ridiculous, the freedom of the music. It was like Dadaism forty years too late. We would play a concert where one guy would play on top of a roof, the other one was on a horse… This was a Happening. In fact…

TP: From Fluxus.

ER: Yes. From the Happening point of view it was maybe interesting, but from the musical point of view, no. In fact, I remember many of the musicians in Italy involved in that situation sometimes would say, “Wow, I can’t wait until we start again to play in theaters instead of playing on a boat or in a bus…” So I felt that I wanted to play again melodies, harmonies, rhythm. But I kept an idea of freedom also.

TP: Also, though, you go to New York, and unlike a lot of Europeans… You and Karl Berger seem to be the two European musicians of that time who made the biggest impact in New York, or got around the music. Well, Mike Mantler came, but his was a different sort of impact. There must be others. But anyway, you spent ten years in New York, and then I guess New York was your base, but you kept an Italian passport and you traveled around.

ER: I had a green card. I lived in New York. But once or twice a year I would do a tour in Europe, or sometimes they would call… For instance, they called me with Globe Unity, which is this German band…

TP: Totally free.

ER: Totally free, but there were compositions, too. But I was living in New York. I had a green card. I could have got the American passport after five years, but at that time, to have the American nationality, you had the renounce to the Italian. I didn’t want to renounce the Italian for many reasons, but one of those is that with the Italian passport I could work freely all over Europe, whereas an American, for certain countries, needed a visa. Particularly with France there were a lot of problems. At the time we could not have… Now it would be possible, but at that time you could not have the two passports.

TP: But for a couple of reasons for this article… One is the memoir. I’m under the impression that in the memoir you write a lot about your experiences in New York. But also, your early influences are American musicians, but it’s primarily a New York influence… It’s the opposite of the artists of the 18th or 19th century coming to Rome or Venice, or writers going to Paris in the early 20th century…

ER: Yes, of course.

TP: You’re a jazz musician, and you come to New York in the ‘70s. Talk about the dynamics of that scene. You came back 34 years ago, and I’m sure you thought about this when writing the book. How did your ten years in New York shape you as a musician and help you to evolve?

ER: That’s for sure. One thing that I got from American musicians, is: When you play, you play, you know, like it was the last time of your life. This is something that we didn’t have.

TP: Did Lacy impart that to you?

ER: No. I got that from coming to New York, and going around, listening to people. But anyway, there was very… When I came to New York… Besides, I must say that when I checked all the great musicians living in New York in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s, almost nobody was from New York. They were coming from all over the States to New York. I always felt that you go where whatever you like to do happens. So in those years, if you wanted to play jazz, I really thought you have to be in New York if you make any sense… You could be the best musician in the world, but if you live in a small town in the south of Italy, it will never happen for you. New York is where my idols were, where all the people I wanted to meet, the people…

It was very interesting, because when I came to New York, first of all, many of the greatest jazz musicians who invented jazz were still alive and playing. So you could see Monk. I saw Miles play at the Village Gate. I saw Jackie McLean. Then the new people—Albert Ayler playing at Slugs, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp. I was friends with Charles Moffett. He would bring me to every club to sit in with Shepp and we hung out…

TP: So Moffett brought you around the New Thing and introduced you to the militant guys.

ER: Well, I did that through Steve. But then Moffett, since he was the only person I knew who had a car, would pick me up and make a tour of all the clubs, introduce me always to the owners so I didn’t have to pay maybe next time, and helped me sit in. So I sat in with Hank Mobley, with Shepp when he had the band with two trombones… In those years, there was still the Vietnam War, so every day you had veterans marching the streets, some of them blind, some without arms, some only with a piece of body with the head… It was very, very strong. Andy Warhol was happening at the time.

It was the time of the Black Panthers. I would go to the Black Panther… They had their headquarters in Harlem, and they had their house, it was about a 3-story house, more or less, it was blue, electric blue, with a big flag with the Black Panthers. I had two friends from Argentina who were making political movies, so they sent me movies that I was supposed to bring to the Black Panthers. I brought this…we called it ‘pizza,’ the documentary thing…to the Black Panther headquarters. It was a trip. The first time I couldn’t believe it… I thought it would be something a little bit more clandestine, but instead, BOOM, you could see it from a satellite. It was blue electric, with the flag, with the cats with the leather jackets and shit, with guns and shit, you know—big people. I was giving them…

There was the Weathermen. My best friend, an Italian friend who was in New York working for a diplomatic thing, but he was a bass player, too… I brought him to Bill Dixon in Bennington. Anyway, he lived in an apartment on 10th Street… In that apartment, the one that Dustin Hoffman was in, that when the Weathermen…

TP: Next door.

ER: Next door. When they blew up the building next door, that apartment was destroyed, and Dustin Hoffman left. Then they rebuilt the wall and the flat, and he got THAT apartment, Dustin Hoffman’s apartment. The top floor was Angela Lansbury. And his daughter, with a dog, every day… I was going to my friend’s almost every day, so I would say, “Hello, Miss Angela.” A little bit more, two or three more doors towards 6th Avenue, there was a thing that said Charles Ives lived in this house from blah-blah-blah… So it was very impressive. The whole thing was very strong from a…

TP: I think Hendrix was living on 10th Street or 12th Street at that time.

ER: Jimi Hendrix? I didn’t know that. Edward Hopper lived most of his life near Washington Square. The thing is that… It’s difficult to understand. For me, coming from an Italian middle-class family, from a country that in the ‘60s was still very formal, everybody was dressed in a tie, all looked like bureaucrats… Being in New York, all those colors, all those things happening, and playing… I was playing with Roswell. We were rehearsing at St. Peter’s Church with Garcia-Gensel, and maybe Kenny Dorham would come to listen to us because he was a very good friend of Roswell. So I had one of my idols there, listening to our rehearsal, and I was talking to him. Then I was going to parties at Cecil Taylor’s house. For a while, I was looking at myself like from outside. It was like a movie, and in this movie there was a main character that was me. It was an Italian guy in a town where everything was happening.

For instance, the first time I had a review in DownBeat, which was in ‘67, for a concert that I did with Roswell, for me it was almost incredible. Because for us, in Italy, DownBeat was something so far away… Since you are American, you grew up with that, you cannot imagine how big the impact was to be all of a sudden part of something that until a year before, it was like a dream. A dream that was something I would never expect to happen for me.

TP: It seems like a fantasy almost.

ER: Absolutely. Because when I started doing this thing in Italy, being a jazz musician…leaving… Being a jazz musician only…I’m not saying a musician; no, a JAZZ musician…was really like willing to be the chief of the Sioux tribe in Italy. Because it didn’t exist as a reality. There were only three people with me who were playing this music in Italy. One was a trumpet player, but he had a gig in the radio, but was playing only jazz. A very good trumpet player. He was called Nunzio Rotondo. The other one was a piano player my age, Franco D’Andrea, because he was playing with Nunzio and me. Everybody else… We had very good jazz musicians, but they either played in the orchestra or the radio; the other one played with a singer in a nightclub; or a studio musician. But people being a jazz musician as I intended to, like an artist, like a poet, not like a professional musician. Like an artist. Nobody… Now there are hundreds of them in Italy. But then there was only three.

So it was really like you said before, like a dream, like a fantasy.

TP: One thing I’ve noticed talking with musicians from other countries who settle in the States is that once they get there, away from home, they start to look at their own native traditions. The first one who’s coming to mind is pianist Edward Simon, from Venezuela, who grew up playing in a family band, and all he’s thinking about is playing jazz, but he gets here, and Paquito D’Rivera says, “You need to play Venezuelan music, you need to play your music,” and all of a sudden he starts examining his culture and bringing it into his own music. I look at you, and you’ve done recordings on arias and operas, ballads that are kind of like arias, you do South American things, things that have flavors of different areas of Italy. I’m wondering if being in America for ten years helped you to access those components of your culture, or if it’s not applicable to what you’ve done.

ER: I know that dynamic very well, but it didn’t really happen that way. It happened another way. Like, I have naturally, because of how I grew up, my mother, the music I heard on the radio… I have naturally a tendency toward very lyrical… But at the same time, you have to consider that Italy… In Venezuela or Argentina, even Spain, they have a very clear cultural background musically. In Italy, it’s very different, because Italy as a nation exists only since 150 years ago, and it’s made by regions that are totally different. For instance, somebody like Paolo Fresu is coming from Sardinia. In Sardinia, they do have a very-very-very strong music of their own that Alan Lomax described as prehistorical, because of the way they use the voice, etc. People from Naples have very strong… But where I come from, Turino, we don’t have…
TP: You were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

ER: No. No-no, no-no. There was Milano… We fought against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and we won, and we conquered the rest of Italy from Turino. You see? In fact, they don’t like us. But our music is the music from the mountains. It’s really horrible. I would never… The only music that somehow everybody in Italy… The only folklore we have that is for the whole country is the opera. It is not folklore, but let’s say it was an ironic way… So it was the only thing… See, if I listen to Sicilian music or Sardinian music, I might like it, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t know it. I have no idea. I don’t know the codes. It’s much further away than New Orleans really. So it’s different.

I understand a guy… There’s a famous story of Astor Piazzolla, he wanted to be a contemporary composer, so he went to Paris when he was young to study with Nadia Boulanger, and he was very good. But anyway, one day Nadia Boulanger said, “Listen, but you are from Argentina; you have a beautiful music which is tango.” He confessed that he played bandoneon, but he would hide it… She said, “Ok, you are good, but take your bandoneon, and go back to Argentina and work on your music.” This is very understandable, because there is a music that touches everybody in Argentina, and it’s so strong, the tango. But we don’t have that. I mean, we DO. But not we as Italians. Now, in Naples, they do. But Neapolitan culture is so far away and different, even the language. If I go to Sicily, I speak my dialect. Nobody understands me. They don’t even know vaguely what I am talking about—and vice versa. Or I go to Calabria. No way. When I went to Little Italy sometimes when I was in New York, to those Italian stores…

TP: They’re mostly Neapolitan and Calabrian.

ER: …they’d start talking to me in a language that I didn’t understand, because it was the Calabrese that maybe their grandfather talked, and I understand. “Ah, you are not Italian,” they would tell me. So it’s very different. It depends. Of course, if you come from Brazil to be a jazz musician in New York, after a while the Brazilian thing… But the Brazilian thing is something that every Brazilian knows, every Brazilian relates to. It doesn’t happen that way for us. So whatever you can feel that is coming from me that might sound Italian is only because, in fact, I am Italian. So there is something I absorb that comes out naturally. But not from, let’s say, a process of recuperating my culture. No.

TP: It’s hard to say, when I listen to you and something sounds Italian, if it’s because there’s something Italian or because I know you’re Italian. It’s similar to the process of taking the Blindfold, of why do you perceive a sound a certain way, and what a sound actually contains. But it does seem that in your recordings of the last 10-15-20 years, you work with several different genres and weave them together. Those sort of lyric, aria type things, this sort of trans-Mediterranean materials that include a lot of flavors, a little contemporary composition, and jazz standards, and so on… Did this happen naturally, or did you make some decision… There’s some funky stuff, like things you did with Abercrombie in the ‘70s. How deliberate is all of this?

ER: It’s very natural, very organic. Of course, I am a very… I am a listener. I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. Really a lot. A lot of music, I love. Jazz more than everything, but also many other things—Brazilian, classical, contemporary. Somehow I metabolize these things, and eventually it comes out someday. But deliberately, very little. The only deliberate thing I did was the work I did on the opera, which were two records for Label Blue, Opera Va and Carmen. It was deliberate in the sense that when I got married again, my actual wife, she was a big opera freak…

TP: This is your current wife.

ER: Yes. She brought me for the first time to La Scala to see Traviata, Tosca, and all of a sudden I found out that this thing is fantastic. One thing is to listen to it. The other one is go and see the old stuff, because it’s so incredible, especially when you’re talking about a very high level, like La Scala. It’s so incredible how they can put all that stuff, make it work together. It’s amazing. It’s fantastic. And then also particularly with Puccini, I really felt all of a sudden that he is really the father of the American musical. When I did, like, La Tosca, when I did “E lucevan le stelle” I almost felt like I was playing in one of those incredible Broadway shows of the ‘50s, the ‘40s—so beautiful, no? Because in fact, Puccini, when he was in America, he got very interested in jazz when he wrote the Fanciulla del West. He wanted to get more into it, but then he died, so he couldn’t get into… [1924]

So I felt almost like… In the moment I was playing that stuff, I felt I was playing in a Gil Evans situation. Which I did. I played with Gil in ‘82 or ‘83, I don’t remember.

TP: In Europe?

ER: In Europe, si. I really felt I was in something like that. Also, Carmen was an idea of my wife, but also for me it was… Maybe nobody understood that, but it was a kind of homage to Sketches of Spain, to Miles. I wanted to play with that, to play with that Miles thing. I had a lot of fun doing it. In fact, I did it twice and that’s it. It’s not something I wanted to go on, Rambo 3, Rambo 4. I did two records. That’s enough. I did it again this year, L’Opera, with a fantastic French string quartet. But in fact, the problem with those things for me is that they are too strict. You cannot move around. Especially when you play with classical people, you cannot say, “ok, I play one chorus more,” because no, you have to write down all the number of bars.

For me, it’s so important to be able to change the music every night. In fact, every tune that we play with this band, even if we play it every day, will never be the same. Either we change the tempo, or we change the… I need to… Because if not, I get really bo… I cannot get bored. If I get bored, I stop playing. The day I get bored, ok, fuck it, I’ll do something else. Because it’s such a big pleasure to play, but it has to be a pleasure. If it becomes a gig…no.

TP: you were saying that if there’s anything Italian that I discern in your playing, it’s because you’re Italian. Is there anything in the culture of Italy that connects to jazz in a way that would… Let me ask it this way. What do you think it was in the world you were growing up in when you were a young guy…

ER: That connected me.

TP: …that made you connect to jazz the way that you did?

ER: I’ve got to tell you, this is the best question somebody ever made to me. I am ready for that. Because jazz… I have to tell you some information. At the beginning of the century, or at the end of the 19th century-the beginning of the 20th century, there was a direct line from Palermo to New Orleans with the boat. That’s why in New Orleans there were plenty of Italians and Sicilians, and that’s why the first jazz album ever recorded was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose leader was a Sicilian.

TP: Nick La Rocca.

ER: This is history. Now, they were the first people recording a jazz record probably because they were white. Still, they were the first people that recorded…

TP: Didn’t Freddie Keppard also turn down an opportunity to record because he didn’t want anybody to steal his shit?

ER: I know. Yes, and also he went to play on the street with a handkerchief around his hands. In fact, I have one record of Freddie Keppard.

TP: They say it didn’t capture him at his best.

ER: No. It doesn’t sound that… But they say he played like Buddy Bolden…they say. Another one they say played a little like Freddie Keppard…it was also Natty Dominique, the one who was playing like Johnny Dodds.

Anyway, there were plenty of Sicilians. For instance, Louis Armstrong always said that he was very influenced by the opera. Anyway, there’s plenty of Italian musicians in the early jazz, like Leon Rappolo…

TP: Well, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti…

ER: Yeah, Salvatore Massaro, the first one that phrased with a guitar. Also, as much as there were a lot of Germans, Bix, Frankie Trumbauer, all these people; as much as there were a lot of French people, because all these Creoles, Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, or Ferdinand Giuseppe Lamenthe… All these people… This is one of the reasons why jazz immediately, at the time when the communication was really very, very little, was at the very beginning… There was no TV, there was no… Jazz expanded immediately in Europe. It immediately became so popular. Why? Because everyone found something that relate to him…I think. It’s not only because of the power of America. Because we are talking about the very beginning of the century, so America didn’t have yet this impact. But still, their music spread so quickly, and it was accepted so much immediately. Because in this music… In fact, it didn’t come from Africa. It came from America, from blacks that had their rhythm…which wasn’t the African rhythm, because African rhythm was cancelled from their mind. They couldn’t play their own music. They couldn’t have their own gods. They couldn’t speak their own language. Like, the Spaniard and Portuguese is different, because they could keep their stuff. In fact, today still in Cuba, people that are maybe the fifth generation in Cuba still have a rhythm original from Congo. But in America this didn’t happen. So that rhythm that became the jazz rhythm is only a memory, you know, of something. That confused… But it came out this amazing rhythm that became the rhythm of jazz. Maybe it was coming also from the marching bands. I have no idea. But in that there was some English sacred music, French music, opera—all together, it made this fantastic… It’s the music of that century.

And immediately in Europe, people related to that, because there was something that… Somehow the roots… There were some common roots for sure. When I got into that thing, I was really young. I was eight years old. There was no cultural…you know… I just listened to my mother…

TP: Just what you heard your mother play.

ER: Yeah. Because I heard a lot of music. But still, I listened to that. Immediately I could relate to that. I understood how it works, as I was saying—the improvisation, the structure… But the melodies. Because the melodies are incredible. No? When you hear something like “Singin’ The Blues,” “I’m Coming, Virginia,” “Potato Head Blues”… It’s something that’s very, very singable… There is so much singing in it, and drama…

Anyway, yes, I think that there is a strong relation. There are some common roots for sure.

TP: that might bridge us into a wrap-up question. You said you’re listening to a lot of Michael Jackson, and your next project is a suite of Michael Jackson arrangements, also inspired by your wife.

ER: Yes.

TP: Very singable, very melodic, very rhythmic, very different than the music of the early 20th century, but assumes a similar role in American and international culture at the end of the 20th century.

ER: Absolutely. Yes.

TP: Talk about this project, and the next year, as you can see it.

ER: I will say that when I came to New York after about ‘67, one year later or two years later, I don’t remember exactly, there exploded the Jackson Five. But at the time I was so monomaniacal about jazz, everything else for me didn’t exist. Still, there were a lot of songs that I heard in jukeboxes and radio that I really liked. But I was little interested that I thought that beautiful voice was a girl. Only lately I discovered that it was Michael Jackson; it was a guy…a kid. But then, it was something that went parallel to my life for… Sometimes I heard some nice song, also in this last year, but I said, ‘Ok.’ I didn’t really care. By the way, I did that also with the Beatles. I got to the Beatles…I understood the greatness of the Beatles only about 15 years ago—I started really listening to them.

In all this, there is also very strong the presence of my wife. She is much younger than me, so beside the opera, she loves the Beatles, she loves Michael Jackson… Anyway, when Michael Jackson… It was an incredible, beautiful night in Rome. Ornette Coleman played before us, this group. It was a great concert. And we played after. There was some magic that night. We played a beautiful concert. People were happy. Then while I was walking to the dressing room, somebody told me that Michael Jackson died a few days before.

TP: Did he die that day?

ER: He died that day. I was very impressed… But then, when I came back home, my wife… She wasn’t with me in Rome. She was not in Rome. I went home, where we live now, and when I entered the house she was looking at the DVD she’d just bought that was Michael Jackson in Bucharest, live in Bucharest. So I just, you know, released my suitcase and …(?—1:18:16)…, and then all of a sudden I started being attracted by that, and even without taking my shit off, I just sit down and I looked until the end of the concert, completely fascinated, and said, “How can it be that all these years I didn’t try to look at it, to…” So from that day, I bought all the CDs there are, DVDs, everything, and for a year in my car there was all day Michael Jackson. Every day I would find something else, particularly the last records that are the less popular, but to me they stay to Michael Jackson’s stuff as The White Album is to the Beatles. In Invincible and HIStory, there are a couple of tunes that are really amazing, from musical…from something different…

Then, since I have a band that is the band of the Auditorium of Rome… I am the artistic director of this band with ten people, and I have to make four projects a year. I did it one year, and I did another year… I had to do the fourth project, and I wanted to do a project called “Old And New Pops,” going from the pop music from the ‘30s coming to Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, I said, “Why not just Michael Jackson?” So that’s what we did. We started working with the trombone player of the band, who is another very good trombone player, and he wrote the arrangement. I gave him some instruction; he wrote an arrangement. I choose the tunes, particularly among the newer…the last two or three records, except “Smooth Criminal”—that riff is too infectious, and I have to have that. And “Thriller,” too. Also because I remember a beautiful version of Lester Bowie of…you know the one? In fact, “Thriller” is the only tune that somehow we’ve redone the Lester Bowie arrangement. It was just for fun. But then, when we rehearsed, we started really getting excited playing the music. Then the concert was an amazing success.

So from then on, now they are asking for that concert, and we are going to record it in about 20 days. We will do a concert at the Auditorium in Rome, and it is going to be recorded by ECM. It is very exciting music, I must say. Rhythmically, it is just impossible to stand. The first time when we played this concert, at the end people… There were 2,000 people, and they were all dancing in this incredible auditorium in Rome. We had fun. It had nothing to do with commercial point of view. No-no. It was fun. I have a lot of space. I play in it exactly like I play. I don’t change a bit of my playing.

TP: Let me ask you this. Tina Pelikan from ECM sent me the different bios, and in one, maybe for Tati so five or six years ago, you said you’d pushed your technique, and you’d gained a half-octave… Let’s do a little trumpet talk and discuss your evolution as an instrumentalist.

ER: Well, I…

TP: You were talking about your teeth at breakfast, but we don’t have to…

ER: Anyway, I can tell you that being self-taught and lazy is another important part of my personality. I never really studied. Whatever I learned, I learned playing, you know. Including writing music and everything. I had to, so I tried. I always considered myself more like a guy who organizes sounds and then sings.

TP: You made a gesture like playing trumpet when you said “sings.”

ER: Yes, sings with the trumpet. But I never got really into the instrument. Then in this last year, for the last year…when we did Tati, so we are talking about years ago… I finally really fell in love with the instrument itself, as an abstract thing, apart from the music—just the instrument itself. So I start practicing much more than I ever did before. In fact, I gained an octave… Besides, I found the right mouthpiece for me, which was the mouthpiece Miles used to play, which is a Heim #1. So everything was really going very good until about two years ago, I had to do this big work with my teeth, so now I have implants. My teeth are not there any more. I have new teeth. Of course, all that octave that I gained, I lost it again!

Only in these last two-three months, I feel that it is very slowly coming back, thanks also to a couple of things that Dave Douglas gave me when we played this summer on this tour with Avishai Cohen—three trumpets. It was Dave’s project, and he told me a lot about this beautiful teacher Laurie Frink. In fact, when I come to New York next February, I’ll go to see her. Anyway, the few things that he gave me, they are helping me really to get back what I’ve been losing, putting in new teeth. It’s a big event in your mouth when you’ve changed everything. The material of which false teeth are made is so different, it’s so harder, and it’s really a different feeling in the mouth. For a while, I was really worried. I remember we were in Korea, playing in the festival in Seoul, and I got on the stage, and for the first tune, the notes didn’t come out. No notes, no sound coming out. Then somehow I was able to. But it was a moment of real panic.

Now it’s coming back. I think there are a couple of things that I am doing every day that Dave gave me, that I really feel them daily that they are working. But of course, David at that is very good, because as far as I know, he had a lot of problems many years ago, so he had to solve the problem with the right exercises.

TP: there’s a lot of problem-solving and physical adjustment attendant to trumpet playing.

ER: There is.

TP: I guess saxophone players go through their own embouchure things, but it’s a different animal.

ER: Yes. In fact, Ira Sullivan, when I played with him many years ago, he told me that he could not play maybe a couple of weeks the saxophone, then if he had to go to play a concert he wouldn’t play at his best, but he could. But with a trumpet, after 2 or 3 days, that’s it. For me, if I don’t touch the instrument let’s say the maximum three days… After three days, it is impossible… If I go to play, I feel that that the sound…I have no harmonics, I have no resistance. To play trumpet is to be like a runner who goes to the Olympic Games for the 100 meters. If he doesn’t train every day, he will be the last one. He’ll never get to the… This is a kind of punishment. Except there are people who have it natural. For instance, Franco Ambrosetti, the Swiss trumpet player, who is my age, more or less—he is naturally talented for this instrument. Now he only plays, but for years, all his life, he had been a big industrialist, so he’d had to go to work and talking at a very high level of business, but then maybe he would come to play when he hadn’t touched the trumpet for three days, and he’d play like Miles. He has a natural thing for the trumpet, which I don’t have. I have a very natural thing for music. Not for this instrument. So my rapport with this instrument has been very conflictual [sic] all my life. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, because it keeps me fighting, and that’s helped me to keep young, let’s say. I don’t get bored at all. Besides my wife is laughing at me, because now, every morning, when I wake up, the first thing… I have the trumpet very close to my bed. I wake up, I take the mouthpiece, and first thing, I still just… Still with the eyes closed, I take the trumpet and I check if the lips vibrate. If nothing comes out, I say “shit, today…” If I vibrate it, I say, “ok, today it vibrates,” so my wife knows that I’ll be in a good mood all day. Just one note. Sometimes I do that, and nothing happens. BFFFPPP…ok, it vibrates.

TP: I like that image.

ER: It vibrates. Vibra, I think in Italian. “Oggi vibra,” “today it vibrates.”

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Enrico Rava

For Esperanza Spalding’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2016

For the magnificent Esperanza Spalding’s birthday, here’s a long profile I had the pleasure of writing about her for Jazziz magazine in early 2016, framed around the release of Emily’s D+Evolution.

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Esperanza Spalding Feature, Jazziz

 

As part of the initial publicity blitz for Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding’s first release since 2012, scheduled to drop in April, Spalding’s management and Concord Records, her label, scheduled a press day in mid-December. It transpired at the Milk Bar, a low-key café in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, where Spalding, incognito in a red head-scarf and tan jacket, sat at a small, elevated back-corner table, fielding questions from four journalists in separate 50-minute interviews.

There was much to discuss about the album, and little time to do it. Channeling the character of “Emily,” described by Spalding as “a spirit or being that I recognize and am informed by,” the singer-bassist performs 11 original songs, all conceived for the project, and a rousing album-ending cover of “I Want It Now,” Anthony Newley’s anthemic paean to instant gratification. Her songcraft is formidable, and she hits all the notes. She sequences the lyrics — on love, self-empowerment, race, class, Judas and other matters — into an ambiguous narrative. Her supple soprano voice more than does justice to the memorable melodies; she phrases freely with rhythms that counterpoint grooves of various provenance — some crackling, some undulating — that she generates on electric bass. Guitarist Matthew Stevens complements the flow with kinetic sound painting, while drummers Kareem Riggins (who plays on eight tracks) and Justin Tyson (who plays on four) propel it with a wide palette of beats and textures.

In its instrumentation, rock ’n’ roll attitude and explicit singer-songwriter focus, Emily’s D+Evolution diverges from its two chart-topping predecessors, comprising music composed between 2006 and 2011. Spalding won a 2013 Grammy for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” with Radio Music Society, a dance-friendly program, both sophisticated and accessible, that revealed the breadth of her songwriting and arranging skills. Spalding has described]Radio Music Society as the “extroverted’ successor to the “introverted,” Brazil-tinged Chamber Music Society, the 11-tune recital that earned her a “Best New Artist” Grammy over Drake and Justin Bieber in 2011. Assisted by arranger Gil Goldstein, she conjured evocative arrangements for jazz trio, string quartet and her voice, deployed as an instrument in the ensemble on seven tracks; she also sings lyrics on four original songs.

“I’ll never be able to catch you up with the last four years of my life — it’s just too dense,’ Spalding says. “I can’t explain why or how, and I can’t explain the evolution of this music.” She began to think of “opening a door for Emily” in October 2013, while on a self-imposed hiatus from “weird political bullshit with people and managers, and being a psychologist for my band.”

Emily is Spalding’s middle name, the name her family called her as a child in Portland, Oregon, when she was curious about acting and dance,” interests she shelved while immersing herself in musical studies. Approaching her 30th birthday, Spalding “realized that Emily wanted to come out, to say some things, play some things and perform some things.”

After sketching out some ideas and titles, Spalding began to form “an energetic picture of this performer, a sense that this idea was an armature I could build on.” She realized that Emily wanted to be plugged in and loud. She made demos, and, in spring 2014, contacted her desired collaborators to workshop the music on gigs. She made adjustments, recorded some tunes in June 2014, then a few more that November. She was already determined to stage the project, and she started touring to figure out how it would work in a concert setting. Toward that end, in the summer, she began working with director Will Weigler, also a Portland native. In September, she reentered the studio to re-record everything. “Then I knew the label wouldn’t let me mess with it any more,” she says, “so I turned it in.”

“Everyone is important to the total projection of the idea,” Spalding says. “It doesn’t feel like work for hire; it’s like we’re a troupe. I knew when I invited everybody in we’d be doing more than just standing up and playing awesome songs.” She elaborated in terms evocative of Wayne Shorter, who she describes as her “hero, guru and friend”: “We need co-explorers. We need a partner in crime as you explore uncharted territory — somebody who is resourceful and ready to go down that dark tunnel and find out why it smells like swamp, and somebody who can rig up a fire with nothing. That’s the kind of person you want in your corner.”

As an example, she mentions guitarist Stevens. “He can take an idea: ‘Can this sound ominous but hopeful? And can the texture be kind of thin but have a rippling effect?’ He’ll go, ‘OK,’ and find that with a pedal or a loop or whatever. I hear instrumental music as language, too. It feels like narrative and character, and character interaction, and dynamic storytelling. That’s how it sounds to me, whether there’s lyrics or not.

“When the record comes out and we start touring this performance in April, I’ll be presenting Emily’s D+Evolution in at least the starting place I envisioned it could be. Everybody has to be ready for an adventure and forget about everything that happened before. See it for what it is and let it tell you what it is.”

“Seeing” is the operative word. The album cover portrays Spalding as Emily — in a white V-top, white hood, white slacks and white sneakers — foregrounded against what might be a post-apocalyptic landscape of rocks, barren trees and a turbulent sky. Two more photos show “Emily” and “Esperanza” as doppelgängers — Emily, hair braided, with teal glasses, in a red bra under what looks like a fur coat, bracelets on her wrists, sits on a bed alongside Esperanza, wearing a yellow dress striped horizontally with stylized Nubian figures, and no eyewear. Another photo has Emily in that yellow dress, poised between a stuffed lioness and a sculpture of a very dark-skinned woman with exaggerated features, in a gold tunic, gold belt and gold trousers. Another portrays Esperanza, facing the camera full-on, with a resplendent Angela Davis Afro and a streamlined black turtleneck.

“When I saw Emily the first time, it was clear she was picking up terrestrial frequencies,” Spalding says. “I knew her hair was down. I knew it was heavy. You could feel gravity through it, affecting her scalp. That’s part of why Emily needs twists. Glasses … it’s what she wears. It’s who she is.”

Minus visual aids, Spalding’s new music doesn’t seem like a radical departure from her previous work. “I don’t take that offensively,” she says. “But I think you’ll see it differently over time. Even if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.”

Where does Esperanza leave off and Emily begin? “If my name is not Emily in a performance, I’m Esperanza Spalding,” Spalding responds with a certain asperity. “When you watch Meryl Streep play a witch in Into the Woods, hopefully you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, Meryl Streep as the witch.’ You’re thinking the witch. Emily came to be Emily, not Esperanza. To manifest that she’s created her own world, which is its own expression of that spirit. This is obviously not a jazz record. Emily doesn’t play acoustic bass. She is not a jazz musician.”

BREAK

On the day after our conversation, Spalding began a six-night run at the Village Vanguard as acoustic bassist in the ACS Trio, a collaborative venture with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington that coalesced after the three women performed on Carrington’s ambitious Mosaic Project recording in 2011.

“I don’t know what will happen this week,” Spalding says at the Milk Bar. “It’s going to be a great experiment of not depending on agility, of ‘What do you do with less?’” She explained that she’d sprained her pointer finger three weeks before, and was wary of reinjuring it. “I’ll have to honor the effortless approach to playing bass. It’s great to know you can try that, and it won’t be ‘Pull your weight’ but instead ‘We’ll find a way to make it work.’ That mentality that we’re all in this together is exciting — though it’s usually the case in any band I play in.”

Six days later, Spalding joined Allen and Carrington on the Vanguard bandstand for their 12th and final set of a week during which friends James Genus and Matt Brewer had “come to the rescue when my muscle went out.” To protect blisters on her playing hand, she wore a salmon-colored glove that complemented a light jacket with thin, pale stripes. Indeed, Spalding was on point throughout an hour-long performance that featured highly reharmonized, stretched-out renderings of Shorter’s “Fall,” “Infant Eyes,” “Virgo” and “Nefertiti” and Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” On the latter piece, Spalding sang an extended wordless improvisation, as she had done on other repertoire on an earlier night when, as Carrington put it the next day, “she almost didn’t have an instrument.”

“Esperanza has a fine musician’s melodic and harmonic understanding, and chops to improvise on a very high level vocally, which a lot of singers cannot,” Carrington says. “She’s a cutting-edge, creative jazz musician rooted from playing the bass and composing, and she has a more commercial, pop side, more electric-bass driven and groove oriented. She considers herself a poet, rightfully so, because her lyrics can stand alone as stories and poetry. But Emily isn’t so far away from the music she’s already been creating. To me it’s a natural evolution — and a way to introduce her to a new audience of sophisticated listeners who come more out of rock and pop than jazz or r&b.”

“I’ve always told Esperanza that she could make a jazz vocal album where she only sings,” says pianist Fred Hersch, a mentor to Spalding since she introduced herself to him at the Vanguard five or six years ago. They played a duo concert last May at SFJazz, during Spalding’s second season as its resident Artistic Director. “Esperanza is a world-class singer,” Hersch continues. “Her improvising is crazy good, and she hears everything. She doesn’t have a big, luxurious voice, but sings with so much flexibility and spontaneity. It’s the same with her bass playing. She plays with great energy and feeling and a quality of alertness, an ability always to respond in the moment.”

As Spalding noted earlier, she relates to notes and tones as a kind of alternate or equivalent language, as do many musicians who learn music at an early age. By her account, she could carry a tune at 5, the year she started on violin. “I played music like it was a toy,” she says. “Like somebody gives you an erector set without the instructions, and you start building stuff because you want to.”

Skipping classes one day at 15, she entered a high school music room, and stumbled upon a bass. “I liked it, and then I got better,” she says. “It’s the instrument that stuck. It’s the instrument I love. When I hear piano or trumpet or saxophone, I’m like, ‘My God, I could never do that.’ When I hear bass it’s, ‘Oh, I hear you.’ I feel I understand it, it speaks to me — it’s how I want to play in the band.”

Neither garnering five Grammys nor pursuing a high-profile career have dissuaded Spalding from wanting to play in the band or burnish her instrumental skills. In addition to ACS Trio, she played at this year’s Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park with Joe Lovano, her teacher at Berklee. She’s played, when available, with Lovano’s Us Five ensemble since it debuted at the Vanguard in 2009, and with that band made the recordings Folk Art and Bird Songs. She spent the entire summer of 2014 touring with Tom Harrell’s Echoes of a Dream project, a suite of sextet music incorporating three horns, two basses, drums and her voice.

“I don’t know who you think I am or if you expected something different,” she says when asked what motivates her to assume the sideman function so assiduously. “I’m surprised it’s even a question that I do that. To me it’s like, ‘Oh, you still feed and clothe your children; what compels you to do that?’ ‘Because I’m a fuckin’ mother, dude! That’s what moms do.’” She paused. “I can think of some really neglectful mothers. I guess that question implies an expectation I’d be something else. I’ve never lived the something else, so I don’t know what to tell you.”

Why did she join Harrell’s project? “I prefer that question,” she says. “If Tom Harrell asks you to come play bass on a tour and wrote all the music with me in mind to be in his ensemble, and I get to sing and get paid to hear him solo every night … any bass player would say, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Fortunately, he asked me to tour with him during a year I made myself available to play, because I was so ready not to have to be responsible for anything or anybody. Whatever I could have done during those months is no way comparable to or better than being with Tom.”

She adds, unprompted: “No matter how busy I am, if Wayne Shorter ever asks me to do anything, I’m going to make sure I can do it.” Carrington had noted Shorter’s influence on the chords that infuse various sections of Emily’s D+Evolution, as well as on Spalding’s previous work. Spalding agrees. “I hope that Wayne is influencing my work,” she says. “He is influencing my mind and heart. He inspires me to be courageous all the time, and do what I dare to dream.
“Music doesn’t feel easy to me. It doesn’t feel like second nature. It feels difficult. You go get it. You see it, you find the tools, and then you make it the best that you can.”

SIDEBAR:

Title:

“I just recently met Emily,” said stylist Cassie O’Sullivan, who first worked with Esperanza Spalding in 2010, when photographer Sandrine Lee recruited her to style Spalding for the cover of Chamber Music Society, on which the leader wears a white button-up shirt under a black vest. She subsequently styled Spalding for Radio Music Society, and helped her to visually portray the particulars of “Emily’s” appearance. O’Sullivan had dropped by the Milk Bar to chat with Spalding’s assistant and have a bite, and agreed to discuss the contrasting styles of “Emily” and “Esperanza.”

“Emily was unavailable to speak, so at first I worked with her telepathically,” said O’Sullivan, who has run Spalding’s style blog since that time. “We went to a thrift store, and Emily picked out a pair of ski pants. I saw the glasses on the rack.”

O’Sullivan elaborates. “Emily’s style is unification of the entire world. For example, a piece of couture that works really well with a piece of beadwork that was done by Native Americans maybe 100 years ago. It’s earthy and etheric, high-tone and low-tone, high-vibration and low-vibration. Her style is similar to Esperanza’s in that it’s always moving and changing and sustainable. Esperanza’s is pretty and sweet, form-fitting and constructed, with common sense to it — something maybe anybody could wear.”

Before discussing how Emily and Esperanza use makeup differently, O’Sullivan asserted their shared values. “We always search for the cleanest makeup, because the toxins in Bisphenol-A makeup enter the bloodline 10 times as fast through the skin as when it goes into your mouth or stomach,” she says. “Esperanza’s makeup style was very natural, and that’s how I worked with her. Maybe we would put on all-natural eyelash and do a nice blended line. Emily’s makeup is maybe more of an intuition Cleopatra. She prefers a defined line.”

O’Sullivan doesn’t perceive the differences as dramatic. “Emily and Esperanza and I really don’t argue. We just agree and we disagree. It’s multi-dimensional. It’s facets of the jewel, facets of the gem.” —TP

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The Pile, Oct. 8 — Wayne Shorter, “Emanon”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

For the third installment of “The Pile” on this second go-round, here are my impressions of Wayne Shorter’s Emanon (Blue Note).

 

Wayne Shorter (Emanon) — (Blue Note):

 

During one of several conversations I had with Wayne Shorter in 2002 while reporting a long profile about him for Jazziz, he told me that, when he was a child in Newark, New Jersey, his mother referred to the time that he and his brother took for creative play as transpiring in “the imagination room.” That phrase is not an idle metaphor — it’s a great descriptor for the way Shorter has operated through 60 years as a game-changing tenor and soprano saxophonist and a prolific composer who significantly influenced the sound of jazz during the course of his still ongoing career.

Shorter’s imaginative mojo has never been more clearly presented than on Emanon, a 3-CD, 2-hour extravaganza, released six weeks ago by Blue Note to coincide with his 85th birthday. It’s the fourth of his five albums of the aughts that documents his sui generis quartet of almost two decades (Danilo Perez, piano; John Pattitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums), captured  in terrific fidelity in a particularly inspired performance at London’s Barbican Theater, where they follow their consistent practice of deconstructing Shorter’s detailed, highly orchestrated compositions, applying an egoless attitude and a telepathic “instant composition” spirit to their collective improvisations, which revolve around the leader’s preternaturally voice-like postulations on the soprano and tenor saxophones, like an 18th century philosophe‘s condensed discourse on the sum total of human knowledge. Emanon is also by far the most comprehensive presentation of the breadth of Shorter’s 21st century musical production and the philosophical and aesthetic armature that underpins it — the proceedings begin with four performances (“Pegasus,” “Prometheus,” “Lotus,” and “The Three Marias”) on which the quartet is enfolded into the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that knows how to make  “textual” fidelity and improvisation coexist while interpreting the composer’s structurally unfolding compositions.

Shorter appropriates the album title from a 1946 recording by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of a medium-tempo Gil Fuller blues on which James Moody, himself a son of Newark, uncorked a much-listened-to 16-bar solo that established him as a pioneer in translating the vocabulary of bebop to the tenor saxophone. The recording — and the efflorescent years of bebop —  coincided with Shorter’s passage from adolescence to teen-hood; several years later, in a band of peers, he’d exercise his imagination muscles by playing on clarinet the trumpet parts from Gillespie’s contemporaneous, iconic recording of Fuller’s futuristic, prophetic “Things To Come.”

For Shorter, “Emanon” (“No Name”), stands metaphorically (but perhaps also literally) for a superhero (perhaps an alter-ego), whose adventures in several parallel universes (you could call them “imagination rooms”) are depicted in a 90-page graphic novel painted in High Romantic manner (William Blake and J.M.W. Turner come to mind) by the eminent  illustrator Randy DuBurke, whose deployment of light and shadow and command of line is a visual analogue for the narratives conjured by Shorter and company. 

Shorter has accumulated an enormous fan base over his sixty years in the spotlight. Not all of the individuals who comprise it relate well to this late period quartet of four masters of rhythm who eschew “swinging” on the grid for an open-ended, breathe-as-one conception  that involves subtle permutation of pulse and texture. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but the music on Emanon isn’t easy listening; it requires sustained concentration, with particular attention to what Perez, Patitucci and Blade are doing within the flow. 

To me, the effort seems well worth the reward. But if this music isn’t for you, there’s Shorter’s extraordinary recorded legacy since he left the Army in 1959 to join Art Blakey for a five-year run with the the Jazz Messengers during which he composed numerous songs in the “hardbop” idiom that are classics of the canon. There followed a 1964-1970 tenure as improvisational foil and primary composer for the Miles Davis quintet, during which he generated 11 Blue Note recordings of his original music that  stand among the treasures of the jazz canon. Then came 15 years of collaboration with Joe Zawinul in the more compositional, plugged-in, groove-heavy environment of Weather Report; and another 15 years in which Shorter stayed plugged in for the most part, making several  albums that further displayed his compositional prowess within the sonic context of instrumental pop.

Just remember that Shorter didn’t become who he is by looking backwards, and it’s a safe bet that he never will.  His  creativity during his ninth decade is Picasso-level. 

(That said, to hear Shorter applying his late period style felicitously within a swinging context, view these two sets at a 2015 Rose Theater concert at which he soloed on arrangements of his pieces by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s stellar cast of in-house arrangers.)

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The Pile, Oct. 7, 2018 — Elio Villafranca’s “Cinque” Plus Interviews From 2013 and 2014

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

Having stated that caveat, here’s the second installment of the new “Pile” — my impressions of pianist-composer Elio Villafranca’s superb Cinque, released in the spring. Following the review I’ve appended two interviews that I conducted with Villafranca in 2013 and 2014.

Elio Villafranca (Cinque):

Without multiple listenings on the granular level, it’s not possible to do justice to the various layers that Elio Villafranca interweaves into his panoramic five-movement suite, Cinque (Artists Share), a major work that wears its erudition lightly. Roughly speaking, it’s framed around  the life and impact of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879) (a free man from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped into slavery in 1839, masterminded the capture of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, was imprisoned in the U.S., and was freed in 1841 to return to West Africa as a free man in 1841) and also the events of Haitian Revolution that preceded Cinque’s birth. These events are well-depicted in the extremely thorough program booklet, as are the Kongo and Gangá cosmologies that underpin the proceedings in an illuminating essay by the Ned Sublette, author of the essential Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo — the  value added contained therein is a good reason to eschew streaming and buy Villafranca’s self-produced, crowd-funded double CD package (if you’re equipped to play a CD, of course).

 

This being said,  you don’t need a scorecard to viscerally appreciate Villafranca’s vivid compositions, which reference an expansive gamut of jazz approaches spanning Ellington to Tyner to (Wynton) Marsalis, while using raw materials drawn from an array of Afro-Caribbean musics that surrounded Villafranca (a son of San Luis, Cuba, in the Pinar Del Rio region) during formative years. Villafranca came up through Cuba’s rigorous system of musical pedagogy, and graduated from Havana’s the island’s world-class conservatory, with separate degrees in composition and percussion. He’s a world-class pianist, who has made it his business since emigrating to the United States two decades ago to assimilate and attain fluency in an expansive array of dialects —- his solo declamations call up, at various points, vocabulary from the Maestro, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Barron (check the “What If” motif that he uses on “Conga Y Comparsa”) — that he’s refracted into his own argot. Villafranca intersperses field recordings of master folkloric practitioners from his home region that contextualize the narrative and illuminate the Afro-diasporic interconnections between the hemispheres.

 

For the occasion, Villafranca recruited an ensemble of masters who have interpreted  his music for several years. The fulcrum is Lewis Nash, grandmaster of the trapset, who, given an opportunity to stretch out, displays his extraordinary ability to function both as a generator of idiomatic grooves in a coro  with four hand percussionists of Cuban descent and bassist Ricky Rodriguez, while displaying his creativity in dialogue with the exceptional  soloists. Steve Turre, a long-standing master at fusing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies, generates evocative timbres and primal melodies on conch shells, and applies his sui generis trombone conception on a range of muted and open-horn solos that range from J.J. Johnson-level hardbop to Lawrence Brown-esque romance). Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy’s stirring declamation embodies the title “The Night Of The Fire”; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, and Todd Marcus on clarinet and bass clarinetist contribute statements of equivalent panache and fire. Villafranca leaves space for two pithy, well-wrought solos by Wynton Marsalis, whose own interpretation of the Afro-diasporic message, as expressed in  programmatic suites like Blood on the Fields and Congo Square, has established an aesthetic template for ambitious cross-cultural works like Cinque. Indeed, Cinque debuted at Marsalis’ “house,” the Appel Room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, during the 2014-2015 season.

On a more meta level, Villafranca’s achievement is emblematic of the maturation of the Cuban musicians who have claimed their position in the international jazz conversation since Gonzalo Rubalcaba left the island during the late ‘80s — a short-list includes Yosvany Terry (whose historical opera Makandal needs a commercial recording), Dafnis Prieto, David Virelles, Roman Filiu, and Aruán Ortiz. 

I’ve appended below two interviews I had an opportunity to conduct with Villafranca (who has since moved from Temple University to Juilliard) in which he discusses his personal history and aesthetics. The one from 2013 was conducted for a Jazz Times piece with several Cuban musicians (including all of the aforementioned) on their educational experience in Cuba; the one from 2014 was for a Downbeat web piece.

*****

Elio Villafranca on Cuba Education (May 14, 2013):

TP: A few basic things first. How old are you?

EV: I’m 44. (December 1968)

TP: And you’re from Pinar Del Rio, which is in the west of Cuba.

EV: Correct.

TP: Are you from a musical family?

EV: No. There’s no music in my family.

TP: Did you learn to play music in school as a kid?

EV: I went through the system that Cuba has. I started in the Casa del Cultura of my home town of San Luis, Pinar del Rio. I started painting first (that was the first thing I did) when I was very young, and then, from there I picked up the guitar. I studied guitar for about two years. Then I knew that there were music schools, that they were accepting people for music. Then I presented myself to do the test… I did the test without telling my family, actually, and then they accepted me, but they told me that they didn’t have room for guitar players any more, so I picked percussion.

TP: This was the regional school?

EV: Yes.

TP: Dafnis Prieto went to Santa Clara when he was 10 or something.

EV: Exactly. The same thing. But I did it in Pinar Del Rio. Every province had those original schools, where you get the general music education, and then you go to Havana, where it’s more like the high school kind of thing where you get the specialization on your instrument, and then I went to the ISA, the university of music in Cuba, in Havana. Then I did percussion, because they didn’t have guitar… Actually, I have two degrees—in percussion and composition. I picked up piano when I went into school. I didn’t play piano before I went to school, but then, since it was mandatory for me to play the piano, I was playing it all the time. Then I fell in love with the piano, and then I took it seriously, and then I devoted myself to piano playing.

TP: Was it at the regional school?

EV: That was mostly at the ENA. In Havana, that’s when I first was introduced to jazz, and I was like, “Wow,” and that’s when I started playing.

TP: Can you tell me something about the pedagogy in the regional school?

EV: It’s very intense. The whole system is like, you have double sessions, one session during the morning…from morning til noon you do the regular classes, which is math, physics or chemistry, and then in the afternoon you do the musical classes. At the regional school it was more focused on solfege and theory and piano, and a little on your instrument, the instrument that you were applying for, and also general history of music and music history classes, general, informative type of classes for general music and education.

TP: Dafnis said it was European music, classical music?

EV: Yes, it’s constantly European. My entire education… I think also for him… I mean, for our generation, it’s mostly in classical music. Like, my education, my training in percussion and in composition was fully classical music.

TP: Dafnis said he learned bongos and different percussion instrument, went to tympany, went to mallet instruments…

EV: Yes, exactly that. From my experience, I learned mostly classical. I didn’t know, like Cuban percussion, until I got to Havana. That’s when I started playing a little bit of Cuban percussion. But that was very, very simple information that they give you on that, because actually the courses were mainly classical music. They were following more like the Russian style. They used to see all the Cuban percussion as the lower form of music, basically. Then most of us, me in particular, learned all these other things more in the streets. I used to go and see bands play, and I would play with other groups sometimes on the street, I would go to jam sessions—but not because of education necessarily. Then there was a point in the ISA that they realized that it was a good business, because there was a lot of interest from Europeans and Americans to learn it, so then they started opening classes for foreign people and for the students, and then they opened the catedra of Cuban percussion, then I got a chance to learn from a lot of great masters in Cuban percussion when they were allowed to teach at the conservatory. Remember, in Cuba, for you to be teaching… Everything is through the government. For you to be teaching at the university level, the ISA, you have to have a degree that says you have a doctoral degree or masters degree so you can teach at this level. But most of the percussionists, rumberos and everything, they didn’t have anything.

TP: They’re street musicians.

EV: Exactly. Then there was this conflict for them to accept them in the school, because they thought, like, “oh, we…” It’s like an elite kind of thing. But finally, I think they decided, “We’re going to teach those classes.” Even though here was some tension between them, because it was kind of like, “Ok…”

TP: I can imagine what the tension was like with highbrow Russian teachers and these street guys…

EV: But you know what? Believe it or not, the tension was not between the Russian teachers and the Cubans. It was between the Cubans who had learned in Russia… A lot of my teachers… I had Russian teachers who didn’t speak Spanish enough, and I remember having translators in the classrooms, and then the other teachers were Cubans who studied in the conservatories in Russia. Those are the ones who thought, like, classical music is an elite thing, “I don’t want you guys to be playing any popular music, because that’s not really a good…” They thought that it was not really good music.

TP: You anticipated my question, which is where you picked up Cuban popular or folkloric music. I guess it was in the air, on the street all the time.

EV: Yeah, in the air, on the street, but I have to tell you also that… I just came to realize this in my later years, that actually I experienced my folkloric music in San Luis (?—9:28) for the first time when I was a baby, when I was born there. San Luis is the area where the Tambor de Yuka exists at this moment, and the Tambor de Yuka is a very rare form of Cuban music from the Congolese culture (the shape of the drum looks like a yucca). But it was very popular in Cuba throughout the slavery process because the drums are not sacred. They are the kind of drums that are played in the festive activities before the sacred music was played. It’s the drums that they… The slaves didn’t have to have a religious celebration to play them. They can play it whenever they want to play it. So it was a very popular form of drumming. In my home town, since I was a kid, I would always listen to those drums. I didn’t know what they were. I was more fascinated by the fire, because for you to tune the drums you have to make a fire, because they’re tuned by fire. For me, as a kid, that was the most exciting thing. Not so much of the drums, because the drums are kind of old-looking, kind of made out of those trees, a very simple form of making a drum. But then only when I went to the school I started realizing, “Oh, I see, this is what…” I’d been listening and exposed to that particular of Afro-Cuban music since I was at a very early age.

TP: Once you were in Havana, were you starting to play outside, to be a professional musician?

EV: Yes. When I was in Havana… One of the reasons why I took the piano very seriously was not only because I liked it… I mean, with jazz. I should say with jazz. Because with piano, I always liked it. I was taking it serious. I was taking classes and all that. But in the catedra of percussion, we used to do jam sessions. That was the only faculty that would do jam sessions. We would go there, jam, and it was great, a lot of fun. There were a lot of percussionists but no pianists. So every time I got there, all the instruments were already taken, and the only thing that was not played was the piano. Then I start sitting on the piano just to create like a real jam session, and then they start asking me to come and play the piano for the jam session. Then I realized, “wow, ok, maybe I should start taking it even more seriously,” to be able to play and jam and improvise and all the things on the piano. That’s the beginning of how I started to get into jazz.

Then, by doing that, I was hired by a few groups kind of as a pianist, but no pay—because when you are in the school, you are not allowed to be paid. Then finally, a group that I was hired for, that I was there with them for 8 years throughout my school, was with Carlos Varela, who is a singer-songwriter from Cuba who I am sure you’ve heard of—from the Nueva Trova. He is almost like the disciple of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He was very famous, and I was joined his band, and I became his musical director.

TP: You had all the tools from the conservatory, but the feeling from playing on the street.

EV: Yeah. And then I did my own group, my jazz group which I played at jazz festivals all the time.

TP: How old were you when you started your jazz group?

EV: I was maybe 17. [1985]

TP: I saw Shawn Brady’s piece on you, which was built around the story that you had a teacher at school who told you that he’d come down hard on you if you had any jazz in the composition.

EV: Yes.

TP: Were you able to learn jazz at all in conservatory, or is that also a self-taught process?

EV: It’s a self-taught process. There were no classes on jazz. For example, even tunes—there were no Real Books. The only way we could learn tunes was either transcribing, or sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s home, because I knew he was traveling, or Chucho Valdes, or Pucho Lopez, or Harold Lopez-Nussa… Those are the people who I used to visit their home and say “I want to copy some standards.” I remember Gonzalo sometimes would say, “I have a book, but you can copy it here,” so I would bring paper, and handwrite the songs. I remember he used to have “Eye Of The Hurricane,” Herbie Hancock with Wynton…the transcription of Herbie’s solos. I’d sit down there and handwrite all these things while he was practicing. I was always listening to him practicing! I’d be writing from the book while he was playing.

At that time a cassette tape in the black market cost 15 pesos in Cuba, when the average salary was 150 pesos. My mother and my father would put together 35 pesos to give me to live for a month in Havana. Just relying on the food the school would give us, was not enough. Often when I return from home to the ENA some one would be selling tapes at the entrance of the school. The black market was the only place where you could buy cassette tapes, so I will use 30 pesos of my 35 (leaving me only with 5 pesos for the entire month to live off) to buy two tapes so I could record Chick’s music, or Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie, Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbart… on and on… So much music to hear. I would then ask musicians who were traveling out side of Cuba such as Chucho, or Gonzalo, Horacio Hernandez, Gonzalo’s drummer at the time, Ernan, to record some music for me. Some times I would team-up between a friend who also liked jazz, so that way we can trade recordings. I’m really proud of the choices I made between food or great music. Specially after been among the 5 pianist chosen by Chick Corea to play at his own festival this past May 16th at Dizzy’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center. That was one of the greatest feelings of a dream comes thru.

TP: What was it about jazz that appealed to you at that time?

EV: It’s freedom! Growing up in a system where freedom was not a common thing to have was difficult creatively at times…, and I’m not talking about politics only, also in music, therefore playing jazz was a very liberating experience. Having that freedom to express your self, when that lacked in politics and in society was intoxicating…

The very first group that really impacted me in jazz was Richie Cole. [alto sax] I remember when I first came to Havana, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I loved rock music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—that was my music. And then, a friend of mine, who was already at the school, said, “You definitely have to go to the jazz festival.” I really wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what it was, but I said, “Ok, I’ve got to go.” I went and Richie Cole did a concert there, and I was with my mouth open the whole night. After that night, I just decided I want to be a jazz musician. That was the first band that really impacted me. Then after that, I started digging. Then Chick Corea, Three Quartets and Crystal Silence, and all these beautiful things, and I also got into the Herbie Hancock vein. That’s when I first started noticing about Wynton, that album with Herbie, The Eye of The Hurricane. Then from that point on, I started reaching, reaching, reaching for new albums.

TP: When did you get out of school? At 21 or 18?

EV: Out of ISA, I was 24. I did two careers there. I was not allowed to graduate from the two careers in the same year—percussion and composition.

TP: By the time you graduated, you were playing in a number of bands. Were you able to start traveling at that time?

EV: Yeah. Even before I was graduated, I was traveling with my rock band, with Carlos Varela. We were going to Spain. We were going to Colombia. Actually, we coincided a concert in Colombia with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. We were traveling. That band was good on that thing. That helped me to survive. Because I wasn’t allowed to get paid in Cuba, but I’d travel with them I would get paid, kind of a stipend kind of thing, and then I would bring that money back to Cuba, and then I would be able to survive on that.

TP: So by the time you were 24, were the musical ideas that we’ve heard from you for the last 10-15 years in the States more or less in place? How did things develop? How did the type of education you received affect the way things were developing?

EV: I teach at Temple, and I see sometimes some of the faults in the educational system here in terms of musical education. I feel like sometimes the students, they don’t really get a very extensive, full education in music. Not just in jazz or how to play bebop tunes, but in music in general. Maybe because I was in such a stiff kind of training in classical music that I was exposed to a lot of great music… I had a really fantastic education in Cuba in terms of classical music and music in general—solfegge and a lot of things. So that really helped me…it’s been helping me all this time, just even… When I write music and when I play, I don’t see music as just one style. I’m not a bebop player or a Latin Jazz player or a this player. I’m just a musician, and I have so many formations inside of me, from classical to, of course, jazz… I’ve been here long enough and I’ve been studying jazz since I was in school, on my own, and sometimes taking classes and stuff. But also, the Latin music, the background that I’m coming from. This all is inside of me. So I see myself as something that…I can only be in this way if I was raised in the way I was raised in Cuba. I don’t feel like… There’s no other way around.

TP: It doesn’t seem any other place in the world can really produce this type of musician.

EV: Yes. The other thing is, what I’ve told other people also… When you see a Cuban musician, what you see is a filter, a sort of filter, a very competitive filter…I don’t know what will be the next word… But what I mean by ‘filter’ is you see the people who made it after they went to the filter. I know a lot of people all my career that never made a musician. Because in Cuba, not only do you have to be very good, but you have to be very good to be able to get at the level that we got. I mean, at the level to be able to go to the ENA or be able to go to the ISA. At that time, there was only one ENA and there was only one ISA, and they only have limited space available for students. Let’s say, for example, in some of those years, when I went from the EVA, it’s called the EVA, “Escuela Vocacacional de Arte”…from the EVA to the ENA, Escuela National de Arte,” you have to do a test, a very competitive test where they say… There’s only 9 places for percussion, and there are 60 people applying for the same position. In Cuba, all the schools from all of the provinces used to go to Havana to do that test, to go into the ENA, because the ENA was only one ENA at that time and there was only one ISA at the time. Now I think there’s more ENAs around the country, but at that time there was only one—the one in Havana. So the people who made it there were the people who were basically the best of the best.

Then, when you get past the ENA, you have to do exactly the same thing for the ISA. Only one ISA. And in my year, I remember there were only five positions for percussion and two positions in composition. I did what everybody normally does, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do both,” because I knew that I did not want to go back to Pinar Del Rio. I wanted to stay in Havana, because I was already in that group, I was playing jazz, and I wanted to stay in the capital. So I did the test for both, and I was lucky enough that they accepted me in both, which created a kind of problem, because when they accepted me in both, that meant there was one person who wasn’t coming in. That meant there was one bed less for them to give away. They say, ok, there’s 5 beds for percussionist; 2 beds for composition. But that’s it. I had one bed technically on paper for percussion, and I was also taking one bed for composition. Then they were trying to figure out, “Well, you have to give up one.” But since I got first place in both tests, none of the teachers wanted to release me. They said, ‘I don’t want to give away my first place for another year.’ So they said, “You can start one career this year, and then in two years you will do the other one.” But no one wanted to do that. So then they decided, “Well, you have to do both at the same time.” I said, “Well, I’ll do both at the same time.” Then my father said to me, “you’re going to go crazy.” “Well, I don’t think so; I think I can do it.”

That’s what I did; I did both at the same time. But even though I did both at the same time, I was not allowed to graduate…for bureaucratic reasons, I was not allowed to graduate the same year in both. Because you have to spend one year creating a composition, one year creating the piece, and then present it in the following year, and then, in percussion, you have to follow the program and then graduate. That’s why I stayed longer in the school.

TP: Do you feel that, let’s say, movements (I use the word loosely) like timba or developments in popular music in Cuba in the ‘80s and ‘90s have anything to do with the conservatory system, or is that not accurate?

EV: Well, not quite. The timba movement started in the ‘70s, when the… Los Van-Van was one of the pioneers of that movement. It’s a process that, of course, was started at that time a little bit, and now into the ‘90s and then in the ‘00s, it becomes consolidated on what it is. But it started as far as that, and it has nothing to do with education. There were different factors. After the revolution happened, they decided, “ok, we’re only going to do music that belongs to the Revolution,” and then you see La Orquesta de Pello el Afrokan and all of that, and then also Van-Van comes out of that trend, too. The original Los Van-Van was after Fidel Castro’s speech, called “Van-Van,” the “que van van,” talking about sugar cane. So they did that, but then, at the same time there was a very strong influence from Rock music, coming from America, and then that, in combination with…

The government decided also, “Well, all the groups have to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music.” For some reason, they felt like Beny More and all these other bands represented an era they didn’t like, the era before the revolution and the big casinos and these big bands that played in those casinos disappeared. So they really pushed the bands to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music. But Van-Van did something very interesting. Van Van said, “We’re influenced by Rock,” but they did the rock side of music the Cuban way. That’s why they started the drumset without cymbals. Because with cymbals, it’s typical American Rock. So the first movement of songo will be that without the cymbals, because they used the bambu as the cymbals… They wanted their drums to sound very African, but it was an American drum. Then only with Changuito… Changuito decided, “I’m going to put back the cymbals.”

But that’s the whole movement of timba. It’s a combination of the rock that we were listening to at the time, and musicians trying to create new, different combinations and find different ways to create music, different from the music that was played back in the ‘50s and before the Revolution.

TP: I’m not sure I’m clear on whether you’re primarily a self-taught pianist, or received instruction, but it was outside the academy?

EV: No, I had a lot of instruction. The only thing that I am self-taught, to a point, is in popular Cuban music, and jazz. Even though I had several mentors once I got to the US.

TP: You’re a highly trained pianist.

EV: Yes, in classical music.

TP: Can you speak a bit to the ways in which pianists of your generation think differently about music than, say, pianists of Chucho’s or Emiliano Salvador’s generation? If it’s possible to say that, because obviously everyone is an individual. But if there’s anything you can say about the way you learned music in terms of the impact of the conservatory.

EV: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s really… I know Chucho’s playing and I know Emiliano’s playing, and I feel… It becomes a matter of choice.

TP: Or Frank Emilio or Bebo or Peruchin…

EV: I’ll compare it to the hip-hop movement here. The hip-hop movement here is like a social statement. Rather than to be a musical style, first rap came out as a social statement. The same thing for us. I know when I was in Cuba, this trouble of trying to match Chucho’s playing… Chucho came from a generation that was listening to a different type of jazz. I mean, when I came in, it was Weather Report, all of this electronic…the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and also the high development of… We were seeing Cuban music completely different than we were used to… The syncopation in the music was also different. In the ‘50s, the syncopation of Cuban music, you listened to, in groups such as Beny More, and even if you listened to Peruchin, even though it’s very highly syncopated music, was almost specific. Like a pattern, but when you start to listening to groups like Bamboleo, it’s like the syncopation has changed from a pattern idea to a more global inclusion of genres and rhythmic styles. Anything goes… We tend to add a lot of that rumba and Afro-Cuban mixes into the music, and also funk. I am saying this because musically it will affect us, the way we see music, the way we compose mainly…the way we compose, and also the way we think about the instrument, the piano in this case. But more than that, those musicians, you know, from Peruchin…they were also influenced by jazz music. Back in the ‘50s, they could travel to America… The bridge was way smaller than it is now. But for us, the fact that we weren’t close at that time, that we didn’t have access to that music any more, but we have to learn from underground to consume the music because it was illegal…to consume it underground, and all of that investigation that you have to do, the hunger to learn something that you were not supposed—that changed the attitude in how we approached the music, I think, than when you have it at hand.

TP: I’ve talked to Dafnis a number of times, and one issue he had in Cuba was the ability to find situations where he could play what he wanted to play, what he was hearing, not even because of the government, but just because there weren’t that many like-minded musicians. Was it your experience that you were able to fully realize the things you were hearing when you were in Cuba? Did things change… I’m not sure about your process of coming to the States…

EV: Exactly that. There were very few places in Cuba where you could play. The first time I played with a band that played jazz was with Bobby Carcasses’ group, at a club that used to be called the Maxim. That was maybe one of the two clubs, or the only club that was in Havana at that time. That was my very first experience playing with a band. But aside from that, for me to play, I have to just… That’s when I did my own band, because I wanted to be at a festival. But that was only a few times—once a year at the Havana festival, and then if I’d go to the Maxim to play some music, and the jam sessions that we would do at school. Definitely, there were a lack of places or situations where you can play jazz.

TP: The other question was the notion of developing your own vision, your individuality through music. Was that something you were able to do in Cuba? Did it become easier to do once you left?

EV: Yes. It became easier once I left, definitely. Being in Cuba, especially being a pianist… Chucho was a big cloud.

TP: He’s the king.

EV: Yeah. He still is. But he was a very huge cloud for any pianist who wanted to become their own particular voice. Because Cuba, it’s a system… Almost the same system that happened in politics is the same system that happened in music. There was only one voice, and that was the voice. And then, everybody else almost didn’t exist. Even Gonzalo had to struggle to become his own voice. Because there was always Chucho, and Chucho was—or is still—the favorite pianist. I mean, he’s an amazing pianist. But the system is like, “Ok, nobody can really match him; this is what we want.” Then in Cuba, if the government says, “This is the person,” that’s the person.

TP: He also had a lot of clout because Irakere was of such great value to the government.

EV: Exactly. Even since Irakere. So for us, for me, or a lot of pianists to become their own voices was really difficult. The whole thing that started when you move out of Cuba, and then you start realizing, “Oh, wait; there are so many different voices; it’s not just one thing…” You don’t have to play like Chucho to be heard. You can play the way you want to play. Then when I got here, I started informing myself. I listened to a lot of different pianists, took some lessons, did some sessions, and listened to a lot more records and played more. I think the process of creating your voice is a non-stop…

TP: Well, it never ends, but maybe the roads you travel become a bit more defined as you get older.

EV: Yes.

TP: So it seems that one consequence of so many of the Cuban jazz musicians coming out of the conservatory is that it’s a virtuosic music, and it’s a music in which you have a lot of options because of the breadth of their education.

EV: Yes. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is, we’re in a system where it was very competitive, and if you have Chucho as your high mark…or Gonzalo… You had Chucho and Gonzalo; those are two high marks. To compete with that in Cuba, it was not about choice. It was more like a competition. It was more like, “Ok, you have to play more than them to be able to be considered in anything.”

TP: By playing more, do you mean more virtuosic? Does it have to do with the athletics of it?

EV: Yes, there’s a lot of athletics.

TP: That is something that Cuban musicians have been criticized for—playing a lot of notes, being very busy, flash over substances. But it seems that this is much less of a criticism for players who’ve been here for… I mean, look at the way Gonzalo has pared down, going for simplicity and the essence of things. It’s like he’s trying to unlearn that almost.

EV: Exactly. Because once you leave that environment, then you start understanding that you can really do music without having to play a lot of notes. But it’s true. That process only was started once you leave Cuba. Not only because you’re in a different country, but then, when you start being exposed to and listen to other pianists, then you start hearing different music… But then it does help that you went through such a rigorous musical training, because then you have the mechanism to do whatever you want.

TP: You have all these tools to apply to the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak.

EV: Right.

TP: Like, in Cuba you wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing.

EV: No. Definitely not. I wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing. That would be too outside of the box. I don’t think they would consider that an opera, to begin with, then I’m not sure if they would appreciate all of this free improv stuff I do in that project. In Cuba, music tends to get very specific, and so is the way it is played. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I went to Cuba, the festival was happening, and I coincided with a few of my friends, musicians, and I went to a jam session. It was unbelievable, everybody fast and furious, loud and everything. Then one of my friends said, “Do you want to play?” I was like, “No, I can’t play; look at the environment.” Then he said to me, “Are you afraid?” I was like, “No” What, afraid? Music is not about to be afraid. It’s freedom of expression. I said: The only thing I could do there to impress anybody is just get a can of gasoline and light the piano on fire. That’s the only thing that was left to do.

TP: One last question. Do you feel that the musical production of the musicians who left Cuba is having an effect on the last couple of generations of musicians in Cuba, and on the conservatories, and the way musicians are being taught now? That the music that you or Gonzalo or Aruan Ortiz or Fabien Almazen or Dafnis or Yosvany or Gonzalo…I could name 15 more people…that the music you’ve created and documented is having an effect on younger musicians in Cuba, or on the pedagogy, or the way musical education is approached?

EV: I think so. When we go back home, people do comment a lot on the music that we are producing actually, like Dafnis and Terry and myself and Aruan… In a way, we always will look at the thing that we were doing… Because we are living outside of Cuba, when you get there, everybody wonders, “So, what are you doing?” Then once they find out the music we’re doing is different from what they would normally do or different from what they’re hearing in their country, they realize that they do have an apprciation of it.

Especially young musicians… It’s interesting when you go there and you meet a young musicians who hasn’t really met you, who is not from your generation, and they can talk about, “oh, we’re following you and we’ve listened to some of the things you’ve done.” It’s a beautiful thing.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

******

Elio Villafranca (Detroit—Aug. 31, 2014):

TP: You’ve been doing multiple projects for a long time, pretty much since you arrived here, and each recording seems to document a different sphere of activity.

Villafranca: Yes. I always had very broad interests in music. As you know from our earlier interview, I was playing classical music, and that training really opened my ears to many different things. I didn’t grow up in the traditional jazz per se. I listened more to classical music. From there, I got an interest in jazz and in popular Cuban music. But then, my early exposure into music was the Congolese traditions. So I always had the interest. The reason why I came here was because of that, because in Cuba I was only doing the Carlos Varela group, and then I couldn’t really do any other thing. I was playing at the jazz festival once a year. There was only one festival. There were not many clubs to play. So that has been my mission since I’ve been here, just to do a few different projects.

My first album, Incantation, was like the album that I did almost the date that I left my country. So I was going to do my first album; it was going to be pretty much all Latin music. I owed that to myself and I owed that to Cuba. Being in Cuba, that was the first thing I wanted to do. But after that, I realized that music is way bigger than that. I didn’t want to be stuck on just the Cuban pianist that’s only doing Cuban music and stuff like that.

This album, the Jass Syncopators, is almost the beginning of my explorations of music of the Caribbean and tying it in with classical music, and putting everything together with jazz and everything.

TP: Were the pieces all written for this as a project, or did the accumulate over the years?

Villafranca: There were pieces that were specifically written for this project, like “Caribbean Tinge” and “Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” and all so on, that were written specifically for that. “Flower By the Dry River,” “Mambo Vivo,” all these pieces were targeted specifically for this project, the band I had at the time.

TP: Give me the evolution of putting together a personnel like this.

Villafranca: I knew that in order to accomplish what I wanted to do, I needed to have two types of band in one band. I needed to have a band formed by American jazz musicians, fully fluent in the language of jazz, and I needed to have the other band, which is the Latin musicians who are fluent specifically in Latin music… I wanted to marry those two concepts.

The one thing different about this project is, like, before… I don’t know if you know this, but for us Cubans, it’s really hard to detach from the clave and to detach from the cascara and all these traditions. When I came to this country, it was pretty much like that. If I would rehearse a band, I would look for a drummer, I would look for a drummer who knew about cascara, clave, all of these things, and it was always challenging, because you don’t find that unless you play with a Cuban drumnmer, but if you play with a Cuban drummer, then sometimes the jazz language [makes spangalang motion with his right hand] can be a little bit compromised. I wanted really to have those two things. So I thought that if I get a bassist who has knowledge in Latin music, and myself and some percussionists who are knowledgeable in Latin music, that’s it. I don’t need any other thing. American drummers, if they study the tradition of jazz, they feel rhythm the same way we do. The tradition of jazz is pretty close to the same way as the tradition of Cuban music. Think about New Orleans and the rhythms and everything. I don’t have to tell the drummer, “You need to know the clave on everything,” because the clave is around us all the time.

TP: Well, the New Orleans beats are another way of dealing with the African root.

Villafranca: Exactly, which is the same source. Then I realized I just want to do something where I don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just, “this is the music; just feel it. Just feel the music. They’re going to do the thing. Just listen to what they do, and play what you think feels good at the moment.”

TP: Was this band tailored for the people who play on Caribbean Tinge? There are two great jazz drummers.

Villafranca: Yes. You don’t know this, but Billy Hart was the drummer in one of the initial versions of the band, and I also had Victor Lewis in the band. Actually, the first recording that I did with this band, which I donated to a company that creates funds to save children that are subject to abuse and starvation and all of that… They came to me and asked if I’d do a record to help raise funds to help children, and I said yes. So the idea was that all the money that recording would generate would be towards that mission. Victor Lewis did that session. The same with Pernell Saturnino (?—6:23) and Gregg August. So in my band, I have Victor Lewis, I have Willie Jones, III, who plays on the record, I have Billy Hart and I have Lewis Nash. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they feel the African music really deep inside. I didn’t have to tell them anything other than basically go through the music, and that’s that.

TP: How about the horn players? Are the pieces tailored to their sounds, or are they more interpreting parts?

Villafranca: It’s more like interpreting parts. When I first talked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to do a concert, which I still will in the future… I wanted to do a concert that featured Wynton and Paquito. I wanted to have the two languages there, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to interpret the language from the Latin and Wynton from the jazz. Having those two great musicians together in a project was my first thing that I wanted to do with Lincoln Center. But then they were wise enough to say, “Just form your team, and don’t depend on anyone else,” and that’s when I started to think about finding people I know who have that language.

TP: We spoke about this when I was writing program notes for the Nuevo Jazz Latino concert. Is a new kind of music being developed by the Cuban musicians who have been coming here during the last 10-15 years, or a new variant?

Villafranca: Some people have mentioned that to me in the past. They feel there’s a new thing going on…

TP: You, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Aruan Ortiz, Roman Filiu will probably be developing some stuff…

Villafranca: Yes, I think maybe. History will be the judge of that, but it feels vibrant. I think everybody is doing their own interpretation of music. The common thing that we have is that we all came with a very strong classical background and classical training. That’s basically the whole thing we all went through when we were all in Cuba. We all listened to jazz like you wouldn’t even imagine. Really, we were eating jazz every day and listening to all these things. But we had limited access to jazz, and that informed us in a very particular way, too. And then, we were not just listening to the American jazz. We were listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Brazil was a really big influence on us.

TP: Wasn’t Carlos Masa a bridge for a lot of people.

Villafranca: Not so much for me, but he was for Dafnis, because Dafnis used to work with him. It’s true that he introduced a lot of things to some Cuban musicians, especially the people who played with him. Because he had the benefit that it can be in and out of the country. In a place where we couldn’t really go anywhere, anybody who would bring… The person who was very influential on me was Hernan Lopez-Nussa, the uncle of Harold Lopez-Nussa (his father is Ruiz Lopez-Nussa, the drummer). Hernan was one of the persons who, whenever I needed some kind of musical challenge or recordings that I didn’t have, since he was one of the people who was coming in and out of the country, I would go to his house, and I’d bring a tape, and he would record for me something new. I also used to go to Chucho’s house, and have a conversation with him about music. And Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because in Cuba there was no real book.

TP: You’re 45, so you were born in 1968. Gonzalo was still in Cuba when you were in school.

Villafranca: Yes, Gonzalo was one of the kings in Cuba. I was fortunate… I don’t know if you remember that I told you this, but I used to go to Gonzalo’s house when he was practicing.

We didn’t have real books, so basically the only way we could get hold of some jazz tunes was by transcribing. Sometimes, we knew… I knew that Gonzalo had access to some books, and then I would go to his house and say, “Gonzalo, I would love to have some tunes,” and he’d say, “Oh, yes, fine.” He’d bring out some of the books that he had access to, and he’d say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can notate whatever it is.” I would bring this huge manuscript and I’d spend hours and hours writing tunes by hand while he was practicing.

TP: That’s a very interesting way to learn some music. It becomes a very personal experience.

Villafranca: Yes. I remember having my hand very sore, because literally I would spend in his house like 3 hours. I notated some of Herbie Hancock’s tunes, stuff like, at the time, “The Eye Of The Hurricane.” I remember when that album came out, we were really all over the place. We were all over it, and we really liked that album with Wynton Marsalis, and then the V.S.O.P. after it came out. We had Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band album. I had it in my head before it even was on the market.

TP: Did you just miss the post-Gorbachev years, when the subsidies ended?

Villafranca: No. I was right in the middle. Half my teachers were Russians, and I remember one day coming to school and all of a sudden there were no teachers. I was like, “what happened?” Then we were told that perestroika happened, which basically is when Cuba and Russia got into a dispute and Cuba kicked everybody out. Russia said, “You owe us money,” and Cuba said, “We don’t owe you anything,” and then everybody was kicked out. All my teachers left like overnight.

TP: And there were shortages and scarcities.

Villafranca. Oh my God. There was the “special period,” which I went through, and another period called the “Option Zero.”

TP: Didn’t you tell me that you had a certain allowance each month, and instead of buying food, you bought tapes?

Villafranca: Yes. My mom and my father would put together 45 Cuban pesos, which is almost half of a salary, for me to survive in Havana for a month. I’d go to Havana, spend a month, and then come back for a weekend. I’d go there, and then at the school you’d see… The Black Market was really at its height, selling everything, and they were selling cassette tapes. Each cassette tape would cost 15 Cuban pesos, which is a very high price in relation to salary. I would buy two, because I wanted to record two albums. Then I would go to Hernan’s or Chucho’s or Gonzalo’s or Pucho Lopez, and I would ask them to record something for me. Or El Negro, Horacio Hernandez, right before he left (he was playing with Gonzalo at the time). That’s the sacrifice we made in those days to learn this music.

TP: You’re the same generation as Yosvany, Dafnis is younger but he was in there, and Omar Sosa is a little older.

Villafranca: Yes. When I was in school, Omar was already really out there. He was music directing for Xiomara Laugart and other bands.

TP: In retrospect, what do you think the impact of those experiences has had on the way you approach your career in the U.S.?

Villafranca: I can’t think of any way other than to feel grateful. Even though we went through those hard times, even though we didn’t have all the materials to deal with the music… Like, we had one tape player that belonged to someone in the entire school, and then we had to take turns. Maybe my turn would be 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., whatever, and whenever it was, then I would use that time. But whenever I got my hands on that tape player, I would make sure that I listened to that music to my 100%. I would listen and listen, and go back, and listen again, listen again, listen again. That’s what made me get to this point today. It gave me a very strong… I mean, I still study for four hours. I grew up in that environment, and it’s really made me a better musician.

TP: I guess there was a lot of competition in the school also.

Villafranca: Extremely competitive.

TP: It was an opportunity for advancement, for social mobility as well.

Villafranca: But that also has a catch to it as well. A lot of friends of mine who were very talented didn’t make it, just because in Cuba it’s just got to be one person. If it’s one pianist, it’s going to be one pianist. It was Gonzalo and Chucho. But it was really hard, because there was no space for a different voice.

TP: Another aspect aesthetically of coming up in Cuba is that (I think I’ve heard you say this) that the competitive environment makes people treat music almost as a sport to the detriment of the artistic aspect, and that slowing down is a complex thing. I guess that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

Villafranca: That’s a good and a bad. You always have the good and the bad. It’s good for the people who made… For every musician you see on the scene right now, there are 20 or 30 of them that didn’t make it. Not because they were no good. It’s just because there’s only what we call dambulo, which is like a very open hole where only one or two people can just fit through. It’s a very strong filter, stronger than America here, where you can get musicians of all different kinds. The beautiful thing about this is you might get some people who are not that great or whatever, but they have the opportunity to express themself. In Cuba, if you were not the level that they think you should be, then you don’t get anywhere.

TP: You were saying at the beginning of the conversation (and other musicians from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora have told me this) that breaking away from clave and cascara and so forth is more complicated than might be readily apparent. How did that process work for you? What were some of the steps you took once you came here?

Villafranca: Basically, it’s a liberation thing. It feels to me like a liberation of the soul. What I mean by liberation is that I started to look at music in the more pure form, not in a very specific way. I am realizing that when the musicians have the freedom to express, they’re going to play better than if they have to feel tied to something that I’m giving them. If I wanted to play something that has a very strong Cuban accent, like charanga or something like that, I will get a musician who is very knowledgeable in that. I’m going to be play charanga music; we’ll play Peruchin’s music. When I do that, I want just to be 1950s. I want that. Right? But when I do jazz, like the thing with the Jass Syncopators… For example, I am premiering a suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February next year which is an expansion of what the Jass Syncopators is right now. That’s why I mentioned that the Jass Syncopators is just the beginning of something. I am very much interested in looking at Congolese traditions in the different regions of the Caribbean. I am done with Yoruba, because I’ve done that, everybody’s done that. My roots are Congolese, not Yoruban. Then I am looking at that tradition of Congolese music in the different areas. If I play you something from the Congo people in my hometown, there is no clave. It’s like something more traditional than that. These people don’t even know anything. They don’t know anything about clave, all they know how to feel… When I was interviewing them…

TP: You were a percussion major.

Villafranca: Yes. It was so beautiful to see them, when they start playing the drums, they don’t have it compartmentalized the way we do when we go to music school. Of course, when we go to music school, they teach us to compartmentalize everything, to analyze everything. I am trying to go away from that. I want it to be more like feeling the music rather than technically analyzing it.

TP: You need to be careful with that idea, though. It works for someone as highly trained as you, but…

Villafranca: True. But I’m not far from what Pat Metheny said when someone asked him why he covers all this melody? Well, he grew up in that environment, and that’s what he does. Yes, you’re right, I come from a very strong background in African music, but that could go two ways. You could either focus on that and try to play just like that, or you know that you have it, so open up and experience the moment. When I see my people from the Congo in San Luis, they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about clave, they don’t talk about anything. It’s funny, because you ask them and they say, “No, this is what you do.” [plays rhythm with his hands] Then that’s it. You ask them, “Explain it to me,” they don’t know how to explain it. I want to be that way. I want to experience the music at that level, not from the analytical point of music.

TP: Tell me about the band you’re playing with today. You have a recording with Eric Alexander, The Source In Between, that celebrates the sound of swing and hardbop.

Villafranca: That record was the beginning, when I started… That’s why I chose the title, The Source In Between. I thought I could write music that could played in a Latin Jazz tradition with percussion, and also can be felt in a jazz tradition. For example, if you remember the album, the track called “Oddua Suite,” it’s like the music of John Coltrane but it’s just basically a Yoruban chant. Then I decided I’d have Eric, who is a very bebop-oriented person, but then I want to have Dafnis, who is very strong on everything, and then Jeff Carney, who is an American bass player who has nothing to do with Latin music. So I wanted those two poles. The Jass Syncopators is the expansion of the same content. That’s how I was thinking about this project.

I think it works, because when you think about music, it doesn’t have to be… As long as the musicians you’re working with feel the same way, they honestly feel what you’re trying to do, it’s great. Having Eric here with me today is so beautiful, because I haven’t played with him in a long, long time. I met him when I did a couple of tours with Pat Martino’s band. I was living in Philadelphia then.

TP: What you’re saying about Congolese traditions seems like a similar attitude Yosvany Terry is bringing to Arara.

Villafranca: He was initiated. I am not initiated. I am doing it because I grew up on that… Since I was a baby, literally.

TP: You were speaking about being done with Yoruba, and…

Villafranca: In Cuba, if you say “Yoruba,” then they say, “Havana or Matanzas?” It’s regional. You can talk about exactly the same tradition or exactly the same orisha, but you go to Havana, then they completely play it different, and the words…sometimes they’re using the chants in one way, and you go to Matanzas it’s completely different. He was initiated in an Arara casa in Matanzas, and Pedrito’s is from Havana. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Pedrito might know what was happening in Matanzas.

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The Pile, Oct. 5, 2018 – Kamasi Washington’s “Heaven and Earth”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

So, these things being said, here are some thoughts on Kamasi Washington’s excellent double-CD, 4-LP summer release, Heaven and Earth.

 

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.

Kamasi Washington didn’t get where he is by thinking small, and his 2018 release is no exception, picking up where he left off on The Epic, his 3-CD debut, and upping the ante by a couple of notches. Augmenting his sextet with a strings-and-brass orchestra and a soulful choir, Washington presents a pair of 8-tune suites, comprising 14 of his originals, a piece by trombonist Ryan Porter, and a rhythmically jacked-up, harmonically simplified reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.” It’s arena jazz, and effective arena jazz at that.

 

Washington showcases himself for much the proceedings, which is a good idea, as he’s by far the most interesting soloist in his band. His big-sound, melody-oriented, broad-gestures, tell-the-story approach to playing the tenor saxophone, evokes – to these ears – a cleaner, more well-scrubbed Pharaoh Sanders-John Gilmore admixture on the mothership and Gene Ammons crossed with Teddy Edwards crossed with Eddie Harris in the urban lounge back in the early ‘70s. That period seems to be the source of much of Washington’s sonic and harmonic vocabulary, yanked into the present by the forceful refractions of the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop by paired-off drumsetters Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin — both brilliant — on most of the tracks.  They listen intently to each other, and even though they don’t interact with the soloists in the manner of, say, their World Stage mentor Billy Higgins, which is what I usually want to hear (I’ll emphasize, that’s a matter of personal taste), Washington’s rhythmic prowess is so powerful that I don’t miss it here. Washington had ample opportunity to hone the ability to speak through his horn during a decade holding the tenor chair with the Gerald Wilson, whose ideas seem to infuse elements of the horn voicings and, more broadly, the programmatic, imaginary soundtrack attitude that seems to be Washington’s subtext for much of the notes and tones. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear hints of Terence Blanchard’s film writing as well.

 

My favorite track on disk 1, titled “Earth,” is “The Invincible Youth,” which opens with a free, Sun Ra-esque fanfare, and resolves into intense changes that Washington gobbles up with that stentorian, wailing, testifying sound. Bassist Miles Mosley, a groove-master, follows with a cogent, guitaristic solo of his own. I also like the disk-concluding “One Of One,” on which Washington utilizes the choir effectively during the opening section, then leads the sermon on a spirit-raising declamation that builds and builds and builds, before trumpeter Dontae Winslow builds it even more, propelled  by an unrelenting Afro-coro on which Robert Searight joins the Austin-Bruner drum tandem, intermixed with Kahlil Cummings and Allakoi Peete on hand drums — Steven “Thundercat” Bruner is drum-like, too, as the second bassist.

 

It’s hard to discern in what way Washington takes a different approach on the second disk, “Heaven,” though he does give the rest of the band a bit more space for self-expression. Cameron Graves (acoustic piano) and Brandon Coleman (keyboards) engage in fleet, quick-witted exchange after Washington’s turbulent solos on “Song For The Fallen,” which includes a lovely choral passage (you can hear echoes of Blanchard’s writing here). In concerts several years ago and on his Mack Avenue album, Graves tended to let his fingers “wag the dog,” as it were, and does so again on a fleet opening solo “Show Us The Way.” Washington fulfills that mandate on his solo, as he does on “Street Fighter Mas,” machine-gunning the notes to precisely choreographed, chant-like three-drumkit accompaniment. When asked to slow down at the top of the album-ending “Will You Sing,” Graves showcases his lovely touch and gift for melodic expression, counterpointed by the polyphonic drums and the ascendant choir.

 

It’s a strong, erudite, passionate recording, and sustains interest throughout. The participants stay cool-headed even at the most heated moments, and for the most part — not always — avoid the temptation to go for ‘house’ over musicality. Washington has a special vision that straddles past and present, populist but not watered-down, and has a band to write for that can convey his musical intentions. His ever expanding fan base shows how effectively knows how to project that vision. A BMF for real.

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Filed under Kamasi Washington, The Pile