Category Archives: Enrico Rava

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

It Isn’t Stefano Bollani’s Birthday, but it is the Final Day of Umbria Jazz Summer 2016, so here’s an Uncut Blindfold Test Done Live in Perugia in 2008 with Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava, in Addition to a Long Downbeat Feature on Bollani Done in Barcelona in 2012 and a Long Interview for Jazz.Com Taken at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Jan. 2009

For the final day of this year’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, here’s the uncut proceedings of a live Blindfold Test I conducted there with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani, who were playing duo. It consisted entirely of trumpet-piano duo recordings. Following it are two long pieces on Bollani, which I may repost separately at some future date — one is a DownBeat feature on Bollani reported in Barcelona in 2012; following it is a long interview, conducted in Orvieto in 2009, that ran on the no-longer-accessible website jazz.com.

 

Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Blindfold Test, Perugia, July 2008 (Raw):
1. Oscar Peterson-Dizzy Gillespie, “Caravan” (OSCAR PETERSON & DIZZY GILLESPIE, Pablo, 1975) (Gillespie, trumpet; Peterson, piano; Juan Tizol, composer)

[AFTER ONE CHORUS]

Rava: We’ve got it. [IN ITALIAN] [SHTICK] Dizzy Gillespie.
Bollani: And Oscar Peterson. I would say that Oscar Peterson was my favorite piano player when I started listening to jazz music. I had this recording. He was playing “My Blue Heaven.” And I was sure, because I couldn’t read the liner notes in English (I was only 10 years old), that it was two piano players playing together. So when my father told me that it was just one, it wasn’t Oscar and Peterson, but it was Oscar Peterson, I started studying seriously, because I understood that you really had to practice a lot if you want to play jazz music. I love all the records he did with trumpet players. But my favorite one is the one with Clark Terry, the one where he is singing.
TP: Dizzy for Enrico Rava.
Rava: [IN ITALIAN] [THEN IN ENGLISH] Dizzy…what can I say about Dizzy? Dizzy is one of the main musicians in jazz. Of course, he is unbelievable. He brought the trumpet ahead twenty years when he started. Although in the very beginning, when he was a kid, he sounded EXACTLY like Roy Eldridge. Dizzy played in a big band when he was a kid, and he was very …(?)… Anyway, I saw him in my home town, Turino, in the ‘50s with the beautiful band he had with Leo Wright, Les Spann, Lex Humphries… To talk about Dizzy doesn’t make any sense, because he is so great he deserves more than words. Words cannot describe him. I can say that the art of Dizzy is enormous. The technique of Dizzy is so extraordinary and unique. He invented a way of playing. He has little tricks with the fingering. Something that I learned from Dusko Goykovich, another good friend. Although I always say that, of course, Clifford Brown, Miles, Chet, the people that I love, I know what they are doing. If I stay a hundred years practicing, every day, I might do the same thing. But Dizzy, I really don’t understand how he got those things. He’s something that’s too much. Dizzy is too much.
[APPLAUSE]

2. Paul Bley-Chet Baker, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from DIANE, Steeplechase, 1985) (Baker, trumpet; Bley, piano)

Rava: I feel sure that the trumpet player is Chet Baker. It could be Paul Bley, because I know they did the record together, but I’m not sure if this is him. We’ll wait til the solo. [SOLO BEGINS]
Bollani: It sounds like the pianist is Paul Bley, but it’s not that record with Paul Bley. I don’t know who is this piano player. For me, it could be (?-12:54). For Chet Baker, one million stars. But I am not in love with this piano player.
Rava: For me, 2 million stars for Chet.
TP: Paul Bley is the piano player. You probably were thrown off by the sound of the piano through this system.
Bollani: [translator: The trumpet players, it’s easier, because they have a personal sound, but the piano, they’re just touching something mechanical.
Rava: I did a duo with Paul Bley, and I know how he plays. I know him very well. So this is why I said, “Maybe it’s not…” Although I was almost sure that it was Paul Bley, because I know the record, but I don’t remember exactly.
Bollani: This is the Steeplechase record, Diane. It’s strange because I have the record…
Rava: They did it for Enja.
Bollani: No, Steeplechase. But I have this record, and I didn’t recognize the sound. To me, it sounded better in my home.
Rava: I love Chet. Chet for me, after Miles, is the one I love more than anybody else. I am very close to his way of thinking and playing melodies. I love his sound. Besides that, the first modern jazz… I am a jazz fan since I was 6 years old, and I love Bix and everybody else. But the first modern jazz I really heard was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, and I think that was some of the best trumpet playing I’d heard. So I fell in love with Chet then, and I became a very good friend of Chet. When I bought a trumpet, I was about 18. One year after, he came to live in my home town, at the house of one of my best friends, so I would be all day with Chet, bringing the trumpet, asking him things he couldn’t answer because he was totally …(?—16:59), so he couldn’t give any advice. But I was almost… I couldn’t speak with him, because it was like to be near the sun. He was so strong for me. I was very young then. Then I got to play with him many times, and we were friends. I think he was one of the most beautiful musicians.
Bollani: It’s easier for me to talk about Chet Baker, because he’s one of my idols, even as a singer. It’s not easy for me to talk about Paul Bley, because I am not a big fan of Paul Bley. I don’t know him so well. Actually, I also have to say that in talking about Chet Baker in duo with a piano player, I would rather prefer the record with Enrico Pieranunzi. I think he was much more close to Chet’s feeling, so the final result of the recording is better.

3. Martial Solal-Dave Douglas, “34 Bar Blues” (from RUE DE SEINE, CamJazz, 2006) (Solal, piano, composer; Douglas, trumpet)

Rava: I think that that’s Don Ellis.
TP: No.
Rava: Okay. It sounds like Don Ellis. I have no idea.
TP: It’s recent. Contemporary.
Rava: Maybe Herb Robertson.
TP: No.
Rava: If it’s not Don Ellis, it’s someone I don’t know at all.
Bollani: Me either. I have no idea of the piano player. At the beginning, the vocabulary sounded like Martial Solal, the French piano player. But I’m not sure it’s him because of the kind of phrasing. And I wouldn’t know who’s the trumpet player, actually. But I really like this piano player, but I don’t know who he is.
TP: You’re right. It is Martial Solal.
BOLLANI: [RAISES HANDS OVER HEAD]
TP: The trumpet player is Dave Douglas, and it’s on the Italian label CamJazz.
Bollani: He said Dave Douglas. He told me, “Maybe it’s Dave Douglas with Uri Caine,” and I said, “this is not Uri Caine.”
Rava: But then, to me, he sounded really Don Ellis at the beginning. I love Dave Douglas. I know him pretty well. But he didn’t sound like Dave Douglas to me; he sounded like Don Ellis. I would give it 4 stars. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it’s wonderful.
Bollani: Actually, I really like it. This is my second Blindfold Test ever. I did it once in France. I only liked two ones. One of them was also Martial Solal. So I really like him. Now it’s the same. I told you, I like this piano player, but I’m not sure of who he is. To me, Martial Solal is the greatest piano player alive, technically and mentally speaking. Maybe you can compare other piano players, as listeners. But as a piano player not as a listener, I am amazed at what he can do. He’s always thinking what you’re not expecting he is going to do.
Rava: You mean as a piano player?
Bollani: Yes.

4. Wynton Marsalis-Eric Lewis, “King Porter Stomp” (from MR. JELLY LORD, Columbia, 1999) (Marsalis, trumpet; Lewis, piano)

Rava: Very nice. 5 stars.
TP: Would you like to know who it was?
Bollani: We were talking about the trumpet player, and we said that probably it’s the same period of Roy Eldridge, but not before…
Rava: I think it could be. I am doing a very stupid thing, but it could be maybe Rex Stewart. I’ll tell you why. I know that Rex Stewart was a great fan of Bix Beiderbecke, and this trumpet player did things that reminded me of Bix, but it was not at all that kind of trumpet player. But it sounded to me maybe like Rex.
TP: So you think it’s an old recording?cheche
Rava: Uh… No. I think it’s very new. [LAUGHTER]
Bollani: We were talking about the piano player. I don’t think he’s one of the greatest piano players of jazz history, people like Earl Hines or Teddy Wilson or whomever. He sounds like a modern piano player trying to pretend he’s in the ‘30s. I guess he’s American, but he’s got something which is not exactly in that style, and he sounds more modern. So I guess he’s trying to do these kind of things, but probably he doesn’t do these kind of things all the time. He’s not an expert of that kind of jazz. This is a very precise style, so you can immediately understand if it’s a pianist who was born today or is from that period. He played stride piano, but he didn’t really come off completely; a few things told me that it wasn’t an old pianist.
Rava: I have no idea.
TP: It was Wynton Marsalis and Eric Lewis, who played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years.
Carlo: It was too much technique.
Rava: It really sounded like a guy from the late ‘30s.
Bollani: Actually, I thought the trumpet player was an old one, with a young piano player trying to play in that style. So I couldn’t guess who it was.
TP: So Wynton did what he intended to do.
Bollani: Yeah, exactly.
Rava: I had for a moment, if he’s not… But he sounded so much like an old trumpet player. Anyway, five stars.
Bollani: I am not giving 5 stars, because I loved Wynton, but not so much the piano player. 3 stars. His way of comping was not… 5 for Wynton.

5. Lester Bowie-John Hicks, “Hello, Dolly” (from AMERICAN GUMBO, 32 Jazz, 1974/1999) (Bowie, trumpet; Hicks, piano)

Rava: To me, that’s Lester Bowie.
Bollani: Lester Bowie. The problem with this piano player, it sounds like the opposite of the other one. It sounds like he’s not one of the musicians involved in the free movement, but he’s older, so he sounds older than Lester Bowie. Maybe he wants to sound modern. But he sounds like a very good piano player from the ‘60s.
TP: Actually, he was the same age as Lester Bowie, and also from St. Louis. John Hicks.
Rava: I’ll give 5 stars to Lester. 3 stars for this piece, because to me it’s too much… I always loved Lester, and this very ironical… But this I think was really too much. He still is great. He was a good friend. So 5 stars. Maybe even 10.
Bollani: I liked very much the piano player.
TP: One thing that was interesting about John Hicks musically is that he was very comfortable playing outside or inside. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He played anything, and played it great.
Bollani: Another one that I really love is Jaki Byard—he could do that, too, very well, He could play stride piano, then he was playing modern things, and it was perfect.

6. Dick Hyman-Randy Sandke, “Slow River” (from NOW AND AGAIN, Arbors, 2005) (Hyman, piano; Sandke, trumpet)

Rava: To me, it sounds like Ruby Braff.
TP: Good guess, but not.
Rava: Merde.
TP: The trumpet player is alive.
Bollani: I really like it. But I’m not sure about the piano player, because he sounded once again like Oscar, but it’s so much cooler than Oscar Peterson that I wouldn’t say it’s him. I would say once again that he’s not a very famous one probably. I don’t know him so well.
TP: He’s the same age as Oscar Peterson, and both he and Oscar Peterson were influenced by Art Tatum.
Rava: Could it be that white trumpet player that used to…Warren Vache?
TP: Not Warren Vache, but that’s also close.
Rava: Anyway, it really sounded like Ruby Braff to me. Anyway, I give 4 stars.
Bollani: Same age as Oscar Peterson? He’s cooler than Oscar. He’s playing less notes. But he’s alive.
TP: The trumpet is Randy Sandke.
Rava: I don’t know him. I’ve heard his name, but only several times. His playing was very good. But he really sounded like Ruby Braff to me.

7. Kenny Wheeler-John Taylor, “Summer Night” (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?, CamJazz, 2004) (Wheeler, flugelhorn; Taylor, piano)

Bollani: We both recognize the trumpet player, and we think it’s Kenny Wheeler. I think the piano player could be John Taylor.
Rava: We know the trumpet, or flugelhorn…it was a flugelhorn. I’ll give it 2 stars. Do I have to give stars? I’ll give 3 stars. I must say I did not get that much from it.
Bollani: Sometimes it sounded like Kenny Wheeler’s composition.
TP: It’s a standard called “Summer Night,” by Harry Warren.
Bollani: It had something in the chorus at the end of the tune which made me think about Kenny Wheeler’s composing, things like “Everybody’s Song But My Own.” These kind of compositions, the long ones that go the ‘70s.

8. Nicholas Payton-Anthony Wonsey, “Weather Bird” (from GUMBO NOUVEAU, Verve, 1996)

Rava: What I can tell you is, first, whoever it is, there is a time problem, with the piano speeding up. The trumpet player, whoever it is, sounded good, but he played licks of everybody else. I heard some Dizzy licks, some Bobby Hackett licks… I mean, it was like an encyclopedia for trumpet. So I didn’t really like it. I’ll give it 2½ stars, maybe 3 for the technique and the ability. They are very good players, but I didn’t see any magic or any voice or something like that.

Bollani: Once again, I will start saying that probably they are not two very-very-very famous jazz musicians, because I really don’t recognize the… The same as the trumpet player . I don’t recognize the style of the piano player, because it sounds like a good piano player but not really a special one, a personal one. But still, I think that what Enrico said was true about the timing problem, but I think the piano player is the problem, not the trumpet player. He’s doing things, and he’s not very creative.

The problem with the records, the duo recordings with trumpet and piano is that the most famous jazz musicians, except maybe Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, didn’t do this kind of formula. Except for the Oscar Peterson albums… You can count them. But if you talk about the greatest players in the world… Miles, for example, never did one. So a lot of the greatest jazz musicians never made…

TP: It was Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Anthony Wonsey on piano playing “Weather Bird.”

Rava: Sorry, I recognized “Weather Bird,” of course.

Bollani: They are alive. So they are going to read the Downbeats and kill me.

Rava: I like Nicholas Payton most of the time. But I did not recognize him on this tune, probably because he wanted to make a kind of tribute to Louis Armstrong. But he didn’t sound like Nicholas Payton to me at all.

Bollani: I have to say, I’ve never heard even the name of the piano player. Never.

9. Earl Hines-Harry “Sweets” Edison, “Mean To Me” (from JUST YOU, JUST ME, Black and Blue, 1978) (Hines, piano; Edison, trumpet)

Bollani: We know the period, of course, but we’re not so sure about the musicians. I would say that this piano player, maybe it’s not him, but now he’s sounding like Willie The Lion Smith, but I don’t know if he recorded something…
Rava: To me the trumpet player sounded a lot like Harry Edison.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: Who is the piano player?
Bollani: It could be Earl Hines.
TP: It is. [APPLAUSE]
Rava: I love Harry Edison. This is, for sure, not one of his best performances. If you compare this to the solo he played with Lester Young on “Sunday” which is a total masterpiece, this… But I don’t mind.
TP: He was 22 years older when he did this.
Rava: Not everyone is like you. Getting older, I feel better.
Bollani: Anyway, what can I say about Earl Hines? His nickname was “Fatha,” so this means that he is considered the father of the modern piano players. So I won’t say anything. He’s one of the piano players I always loved not only for the piano playing, but because of his attitude. Often people say that I’m too much entertaining or I’m too much funny or smiling or whatever. But people like Dizzy, Fats Waller, Earl Hines…
Rava: Armstrong.
Bollani: Armstrong. These were people who were playing great and also entertaining people. I have a record with Earl Hines singing and imitating the trombone, which is fantastic. I think he was a great performer. Smiling all the time.
Rava: Hines’ style. For Harry Edison and Earl Hines, I’m not particularly fond of this record, but I’ll give it 1000 stars. All the stars in the universe.

 

 

Stefano Bollani Article (Barcelona, 2012) –  (#1):

Stefano Bollani does not do soundchecks. “I always try not to have a sound in my head before playing,” the 39-year-old pianist explained in his room at Barcelona’s El Gran Havana Hotel, a few hours before hit time for a solo recital at Luz de Gas, the final event of Umbria Jazz Festival’s week at last November’s edition of the Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz. “I don’t want to know how the sound is on stage or in the place. So I don’t go to the theater before the concert. I just go on stage and play.”

He elaborated the point. “Being alone at the soundcheck is so sad,” he joked. “That’s one reason, but also I want to be surprised. I don’t want to know that the piano has a problem or a good characteristic, because then you think, ‘Wow, this piano is playing well, but only when you play it softer, so let’s make a list of how I can play softly all night.’

“Usually I am telling a joke or talking about some other subject—not thinking about the music—until the moment I begin. Then I forget everything. That’s free time. My phone is off. Nobody is asking me questions or proposing things. Nobody is interviewing me. I am doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child. I have two kids. I am never home, so I feel guilty because they don’t have a normal father. But when I’m playing, I know it’s my job, so I’m cool. I’m in the right place at the right moment. People are buying a ticket for me, I’m playing for them. I chose to come here. You chose to listen to me. It’s perfect.”

It was time to go. Dressed in an untucked black shirt, jeans and sneakers, his matted, gray-flecked hair tied back, a week’s worth of stubble covering his face, Bollani picked up his backpack and walked briskly to the elevator, passing several open rooms in which several Umbrian representatives sat in their undershirts, glued to CNN, hoping to catch the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Later, at Luz de Gas, after Bollani had finished two tunes, an audience member called out that the deed was done. “This is going to be a very special night,” Bollani said, “because as you know, we have very sad news. We’ll just have to go on without him.”

Bollani instantly stated the melody of “If I Should Lose You.” He launched his improvisation at jet tempo, a la Conlon Nancarrow, crisply articulating every note. He transitioned to a rubato section, abstracting the harmony to its limits before working back into the theme. Suddenly, he chugged out a relentless walking bass line in the Jaki Byard-Dave McKenna manner, supporting high-velocity Bud Powellish “horn-like” lines that included an “I Found A New Baby” quote. He offered a pluck-the-strings sidebar, crossing the hands (variations by the left; bass figures by the right), executing Cecil Taylorisms with extravagant gestures. Some repeated treble notes coalesced into a portentious, impressionistic melody that gradually morphed into “For Once In My Life,” upon which he built a rollicking, swinging statement that transpired over another pendulum-steady bassline.

The “Adios Berlusconi” theme continued when, after a pause, Bollani abstracted “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” limning the melody with the right hand juxtaposed with with more laugh-provoking atonal harmonics on the strings. This morphed into “Angel Eyes,” on which, after a rumbly, low-end climax, he decrescendoed to a gentle theme statement, returning to the strings for the last chorus. Bollani played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” medium up, repeating “she was more like a beauty queen” in different voices, counterstating with Powell-Tatum references. Pretending to forget the lyric, he fixated on “the kid is not my son” section, which he addressed as an aria. He interpolated the lyrics of “Old Devil Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me,” then laid out a series of reharmonized permutations that concluded with “Blackbird.”

After two more songs—“After You’ve Gone,” done as an old-school saloon stomp, and “Kingston Town,” treated as a gentle waltz—Bollani took requests, which included “Cavaquinho,” “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “Tico Tico,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Für Elise.” He cogitated over his list, and developed an ingenious, structurally connected collage, at various points singing in a French accent and emulating a flamenco singer. Then, after an ovation, he filleted Berlusconi one more time with “There Will Never Be Another You,” propelling his variations—to which he scatted a falsetto counter-melody—with yet another surging bassline.

“Every jazz musician will say to any interviewer that you’ve got to tell your own story,” Bollani had said earlier in the day. “But I love when the story is full of things. Our lives are full of nice moments and sad moments—there’s a funny situation, then one of us is dying on the floor so it’s suddenly tragic, then you call the police but they aren’t coming, so it’s funny again. Life is changing all the time. Some jazz music today is like the Sea of Tranquility, trying to develop the same feeling for sixty minutes. My life is not like that; I cannot tell this kind of story.”

Bollani’s communicative flair, his penchant for addressing serious improvisation as quasi-populist performance art, is the primary source of his high Q-score in Europe, the reason why, since 2007, he’s hosted the much-listened-to Il Dottore Djembe on Italy’s NPR equivalent, Rai-3, and, more recently, a TV spinoff. This quality comes through on his solo concerts and more recent piano duos with Martial Solal, Antonello Salis, and Chick Corea, where he generates an erudite flow that is at once hilarious and poignant, buffo and nuanced, elemental and complex. Some might see Bollani’s predisposition to skip from one reality to the next as bespeaking superficial clownishness, but it’s more accurate to say that it denotes an exhaustive breadth of reference.

“Stefano doesn’t make a distinction of ‘there’s one world here, and another there,’” said drummer Jeff Ballard, who has performed on several Bollani projects since 2009. “He has an incredible command of styles—everything is available at once, and out it comes. His thought process moves at incredible velocity, whether he’s performing or just hanging out. When I was touring with him, he’d sing one Italian song after another in the dressing rooms, saying, ‘Check out the harmony of this; see how this goes.’ He’s a natural performer and a virtuoso.”

“Comedians are usually very well-prepared,” Bollani had said earlier of his modus operandi. “But I am not preparing the funny part. It’s something I feel at the moment. If I have somebody with me, I am using musicians on the stage. Otherwise, I am using the audience. A lot of listeners, not necessarily jazz fans, tell me they get a feeling that I am having joy and want to share it. Jazz can be a kind of magic circle that some people feel they cannot enter. That’s not good for jazz music, or any kind of art.”

As jokes were the topic, Bollani mentioned that, on Dottor Djembe, he and co-host Mirko Guerrini pre-record fake music to present to their guests, mostly Italian musicians, with whom they perform live and discuss contemporary jazz, some of it by one or another of the numerous “fake musicians” of their invention—composers, pop singers, instrumentalists—whose biographies appear in a book-CD (Lo zibaldone del Dottor Djembe).

“If you don’t know what you’re listening to, you might think we’re talking seriously—until somebody starts laughing,” Bollani said. “There’s a scat singer called Tex Plosion, and on our recording he scats until he explodes—it’s a point of departure to talk about how dangerous jazz can be and not to play too many notes. We have a contemporary French-German composer named Jean-France Camenberg who did a seven-hour opera in Berlin called Sisyphus and Tantalus. For the whole time, Sisyphus sings ‘I am pushing the stone’ and Tantalus sings ‘I need the water.’ The moment Tantalus reaches the water is exactly the moment when Sisyphus is able to throw the stone, which hits Tantalus on the head and kills him, ending the opera.

“I have Duck Ellington, a guy who found a female duck that he uses to sing all the Duke Ellington repertoire. It’s very stupid, so stupid that the guest isn’t expecting it. Most of our guests said, ‘I can’t say anything about that.’ ‘Why? Didn’t you like it? Don’t you like jazz music?’ ‘I do, but…’ Very funny.”

[BREAK]

Bollani related that he and Chick Corea “did lots of jokes” at the free-flowing duo concert at Umbria Jazz Winter, 2009, that produced Orvieto [ECM]—he described it as “feeling like one piano player with four hands.” However, they do not appear on the recording. “I’m not mad about humor on records,” Bollani said. “A good piece of music works when you listen to it forever, but not a joke.”

Indeed, humor is not a prominent component of Bollani’s eclectic discography, which includes several solo piano solo recitals, a dozen encounters (including two duos) with trumpeter Enrico Rava, six standards dates for the Japanese market, and presentations of his original music by three different trios, a quintet, and a 40-piece orchestra. The jokes are also tamped down on Carioca [Universal], Bollani’s learned exploration of a broad array of Brazilian flavors; on the 50,000 unit-seller Rhapsody in Blue [Decca Classics], on which Bollani and conductor Ricardo Chailly present a vivid interpretation of the Gershwin classic; and on Big Band! [EmArcy], a 2011 project on which the NDR Big Band—with Bollani on piano—performs Norwegian arranger Geir Lysne’s reworkings of five Bollani compositions from the early ‘00s.

“Geir chose the pieces, and I came in after the band had learned them,” Bollani said. “I didn’t recognize them. I love that everything sounded new, that he used them to build different atmospheres. I use my compositions to build something different each night, which is how music keeps herself alive.” He quoted Surrealist philosopher Andre Breton’s bon mot, “Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.”

He continued: “You take different things, shake them, and see what comes out—the postmodern idea. That’s what I like in jazz. Take a melody by the Beach Boys and place a chord from a Prokofiev sonata; start with a standard, “My Funny Valentine” or ragtime, and go some other place. It’s playing with language, like working with characters in a novel.

“On some of my own compositions, the principle is funny—we miss a bar or jump to another key, and that’s clear. A lot of people did this, from Raymond Scott to Frank Zappa. But lots of them are not funny until I play them; the pianist Bollani is funnier than the composer Bollani. Actually, I am a tremendously serious composer. The pieces are never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars—always 43. There’s a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one that wants to be original. He is saying, ‘Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put in a bar more.’ I’m so serious that I would write only ballads, if I could. I have to force myself to write something light.”

Born in Milan and raised in Florence, Bollani internalized his everything-is-grist-for-the-mill approach early on, playing the piano along with the Fats Domino-Nat King Cole-Jerry Lee Lewis portion of his father’s extensive collection of ‘50s pop, from which he also assimilated the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. He learned Italian musica legere (light music) as well, through recordings by Renato Carosone and Celentano. At 11, the aspiring young singer enrolled in Florence’s prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory (he would graduate with honors in 1993) and also encountered local pianists Luca Flores and Mauro Grossi, who gave him hands-on instruction in the codes of jazz and blues. At 12, he fell hard for Art Blakey’s Night At Birdland album and joined what he describes as “the Taliban of Hard Bop.” As his teens progressed, Bollani expanded his horizons, absorbing “the real masters”—Martial Solal, Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines.

“Ragtime and stride piano is the sound of joy to me,” he said. “Even the ballads, except for things like ‘Lotus Blossom’ by Strayhorn.” He sang the melody. “In fact, as soon as they get melancholic, they sound European, in a way. But I love the joyful part of jazz, which is probably coming from Africa.”

Apart from the ebullient feel of the earlier styles, Bollani cited the technical derring-do required to play them. “These guys had amazing character,” he said. “When Teddy Wilson played with Gene Krupa or Nat Cole with Buddy Rich, they had no bass, and they often had no amplification—they had strong hands, big hands. When Bud Powell started playing mainly as a horn player with the right hand and no chords on the left hand, that became the book. But I discovered a lot of people in jazz history, before and after Bud Powell, who think of the piano as an orchestra, which it is. I can play 50 notes at the same time if I want. So why should I force myself to solo only with the right hand? It’s ok, it’s an idea, but that’s ONE thing you can do. But as a piano player, you can’t only practice on that. A lot of people study Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, without considering that they are not points of departure in piano history, but points of arrival. If that’s how you start, you miss their process in getting to that point, and you’ll be an imitation of them.”

Bollani’s strongly typed tonal identity is fully apparent on Orvieto, a trans-stylistic tour de force on which he and Corea improvise interactively through American and Brazilian Songbook and jazz standards, a blues, and several scratch inventions. “I immediately knew that I could go anywhere with Chick,” Bollani recalled. “Usually one person solos and the other comps, and vice-versa, but here no one is driving—no roles are played for more than a few bars, then we start over. I told myself to be careful about quoting him, but it didn’t feel like the Chick Corea I knew in my youth. It’s just music.”

Trumpeter Enrico Rava, who hired Bollani in 1996, was a key figure in helping him gain the confidence to develop his mature conception. “When I was a teenager playing in clubs and theaters with my trio, people were silent, listening,” Bollani recalled. “This meant that I was developing a music that was closer to Art than entertainment. In 1995, when I’d been mostly playing keyboards with [Italian pop singers] Irene Grandi and Jovanotti, Rava joined our trio as a guest. Later he told me that if I turned down a long tour with Jovanotti, he could find gigs for us that summer. It was maybe seven concerts, but that was enough.

“After the first set on my first concert with him, he asked, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ ‘I’m playing.’ ‘No, you’re playing a little of what you can do—maybe you are shy.’ ‘Well, it’s you, it’s Aldo Romano, so I leave the space.’ ‘No. I called you because you have to fill the space.’ Enrico always tried to get from me what I wanted to do.”

Whatever Bollani chooses to do in the future, being funny will remain in the mix. “If I like you, I can joke with you; I can play with you,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll probably be more serious, because I cannot be free to laugh. I’m not iconoclastic, though probably people feel I am. I’m not laughing against something. Usually, I like the persons I’m making fun of. Serious fun is important. If you take yourself too seriously, you should die. Why play the piano after Keith Jarrett and Martha Argerich? Just jump from the window. Why make children? Why make love? You know you’re going to suffer about that in a few hours, a few days. One member of a couple is going to die first. You can’t do anything if you think negatively. I cannot imagine a life without self-irony. Otherwise I couldn’t stand myself.

“But I am very serious about music. I can’t do anything else. I’ve never worked. I’m not a practical man. I am really saved by the music.”

*-*-*-

Stefano Bollani (Orvieto, Jan. 4, 2009):

Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this winter’s Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvieto, a small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millennium, pianist Stefano Bollani, digesting what he described as his first real meal in days, sipped pear juice in the salon of his hotel. He was looking forward to a well-earned nap: Called five days earlier to replace bossa nova legend João Gilberto, the festival’s headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, the 18th century opera house that is one of Orvieto’s many architectural wonders, Bollani had been hustling to fulfill the task, and had executed his duties with aplomb.

After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet, while on Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohen, herself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvieto’s central square. After his nap, he would sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by bassist Roberto Gatto.

An obscure figure to American audiences, who know him primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and in March will release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release Piano Solo, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy, where, in addition to his eclectic musical production, he is a television and radio personality as well as a published author of both children’s books and experimental novels.

Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, where he graduated with honors, Bollani was also a teenage bebop acolyte. His solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of kaleidscopic repertoire—Italian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originals—in which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable digital dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.

During the course of his Thursday duos, he displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, Bollani sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partner’s solo episode) and with Solal, who maintained a Buster Keaton deadpan as he went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play “musical piano benches,” and riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TP: What you’re doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, you’re called to replace João Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets, half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, you’re seamlessly occupying the flow and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it’s not.

BOLLANI: Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second night—we played what we play. Of course, we didn’t know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didn’t want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No “Desafinados” in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque. So it wasn’t just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.

I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of music—of course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.

TP: How many groups are you working with now?

BOLLANI: I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.

TP: What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group that you primarily compose for?

BOLLANI: Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.

TP: Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?

BOLLANI: I would say that EVERYTHING has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, “This is coming from Italian music” or “this is coming from Brazilian music,” etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, “Ah, it’s joy.” C-minor—“Ooh, something happened.” Symphonic orchestra—“Ooh, it’s classical music.” The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.

Q: You do that when you do those encores.

BOLLANI: Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didn’t see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. “This is Chopin,” then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes… I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isn’t that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, it’s like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.

TP: This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you can’t…

BOLLANI: Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesn’t expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I don’t do. They do this on purpose—they are waiting for me to do this. But if I don’t know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I don’t know, and I said, “Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one.” [ENGINE SOUNDS] That’s what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, “This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.”

TP: You’re 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.

BOLLANI: A lot of old songs. Usually it’s better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neal Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.

TP: You’ve been working since you were 15. Did you learn all these songs as a working musician?

BOLLANI: Not, not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentano—old stuff. I’m sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what I’m looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I don’t find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever…

TP: You’re talking about Bjork, Radiohead, those people…

BOLLANI: I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world—the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what I’m talking about, “Musica legere,” “light music.” It shouldn’t be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record or Mahler or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesn’t mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.

TP: You also play with language when you compose and write..

BOLLANI: I do. In almost any of my compositions, it’s never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. It’s always 43. You miss something or there’s something more. That’s why my musicians hate me.

TP: Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?

BOLLANI: I’m not sure, but I think it’s deliberate. I pretend it happens.

TP: Why is it deliberate?

BOLLANI: [CRADLES BELLY WITH HANDS] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one which wants to be original. He is saying, “Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little corny—let’s put a bar more.” I feel it’s natural, but I’m not sure it is.

TP: It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?

BOLLANI: Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old til 16—I only listened to Hard Bop, Horace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock or Free Jazz. I was playing THE shit, like the Taliban of Hard Bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones—I’d been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernova—I got into rock music. The most intellectual ones maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles…

TP: The songwriters.

BOLLANI: The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speaking — Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didn’t really like it. I was studying the technique. I didn’t really like Beethoven at that moment.

TP: But the way you use the pedal and your touch, it’s obvious…

BOLLANI: Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini or Ricardo Muti, for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like BAPPP. So very serious. And he didn’t know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, “Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; he’s going to throw me out.” But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, “Okay, I discovered you’re playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.” Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he HATED it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he just said, “Okay, let’s go on.” I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now he’s happy about me, about my playing; even if he doesn’t like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.

TP: Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.

BOLLANI: A little-little bit. I don’t like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composers—but I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you don’t know the music, it’s interesting because the character is so interesting. That’s what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who I’m quite interested in as well—the technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, it’s enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.

TP: So it’s a challenge, an additive thing.

BOLLANI: Yes, I would say so. It’s not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think it’s good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.

TP: How about the jazz avant garde in the ‘70s?

BOLLANI: Almost the same.

TP: You were speaking of the Taliban of hardbop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to Neoclassicism and Art Blakey Young Lions editions of the Jazz Messengers and so on.

BOLLANI: Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people don’t understand what you’re doing—there is the Avant Garde Party and there’s the Hardbop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans don’t understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hardbop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. I’m trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. I’m waiting for that.

TP: That’s the opposite of my impression from outside. For example, I’ve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. I don’t want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own music—they just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords, you learn the RIGHT thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.

But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each other—which is why it’s hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably it’s this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I don’t know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.

TP: I haven’t heard you deal so much with Italian materials.

BOLLANI: Not so much.

TP: It seems to be pop.

BOLLANI: Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kind of things, but it’s a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar… Some songwriters from the ‘20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and he’s older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello. So it’s his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. It’s really different.

TP: So it’s hard to speak of Italian jazz because it’s so…

BOLLANI: I think it’s big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But it’s actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the world—it’s like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.

What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think they’re islands.

Antonello Salis is a genius, and he’s an autodidact. He doesn’t read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. He’s coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesn’t have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, we’ve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. That’s what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.

Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad… For example, Denmark. That’s the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, “Okay, now you can play whatever you want…” “Whatever I want? Okay, let’s play a blues.” “Ah, okay, let’s play a blues.” Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You don’t have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.

The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, they’re wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But it’s dangerous if you think THAT’s the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still TRYING to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whatever—they never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. “Okay, they told me what music is.” It’s not like that.

TP: Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?

BOLLANI: Actually, I do think it’s changing over time, but it’s hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I don’t know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to do—trying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz music, hardbop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whatever, was a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I don’t know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.

TP: You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.

BOLLANI: Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldn’t sit down and think, “I should go in this direction.” I don’t want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, “Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line…”

TP: You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock…

BOLLANI: Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasn’t interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian—we rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. That’s quite interesting to do as practice. It’s not interesting at all when you do it on stage.

To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. It’s just I’m playing… Then I listen back, and I say, “Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.” But then after a minute, I see where I’m doing something different, so ok. Whew. It’s ok. Good. Because I don’t really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I don’t recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that it’s an external thing coming into my music, that I’m adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I don’t even recognize because it’s part of my language.

TP: You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?

BOLLANI: I was talking about compositions, I don’t like compositions.

TP: Why not?

BOLLANI: Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I don’t like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. Elena e Il Suo Violino,” for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, “I have enough.” But I don’t have enough of playing “There Will Never Be Another You” or “Cheek To Cheek.”

TP: Not so dissimilar to Solal.

BOLLANI: I would say so. He is a composer, but you are never listening to his compositions.

TP: Because he returns to the same songs all the time.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: What about those songs allows you to do that? Is it about the music, or the signification?

BOLLANI: Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kind of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.

TP: That’s interesting, too, because you’re speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet you’re simultaneously loving both things.

BOLLANI: But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because it’s anachronistic. That’s why it’s interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.

TP: I’m fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. You’re in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and it’s beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. You’re from Florence, the home of Dante…

BOLLANI: Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.

TP: The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?

BOLLANI: I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think it’s a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.

TP: The church was an instrument of political power.

BOLLANI: Exactly. But it’s not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. That’s good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and we our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politics—if you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. It’s not the ego thing. It’s the idea of the world. It’s the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable…

TP: You’re pointing to your brain.

BOLLANI: Exactly. It’s much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.

TP: So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is…

BOLLANI: Absolutely. It’s coming from that.

TP: You seem to have a very young audience.

BOLLANI: I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hardbop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller, or in Europe Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, “Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.”

TP: As though you’re not quite serious.

BOLLANI: Yeah, exactly. I am not enough serious.

TP: It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re…

BOLLANI: More serious.

TP: It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.

BOLLANI: Yes.

TP: It seems more like performance art than comedy.

BOLLANI: Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello, everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.

TP: You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.

BOLLANI: No-no-no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but THAT was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out… When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.

TP: How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?

BOLLANI: Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.

TP: The French ones are very serious.

BOLLANI: Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.

TP: Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava, because if you have a musical mentor it would seem to be he, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.

BOLLANI: Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.

So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or João Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.

TP: He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?

BOLLANI: I never thought about it.

TP: You were working the whole time, I guess.

BOLLANI: Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, “oh, I would like to be Chick Corea” or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.

TP: When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, “You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it, you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.” Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanatti, which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.

BOLLANI: I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.

TP: But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz.

BOLLANI: I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995 when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, “Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,” which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, “I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.” Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.

TP: And you found enough other work to…

BOLLANI: Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning SO much money from the Pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.

TP: But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.

BOLLANI: Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever…

TP: I saw a Youtube where you do that.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.

But talking about the Pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, “wow, why doesn’t he like that?” But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.

TP: You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading, your writing filter into your performance attitude?

BOLLANI: I’m reading a lot of novels.

TP: All Italian?

BOLLANI: No-no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones, Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa, where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it because after three pages, for example, there s a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, “wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.” When you read Calvino or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside… A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. “If on a winter night, a reader…” I don’t know the title in English.

Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [SINGS OPENING 12 BARS]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [SINGS SECOND REFRAIN] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.

TP: There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice metaphor for your performances

BOLLANI: That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. “Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,” and then, “Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.”

TP: Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?

BOLLANI: Yes, I think so.

TP: How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?

BOLLANI: I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.

TP: Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?

BOLLANI: Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, “I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.” Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst…That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing… Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.

TP: I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.

BOLLANI: Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and the idea of Breton, or of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that “beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.” Which meant you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take “Yesterday” by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.

TP: When you talk about the Taliban of Hard Bop, it’s a clever phrase, but it also refers to a music that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. Blues developed from an American context in the ‘20s-‘30s-‘40s-‘50s, so does dance music, then it evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.

BOLLANI: Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, “Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!” Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying “I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.” In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, “This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.”

TP: You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano…

BOLLANI: Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that… Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in Antonia which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert, because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing “The Wrong Note Rag” for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [SINGS IT], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone… What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the “Wrong Note Rag,” and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.

TP: Does your intimacy with so many languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on “Do You Know What It Means” on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.

BOLLANI: Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.

TP: The word “idiomatic” would cover it.

BOLLANI: Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, Promenade is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.

TP: So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.

BOLLANI: Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet and João Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to João for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with João. I can go to a desert island with João’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. “Girl From Ipanema,” six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.

TP: Solal talks about having to practice every day.

BOLLANI: I do not. I never practice. I am a disaster. I would love to practice. I have no time to do that. I am practicing at soundcheck, which is always not enough.

TP: Is practice important to you?

BOLLANI: I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.

You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to IMAGINE myself doing something else.

[END OF CONVERSATION

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