The house is full in the beautiful basement theater on a February night at the Rubin Museum, an institution for the preservation of art from the Himalayas that opened its doors in the Chelsea section of Manhattan in 2004. The audience is there for an evening of percussion music and video based on journeys to temples in Bali, Japan, Java and Madagascar. But few likely know that they are also witnessing a return to New York by a musician who played a key role in the early days of Downtown music.
That evening, Andrea Centazzo presented a sweeping suite of reflections on Buddhism and spirituality. Thousands of images of the Buddha, of tapestries and townsfolk, temples and landscapes - and flowing water, a recurring theme in Centazzo's work - were triggered from Centazzo's set of 200 percussion instruments. Sound samples were ignited from the drums and the laptop hidden within his expansive set. He has been touring with the piece since 2004 and performed it previously in New York at Hunter College. But on this pass through the city, Centazzo had the taste of returning to those early days of improv gigs in his mouth.
Centazzo was born in northern Italy, but spent time in New York City in the '70s working with the likes of Tom Cora, Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn. And through his Ictus record label, Centazzo (like Chadbourne and his Parachute label) was responsible for some of the precious few documents of those early days. The majority of Ictus releases, however, documented the also then burgeoning European scene. Centazzo recorded (and recorded with) Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Franz Koglmann, Lol Coxhill and Kent Carter. But in the '80s, Ictus, and Centazzo, quietly disappeared from the New York and European scenes.
Now, however, both Centazzo and Ictus are making their way back. Centazzo played at Tonic last year in an improv set with Anthony Coleman and Marco Cappelli. And this month, Ictus is set to return with a 12-disc box set that compiles some of those old vinyl releases along with new and historic recordings. For the last couple of years, Centazzo has been combing through old recordings and cleaning up some surprising pieces of lost history.
"Today you can really do magic washing those tapes like you wash your shirt, he said. "I have a huge collection of recordings, but I've been such a disorganized person my whole life, I listen to some tapes and I say 'who the hell is this?'.
Among the unearthed tapes is an Albert Mangelsdorff orchestra and a quartet featuring the unusual lineup of Centazzo with Tony Oxley, Lester Bowie and Alvin Curran. Also included are groupings with Derek Bailey, Carlos Zingaro, the ROVA saxophone quartet and a section from Centazzo's opera based on Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.
"I'm just putting it out as a labor of love because it was a part of my life that was really important, he said. "It's also very sad because some of these people are already gone - Tom Cora, Derek Bailey, Steve...
The lack of support for improvised music led Centazzo to leave New York in 1991 and move to Los Angeles to pursue work in scoring film soundtracks, an endeavor he found no more inspiring.
"In the '80s I couldn't stand any more working in the jazz field because of the organizers - no money, 50 bucks to do a gig, he said. "But as soon as I stepped into [the movie industry], I was disgusted. There's no creativity there.
He kept with it, though, until 1999, when he returned to live performance, adding his own video work to his concerts. Then Cappelli, a fellow native Italian living in New York, wrote him to ask his advice on surviving as a working musician. That resulted in the improv concert at Tonic with keyboardist Anthony Coleman and one of the newer recordings in the box set.
"Everything started from there, Centazzo said. "I remembered I love to do this.
Centazzo's aspirations to play jazz began when he was young, growing up in the small city of Udine in northern Italy, listening to the random free jazz record he was able to get his hands on and occasionally making the eight-hour train trip to Milan to see Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald perform.
"I wanted to be a jazz musician, he said. "I was dreaming, but especially in the 1970s there was no way to get to Milan and Rome, the only places where jazz was happening in Italy.