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Paolo Rustichelli: Mystic Man

By Published: August 9, 2007
AAJ: In 1989 you attended the Umbria Jazz Festival, and this is where you met Gordon Meltzer, Miles Davis' road manager.

PR: Yes, coincidentally, a friend invited me to see Miles Davis play in Perugia... before going to the Umbria Jazz festival, in Perugia, I quickly made a demo of three songs for Miles, to submit to him. This was the beginning of my new career as a Nu Jazz artist/composer and the beginning of my album project, Mystic Jazz (Polydor,1991).

I'd like to make an accurate and truthful report of how I met Miles. A friend of mine, the photographer Sergio Bonnaco, invited me to the Umbria Jazz festival in 1989. He mentioned to me that he knew Miles Davis' road manager, Gordon Meltzer. I then had an idea to make three cuts to submit to Miles. I was really not expecting anything—I was moved by a superior force—not really believing that it can be possible for an almost unknown artist to be considered by Miles. I was known in Italy but not by him.

Paolo Rustichelli with Miles Davis

AAJ: You handed Meltzer your tape which included two upbeat songs and a ballad. Did you expect to receive word back, let alone from Miles himself?

PR: Yes, and it didn't take me several times to submit my music to Miles. I only did it once. Gordon received the tape with a promise to reply to me, saying, "I will give it to Miles. I don't promise anything. He may never listen to it." I said, "Fine, thanks Gordon, thank you for your kind help anyway, whatever is going to come of it. I remember that Gordon let me and my girlfriend go backstage and I watched Miles' performances from the side of the backstage. There was a moment that Miles looked over to me and my girlfriend Marchella Ghio... and Miles looked at me really straight in the eyes.

I went back to Rome and I didn't receive any call back from Gordon, and this was confirming my pessimistic vision of life. My girlfriend—a big fan of Miles—days after told me about Miles' performance in a beautiful arena theater called Sferisterio, in the city of Macerata in the center of Italy, not too far from Rome. Coincidentally, my friend Sergio Albonico was there too. I met him before the gig and before the end of the gig Gordon told me, "Miles wants to speak with you. My first thoughts were, maybe Miles wants to beat me, knowing his wild personality, so I was prepared to be offended and maybe injured. Then I went backstage after the gig. I was invited in his dressing room and found him semi-naked, watching me again, and without saying hello or anything, he said to me in his scratchy voice "I love the tunes, I may have to play with you." I said, "I'm honored to be considered.

AAJ: Miles said of your music, "I like to call his peculiar style 'Total Music,' like a musical soup with plenty of ingredients with a classical/futuristic/jazzy/spicy flavor. What is it like to have such an iconic figure in the world of jazz to say that of your music?

PR: I try to be very unique with my music and it is a little different compared to the niche that Miles and Carlos are in with their music. I feel that Miles, Carlos and I are kindred spirits. Like Miles, Carlos and I speak the same mystical language. If you give him a melody, he plays it, respects it, and allows it to grow. He makes his mark while respecting your melody. A lot of musicians won't do that.

And speaking of Miles, by coincidence, I met singer Joni Mitchell at a party. She told me that she had always tried to record with Miles, but was unsuccessful in her attempts. It was amazing to meet her because she is one of my heroes; I like her music very much. She thought it was wonderful that I had the opportunity to work with Miles, and I said, "Joni, what can I tell you? Maybe my music fit with him in some way. Unfortunately Miles left us, and I really lament his passing.

AAJ: Yes, but what a brilliant legacy he left us. Miles Davis is one of the most influential musicians of all time and continues to inspire countless musicians. What was it like to work with such a genius? Were you amazed at the results of the songs that you two recorded?

PR: We didn't record immediately, but was just after his last performance in Rome, the day after he came in Rome (at Palazzo D) that he went to my personal recording studio and spent almost a day recording and overdubbing my tracks. It is also nice that his lawyer—Peter Shukat—was with him so that I could sign an agreement. Peter told me how to deal with Miles. In reality, I didn't follow the suggestions of Peter. Miles genuinely applied my artistic direction to the music, giving me a completely different picture of what people said of him being a difficult man (prima donna). If he was a prima donna with me, then he was a really treatable prima donna, and very accessible.

We recorded several versions of the songs and I was able to make him play without the Harmon [mute] device and with the full trumpet on the song, "Capri. According to Miles experts, Miles played his most long-lasting notes on the trumpet on this song; and according to George Cole from his book, The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005), it was his best performance ever as a guest on a recording.

After the recording was finished, he kindly invited me to Los Angeles to help him with a score for a movie, Dingo. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers had different plans for the movie, and they chose Michele LeGrand. It is known that Miles was having, as many of us, a conflict with Warner and this is a testimony of his displeasure with them. However, his invitation in itself was a great honor.

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