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Italian Jazz

By Published: February 9, 2008

In one way or another, most of the Italian jazz action in New York bears the fingerprints of Enzo Capua, an Italian resident of the city and a tireless promoter of good music in general...

By Thomas Conrad

There is a disconnect within the culture of the North American jazz community. On the one hand, jazz people, thrill-seekers by nature, are endlessly in search of sounds they haven't heard before. On the other hand, most North American jazz listeners are oblivious to the richest, deepest source of fresh musical concepts on the current scene: jazz out of Europe.

American ethnocentrism and isolationism is only partially responsible for this blind spot. Many of the best European musicians appear rarely or never in the United States and acquiring their recordings can require special effort and a willingness to pay import premiums. Most of the European musicians who have followings in the United States either live here or record for ECM.

In the last years of the 20th century, the strongest jazz scene outside the United States was Scandinavia. In the new millennium it is Italy. Many factors have played into the recent flowering of Italian jazz. Italy has long been popular on the touring itineraries of major American artists, providing young Italian players direct exposure to primary sources. There are now several jazz curricula like that of the St. Louis College Of Music in Rome. Italy has proactive indigenous jazz record labels like Philology, CAMJazz, Egea and Auand. There is an enthusiastic, devoted jazz audience. There is a formal and spiritual affinity between jazz and Italian popular music.

While it is still not widely known outside Italy, many of the greatest piano players in jazz are Italian. Most of them began their careers as thoroughly- schooled and technically-accomplished classical pianists, then discovered jazz and underwent a metamorphosis. They emerged as artists uniquely capable of shaping wildly spontaneous improvisations into forms both elegant and passionate with Italian romanticism. Some, like Stefano Bollani and Enrico Pieranunzi, are beginning to build reputations in the United States. Others are mostly unknown here, like Stefano Battaglia (whose Re: Pasolini, on ECM, was one of the important jazz achievements of 2007), Danilo Rea (one of the great solo concert improvisers in jazz), Renato Sellani (the ageless Hank Jones of Italy) and Riccardo Arrighini and Giovanni Guidi and 15-year-old prodigy Alessandro Lanzoni.

There are superb bassists in Italy like Enzo Pietropaoli, Giovanni Tommaso, Massimo Moriconi. And there are world-class horn players, a few of whom have been discovered by the American jazz press, like trumpeter Enrico Rava and trombonist Gianluca Petrella. (Yet in the 2007 Downbeat Critics Poll, 18-year-old virtuoso Francesco Cafiso, a "rising star" if ever there was one, placed no better than sixth in the alto saxophone "Rising Star" category and that lyric poet of the trumpet, Paolo Fresu, did not get on the board at all.)

When it comes to Italian exposure, New York, not surprisingly, has been the most fortunate American city. Most of the Italian players mentioned here have appeared on a New York jazz stage at least once. And now an imminent event is evidence that the word on Italian jazz is at last beginning to reach the street; "Italian Women In Jazz" will take place at Blue Note February 1st-3rd.

In one way or another, most of the Italian jazz action in New York bears the fingerprints of Enzo Capua, an Italian resident of the city and a tireless promoter of good music in general (in his weekly series "Enzo's Jazz At The Jolly Hotel") and Italian jazz in particular. Capua is the US representative of the Umbria Jazz Festival, an organization so powerful that its reach has extended beyond Italy to Australia and Japan and the US. Umbria Jazz sponsored the "Top Italian Jazz" mini-festival in 2005 and Francesco Cafiso's tribute to "Charlie Parker With Strings" in 2007, both at Birdland. Capua also works closely with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, the "official supporter" of the "Italian Women In Jazz" series, now in its third edition. The 2008 event will, for the first time, run for three nights at a major New York jazz venue.

Arguably, the most important of the three nights will be the first one, because Maria Pia De Vito is widely held to be the best jazz singer in Italy and (with one minor exception years ago) she has never performed in the United States. She will be at Blue Note February 1st with a top-drawer New York rhythm section (Ed Simon, Scott Colley, Clarence Penn). De Vito's distinguished 25-year career has touched projects in jazz, Baroque, pop and electronic music. Her collaborations have included jazz musicians like John Taylor and Ralph Towner, classical composers and conductors like Roberto De Simone and Colin Towns and even sculptors and video artists like Marisa Albanese. Her latest recording, So Right, dedicated to the music of Joni Mitchell, has received strong reviews in Europe and has just been released in the United States on CAMJazz. De Vito's version of "The River" is the best since Joni's own. She possesses a vocal instrument that is extraordinary in its range, purity and power and most of all in its nuanced expressiveness. She is one of the rare singers with an authority that allows you to simply give yourself over to her.

Roberta Gambarini will appear on February 2nd. She was born in Torino, Italy, but many jazz fans regard her as part of the US jazz scene because she moved here nine years ago, speaks fluent English and tours and records with American musicians. In 2007, her debut album, Easy To Love, received a Grammy nomination and she finished first (by a wide margin) in the "Rising Star Female Vocalist" category of the Downbeat Critics Poll. Her second album as a leader, a duo project with Hank Jones called You Are There (Emarcy), is scheduled for release this month. Gambarini's vocal chops are already legend and she is one of the most gifted current practitioners of the vocalese art form.

February 3rd at Blue Note will be given over to the Big O Orchestra, an all-female Italian-American big band. The excellent tenor/soprano saxophonist Ada Rovatti (wife of Randy Brecker) will be a featured soloist and the repertoire will contain exclusively original compositions by band members and by arranger/conductor Tommaso Vittorini. While Vittorini is regarded as one of the best arrangers to come out of Italy, since emigrating to the US in the '80s, he has mostly been out of jazz and sometimes out of music. He has composed and arranged soundtracks for film and television and has also been involved in television production. His work with the Big O Orchestra represents a return to jazz.

For those yet to discover the unique aesthetic and sensual gratifications of Italian jazz, Blue Note in early February should be a good place to start.

Recommended Listening:

Danilo Rea — Lirico (Egea, 2003)

Stefano Bollani — Gleda (Stunt, 2004)

Enrico Rava — Tati (ECM, 2004)

Enrico Pieranunzi — Live In Japan (CAMJazz, 2004)

Francesco Cafiso — A Tribute To Charlie Parker (Umbria Jazz, 2005)

Renato Sellani/Massimo Moriconi — Blues For Chet (Philology, 2007)

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