Renato Sellani does not have to play the piano to charm you. At the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia in July of this year, he could be seen walking his small dog Briciola through the crowded piazzas. At 82, he walks carefully, with a slight stoop. They were an endearing pair: Sellani impeccable in striped blazer and jeans and Nikes, Briciola toddling at the end of her leash. The cigarette hanging from Sellani's mouth completed the package.
Sellani (who, in an interview with an American journalist, segues randomly between Italian and halting English) describes Briciola as "un cane molto originale." He has had her 14 years. ("She is ancient, like me.") Briciola likes music. She will often sit beside the piano and listen to Sellani practice.
Sellani will charm you for sure when he plays the piano. He played twice each day at the Umbria Festival, for lunch at the Bottega del Vino and for dinner at the Hotel Brufani. Reservations were always essential. One day at the Bottega he announced that he had had a dream the night before in which George Gershwin asked him to play his music. When Sellani sits down at the piano and plays "Lady Be Good," "Summertime" and "Love Walked In," he presides over the keyboard with casual strength and plays with natural grace. His versions sound definitive. His lush, passionate embellishments come only after he has lovingly, piercingly outlined each melody. Those melodies sound like they are part of how he thinks. He has been playing them for at least 60 years.
He has been called the Hank Jones of Italy. The two share eternal youth and innate sweetness, both personal and musical. Another comparison is Tommy Flanagan because Sellani's taste is unerring and he has always been in high demand as an accompanist for singers. For many years he worked with Mina, the most important female pop vocalist in Italy in the '60s. He has also accompanied American singers from Ginger Rogers to Sarah Vaughan
. (When Sellani relates a story of how Ginger Rogers insisted on dancing with him because he looks like Fred Astaire, you realize she was right.)
Sellani does not read music. His history is unusual (especially for an Italian jazz musician) because he started late. He was born in Senigallia, in the Marche region. He went to Rome to study political science at the University. His mother had been an opera soprano but he had never played music until he got hooked on jazz in the nightclubs of Rome. He says that he "went to listen every night" and began teaching himself piano at the home of a friend who owned an instrument. It was a few years after the end of World War II. Italy was emerging from the fascist era and even though there were not nearly so many good Italian jazz musicians as now, in one respect the scene was more vital: jazz and night life were more connected. There were many more places for musicians to play. Sellani must have been a natural, because soon he was playing in those nightclubs himself and by 1958 he was good enough to be Chet Baker
The fact that Sellani is one of the most complete, most romantically seductive interpreters of standards in all of jazz is criminally underappreciated outside Italy. The good news is that he has recorded prolifically for Paolo Piangiarelli's Italian label Philology, titles available in the United States. Sellani has recorded over 40 albums for Philology, in solo and trio settings and also in small ensembles with a large cross-section of Italy's most important jazz instrumentalists and singers. Much of the Great American Songbook is memorably covered, as well as Italian popular songs and Sellani originals. His walking speed may have diminished, but his creativity has not. Remarkably Sellani has just released one of his strongest, most indispensable albums. It is called Puccini and contains luminous, poetic jazz piano interpretations of that composer's arias.
Sellani has become a fixture of Umbria Jazz festivals; it has become as impossible to imagine one without him as one without crowded piazzas and flowing vino rosso. Over this New Year, Sellani will play the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival #16 in Orvieto every night, "'Round Midnight" at the Ristorante al San Francesco, appearing with his trio and the great Italian tenor saxophonist Gianni Basso.
By the way, if you ever encounter Sellani and Briciola on one of their walks, be forewarned. Cute as they both are, only one of them is friendly. Even though Sellani will assure Briciola that you are "un amico," she will probably try to bite you. It is worth the risk, in order to meet and shake hands with the artist Italians call "il maestro".
Chet Baker, In Milan (Jazzland/OJC, 1959)
Lee Konitz/Renato Sellani, Vol. 1: Speakin' Lowly/ Vol. 2: Minority (All The Way) (Philology, 1993)
Renato Sellani, Autoritratto (Splasc(h), 1996)
Enrico Rava/Renato Sellani, Radio Days (Philology, 2000)