For those who maintain that jazz is purely an American music, go check your record collection and see how many times the name Enrico Rava shows up. The trumpeter in many ways defines Italian jazz as well as how the music has become an international phenomenon.
Rava's accomplishments are myriad. "I think I started a lot of things in Italy because I was the first Italian guy to go to New York and stay there and play with American musicians. I was the first one to record for an international label, the first one ever to have a big interview in Downbeat. Before me, there was no focus on that [Italian jazz], no one knew that there were Italian jazz musicians."
This is not bluster; Rava has exposed the world not only to himself but to the numerous talented musicians hailing from that fair region. "I feel like I helped our scene," explains Rava. "I've been like a talent scout because most Italian musicians between 20 and 40 today have been brought to attention playing with me... I don't want to get all the merit for that. If today there are many many very good Italian musicians that play all over, it is only because of their merit but I think I did help a little bit."
Rava's career began auspiciously with a period playing with the Argentinian saxophonist Leandro "Gato" Barbieri. Soon after, he had the opportunity to play with legendary pianist Mal Waldron when he was doing a small tour in Italy. "It was a fantastic experience for me because you have to consider that I started very late," recalls Rava. "I bought my first trumpet when I was 18 so when I went on tour with Mal I had been playing trumpet three of four years, no more than that. It was really a big achievement to already be playing with Mal and then immediately after that Steve Lacy."
Rava hooked up with Lacy when the young trumpeter invited the elder soprano saxophonist's trio to play a gig in Rava's home town of Torino. After a couple of days of playing, Lacy invited Rava to join the band. A change of drummer and bassist was necessary so Lacy recruited South Africans Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo during a trip to London. The band would last for a year-and-a-half and record The Forest and the Zoo
(ESP, 1966). "It was a very very strong feeling musically and also as a human being. For me they were my brothers, my family... I learned a lot of things and I was also very young so playing with someone like Steve, at the time, he was getting into free improvisation but the difference was that he had all the background because he started off playing Dixieland. For me it was like going to a university to play one or two years with Steve."
Rava became part of the free jazz movement sweeping across Europe at the time. "It had a sense in a particular historical moment. It wouldn't make any sense today for me at least. It was a moment where free jazz musicians, and I was part of them of course, we would talk about people playing bebop like somebody doing something dirty. And now I see how silly I was because we were talking about some great artists playing jazz. But for a moment it was interesting. There were no mistakes, it was not possible to make mistakes because there were no rules...that is a drag because it is nice to have rules and be able to break them. What I like today is music with form, tempo, harmony, melody and I like to have the freedom to break the rules if I feel like. If I don't feel like, I like to respect the rules."
Lacy planned to reconvene his quartet during a brief return to New York and thus was responsible for Rava's move there in 1967. "I was in New York and I didn't speak any English," says Rava. "I went to live in Gato's place because Gato was in New York at the time... Through Steve, I met a lot of people I wanted to meet anyway like Roswell Rudd who was one of my heros and Cecil Taylor... Then Roswell formed a band and I started playing with him and it was fantastic because Roswell has very special genes I think. Roswell at the time was working for Alan Lomax and Folkways Records who went around the world recording ethnic music. So Roswell would spend his days listening to tapes and transcribing them for colleges. I was going there very often and I would listen to the most amazing music I never knew existed from Africa, from India, music you couldn't get back then.
"Roswell really opened my mind. He was the only player I met then who could incorporate the whole history of jazz in one note. In a little phrase you had the whole history of jazz."
Rava then began leading his own groups featuring the young John Abercrombie on guitar. A recording, Katcharpari
(BASF, 1973) was released and won best jazz album in Germany. This attracted Manfred Eicher of ECM to offer him a recording contract. Several acclaimed albums followed. "My life started changing. I started making a good living playing this music which is fantastic, like winning the lottery, they pay you to have fun," he says.