Achille Succi: Nuances and Articulations

Glenn Astarita BY

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Every day I find some wonderful sounds coming from every part of the world. It might seem like poor planning, but I could be very happy if in my future I could keep discovering music and musicians, experiment, and enjoy playing the way I've done 'til now.
Saxophonist and bass clarinetist Achille Succi has recently been singled out as "one of the European musicians to keep an eye on in the next ten years" by (Bill Schoemaker in Giornale Della Musica (January 2010), while journalist Mario Gamba defines him as a "genius of Italian Jazz" in Alias (March 20th, 2010).

Born in Modena, Italy, in 1971, he began his career as a self-taught musician and later won several scholarships that gave him the chance to study in some of the most important schools and workshops in the world: Berklee College of Music, Dave Liebman master classes, and Kopenhagen Rhythmic conservatory, Siena Jazz.

Among the many artists he has collaborated with are Uri Caine, Louis Sclavis, Ernst Reijseger, Pierre Dorge and Franco DAndrea; he has also participated in the recording of many CDs and performs on a global basis.

As a leader, Succi has recorded two CDs: Shiva's Dance (Artesuonor, 2003) and Terra (Splasc(h), 2006), amid a duo session with bassist Salvatore Maiore: Pequenas flores do inferno (El Gallo Rojo, 2006). Together with pianist Fabrizio Puglisi and guitarist Alberto Capelli, he founded the group, Atman. He has also Fresh Frozen (El Gallo Rojo, 2010), with pianist Christopher Culpo, also featuring tubaist Oren Marshall.

Succi teaches music ensemble in Nonantola (in Modena), and holds improvisation workshops and master classes in several Italian cities. He has been a faculty member of the eminent summer workshop Siena Jazz since 2001, and recently taught at the In-Jam master classes. Since 2006, he also teaches clarinet improvisation techniques at the Ferrara Conservatory.

Succi is a prominent artist who appears on legendary jazz record labels such as Soul Note, Leo Records, Splasc(h), and a host of others that largely focus on elegance through the voices of originality and improvisation, touching the outer realm of possibilities. Succi's recording for Italy's Splasc(h), and 2010 alignments with pianist Nobu Stowe, percussionist Andrea Centazzo and other genre-bending artists serves as a testament to his versatility, and a broad jazz vernacular amid his increasing stature as a session man who brings quite a bit to the forefront. Succi is comfortable in most any setting, and sports a complex style, highlighting his cunning improvisation acumen. He transmits a commanding musical presence, whether hammering out gruff and explosive phrasings on bass clarinet, or tempering flows and ideas via sweet-toned melodies or when rocketing to the boundaries of reason on alto sax.

All About Jazz: You play many instruments, including alto sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, and shakuhachi. How and why did you decide to play these instruments? Who were your influences?

Achille Succi: The choice of the instrument was not contemplated at first. I just started with clarinet because the town's marching band needed it. I was 11 years old, and eventually I switched to alto saxophone for the same reason at about 14, but then I went to a music shop to check some alto saxophone players, and I bought a Charlie Parker record (live, 1949) without any idea of who he was. I came home, put the record on the player and that changed my life!

I was always interested in the bass clarinet since I heard it in a cartoon on TV, but I had to wait until I was 18 years old to buy one, and of course by that time I was already into Eric Dolphy a lot.

The shakuhachi is another instrument I fell in love at "first sight." But I'm a real beginner on that instrument.

AAJ: What was the jazz scene like in Modena, Italy, where you grew up? Did your family encourage you to become a musician?

AS: I was lucky because when I was studying music I had the chance to play with some musicians much older and more experienced than me. I used to rehearse a lot with a couple of jazz combos, but also some R&B. I learned a lot from those experiences. Also, I used to go to practice to a music school, where some more advanced students used to attend. It was like a continuous lesson listening to what they were practicing.

Eventually, I expanded my scene becoming more involved in the jazz life of Bologna that, at that time, was still very happening in Italy, with many jazz musicians coming to play there.

My parents are not musicians; at the beginning, they liked the idea of me playing some instruments, but they become very worried when I told them I wanted to be a musician. I always tried to keep my school grades very high for them letting me do what I really wanted to do. They were not so happy about my choice, and tried a lot to convince me to change my mind, but never swayed my decision.

AAJ: Who would be the musicians in your dream band?

AS: That a big question...if I had to call all the musicians I'd like to play with, it would end up as a double big band!

The list is very long, and consists of musicians that I have recently performed with: Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Marc Ducret, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenon and Ralph Alessi, but also Katsuya Yokoyama, Nana Caymmi, Cassandra Wilson....and a couple of dozen more.

I think that there's no such thing like "dream band" for me, since I really think every combo is special in itself since music will come out in as many different ways as the possible combination of musicians involved. That's the good thing about it.

AAJ: Do you feel that economically, it is easier to survive as a jazz musician in Italy or Europe, than in the USA?

AS: Italy is experiencing big cuts in culture financing and most of the jazz musicians here do other activities to make a living, mostly teaching or playing other kinds of music. I'm doing that as well.

If there is a good balance between jazz, teachings, and pop music, I think it's good to do different things. It helps to keep an open mind on what's going on around the globe.

AAJ: What areas of jazz and improvisation would you like to pursue for future projects? For example, would you entertain integrating Middle Eastern or Asian influences into your music? Do you prefer to work within freer jazz formats, or more comfortable balancing improvisation and structure?

AS: One area in which I'm really into right now is counterpoint, and I'm trying to write music where improvisation and composition meld together in a balanced way.

Asian and Middle Eastern music interests me especially for the nuances, articulations, and different ways to approach the music.

I also like traditional northeastern Brazilian music, like Maracatú and so on, and in about one year I'm considering a project, featuring music, poetry, and composing —something "around" a Brazilian poet who I really like, Carlos Drummond De Andrade. Still I don't know what to do, but I'm thinking about.

To me every project I'm doing is a way to learn, and to develop some things I've been working on. In this sense I'm always in a "work in progress" mode.

AAJ: Do you prefer, or are more comfortable in small ensemble settings or does it make a difference? From a free jazz perspective, are there any rules you abide by? How do you assist with maintaining control and not letting the music become too frenetic, where dissonance and freedom overshadows theme-building initiatives?

AS: I definitely prefer small ensemble settings. I feel that in a setting from one up to five or six people, the kind of music I have in mind, either written or improvised, would come out in the best way.

Of course, I love to play in larger ensembles too (e.g. Eleven (Philology, 1999), by Franco D'Andrea), but then I feel that the rule everybody should abide by is to not to overplay, and leave much more space for the music to develop without ending up in a chaotic mood, especially when it's totally improvised. Another risk in larger ensemble setting is to lose the soft dynamics range—the tendency to play louder and louder is always around the corner.

Once I heard somebody saying that the Dutch ICP orchestra has the "rule" that not more than three improvisers should play at the same moment; whether this statement is true or not, I think that could be a good way to maintain control of the music.

Another system which I like a lot, when dealing with large ensembles, is the "conduction." With this way of working, the music is not totally under the control of the improviser only; but when I had the chance to play in an orchestra led by Butch Morris, I felt great improvised music coming out.

AAJ: Do you find that European audiences and label owners welcome the avant-garde more so than any experiences you have had with American audiences, or record producers?

AS: I can't really make a comparison between Europe and USA for avant-garde because my overseas experience is too small, but I would say that it looks like European audiences are more open to avant-garde. There are more spaces to play this kind of music such as institutional venues and not just smaller clubs where you play "for the door."

For the labels, it seems to me that most of the avant-garde is self-produced by the musicians themselves, with the exceptions of Leo Records and a few others.

I, myself, am part of a small record label run by musicians, called El Gallo Rojo Records, and our policy with the artist is based on a "fifty-fifty" base. We are avant-garde oriented, but not so strict. We mostly try to listen to everything we receive and decide whether to produce, but not judge only on the music or style.

AAJ: You also supplement your artistic side as an educator, and supporting European pop musicians?

AS I'm currently teaching in some Italian conservatories, Bologna, Ferrara and Brescia, and I'm also on the faculty of the Siena Jazz international summer workshops. Those activities help to pay my bills, but I really love to do that. I feel that teaching is a necessity for a musician, not only to be more complete as a person, and to transmit knowledge, but also to help to stay in contact with the younger generations.

For almost the same reasons I also like to play different types of music, other than jazz or avant-garde. I've been playing and recording a lot with some Italian singer-songwriters—Vinicio Capossela and John de Leo, to name a couple.

Pop music, or better songwriters, requires different skills than "just" improvisers. You need to be very precise, concise and be able to express the right thing in the right place, often in the most melodic way and not to bother the voice lead part. It sounds simple but it's not easy for me. It's a great exercise of "creative writing," to express as much as possible with as little material as possible.

AAJ: What lies ahead for you? Any short-term or long-term projects? What are your aspirations at this point in time?

AS: The last six or seven years my life has become busier and busier. First of al,l I became a father; then my teaching activity increased year-by-year; and working with some Italian singer-songwriters took a lot of energy and time.

What I'm feeling, at this point in time, is to find a way to save some time for my musical projects, and go back to practicing, writing music and promoting myself. I would like to go in the studio with a couple of new projects that I have some ideas about, and spend more energy to promote them; to be more of a self-manager of my groups, which is a big issue for me, since I'm very reluctant to make phone calls, emails, etc...

I still have some musical situations I'm playing in that I would like to participate in more, in terms of musical directions. I mean composing more group-oriented music. For example, I really would like to write for Vittorio Ghielmi's Gambas quartet. We have been playing together with Uri Caine last year, and we will play Uri's "Lamentations" in July, and next November in Spain. I found bass clarinet fitting very nicely with the gamba's texture. I also have some "commissions" of tunes for solo bass clarinet and for a saxophone quartet. I always put these situations off because of time, but now I really would like to do that.

Music is so vast. Every day I find some wonderful sounds coming from every part of the world. It might seem like poor long-term planning, but I could be very happy if in my future I could keep discovering music and musicians, experiment on my own, and enjoy playing the way I've done 'til now.

Selected Discography:
Scoolptures, White Sickness (Leo, 2011)
Achille Succi/Danilo Gallo, Todo Chueco (El Gallo Rojo, 2007)
Achille Succi/Tiziano Tononi, Peace Warriors (Black Saint, 2006)
Samo Salamon Sextet, Ela's Dream (Splasc(h), 2005)
Simone Guiducci Gramelot Ensemble, Dancin' Roots (Felmay, 2004)
Achille Succi/Ralph Alessi, Shiva's Dance (Artesuonor, 2003)
The Nexus Orchestra, Seize the Time! (Splasc(h), 2001)
Achille Succi/Herb Robertson, The Legend of the Missing Link (Splasc(h), 2001)
Franco d'Andrea Quartet Combinazione 1 (V.Veneto, 2001)
Pierre Dørge/New Jungle Orchestra Giraf (Dacapo, 1999)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Elisa Caldana
All Other Photos: Claudio Casanova, Courtesy of AAJ Italia

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