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Andrea Balestra: A Rich Sicilian Odyssey

Andrea Balestra:  A Rich Sicilian Odyssey

Courtesy Alba Mazza


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'All The Things You Are' and 'Autumn Leaves' are a treasure chest of possibilities. If you grow tired of playing those tunes, you are tired of yourself.
—Andrea Balestra
Guitarist Andrea Balestra makes a cerebral investment with every note he plays and with all of his compositions. A lot of guitarists like to jam. Balestra isn't one of them. Substance is preferred over droning speed. His highly intensified music is born of traditional Italian music...being from Sicily perhaps a factor...a deep integration of blues, a passion for traditional jazz, a further passion for the music of Jimi Hendrix, and other components, that create his dichotomy. Balestra deftly exposes the full range of the guitar with his melodic, harmonic, and rhythmical sensibilities. Led by diverse originals that build on changes and progressions, Balestra's craft is enhanced by his imaginative looks at a wide range of vintage work by artists such as John Coltrane to The Beatles, and, of course, Hendrix.

In this relaxed conversation, Balestra dove deeply into the many levels of his musicality, his experience at the Berklee School of Music, his near fatal illness, and much more. We had a good time and a lot of laughs along the way. Most importantly, Balestra is a musician that should be in the library of any and all who appreciate the artistry of a highly focused virtuosic guitarist.

All About Jazz: Hey Andrea, great to finally catch up with each other. How are things going?

Andrea Balestra: Really great. Yes, I am very happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.

AAJ: Well it was your most recent work, Trinity (Jungle Strut, 2020) that grabbed my attention. But before we get in to that and your previous work, let's hop into the time capsule. Tell us about growing up in Sicily, what that was like.

AB: Sure, absolutely. I grew up in the small area of Messina, by the strait. There, unfortunately, was not much going on there, musically. I was very lucky in meeting this old man named Paolo Cucinotta. He had lived all over the world, including the United States. He lived in Brazil for twenty-five years. He learned about the guitar everywhere he went. So, he knew Bossa nova chords and the work of Joe Pass and Baden Powell and those kind of players. He and I started playing those pieces together. I didn't really understand the harmony all that well, but started to be able to play a little bit locally. It became obvious that I was going to need to relocate sooner or later to pursue this further.

AAJ: You were lucky, then, that you came across a mentor early on.

AB: Absolutely, it was a wonderful journey of discovery. I have always loved music. I listened to The Beatles and Ennio Morricone, as well as what was available on television. But I was ignorant as to how to play a guitar.

AAJ: The journey of discovery with Paolo was then as much about being exposed to music you hadn't yet heard, as much as learning how to play?

AB: Oh, yes. Hearing Jimi Hendrix was life changing. I didn't really know a guitar could even do that.

AAJ: I find it interesting how many virtuoso level guitar players, such as yourself, actually started out playing a different instrument first. How about you? Straight to the guitar or did you play another instrument first?

AB: Yes, I used to play the violin. I was quite terrible at it. I had stopped playing all together, then my brother came home one day with a guitar. I picked it up and before I knew it I was playing it all the time.

AAJ: How old were you at that time?

AB: I was fourteen years old when I started playing the guitar.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family at all?

AB: No, not really. There was a love and appreciation for music. Classical, opera, and traditional Italian music was playing at home almost always. My mother taught English in high school. That proved to be very beneficial for me. My father was a contractor, who also later taught high school.

AAJ: Some clear guitar influences, but it seems that traditional Italian music and composition play a significant roll in comprising your sound and methodology. Would I be correct in saying that?

AB: Yes, very much so. I listened in particular to many of the great Italian film composers. There is a broad sense of intensity and passion within that music. The Sicilian and Neapolitan measures are actually similar to, and helped me learn to play, the American blues sensibilities. There's a parallel in the quarter steps and half steps.

AAJ: That's interesting and then likely a trait that bonds your traditional music fiber into modern day fusion. I hear a deep connection with Jimi Hendrix and it would seem a respect for Jeff Beck's mastery. Putting such incongruent styles together still seems daunting, even with the similarities you just outlined.

AB: Yes, well I would listen to the music of composers such as Ennio Morricone, Nicola Piovani, and Nino Rota all day and night. Then I would work on playing their compositions on the guitar.

AAJ: There is a lot of intensity in your music. Much of it, as you have explained, coming from traditional Italian music. Still, at least as much coming from the roots of Hendrix. Clearly the influence of Jeff Beck.. Other than Hendrix and Beck, what other guitarists or musicians of any kind, have had the most influence on you?

AB: First of all, thank you for the Jeff Beck comment. He is the gold standard, so any comparison of my music to his I take as a great honor. The big influence from the blues is Roy Buchanan.

AAJ: Roy Buchanan. That's it! Pardon me while the light bulb goes on above my head.

AB: (laughing)

AAJ: I have been trying to figure out the connection. I have been thinking Freddie King, or the other Kings, but couldn't put my finger, or ear, on it. That makes so much sense now that I replay it in my head. Okay, who else? A non guitarist, maybe?

AB: Yes, Wayne Shorter for sure. His ability to enhance a beautiful melody. I take a Shorter song like "Wild Flower" or "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum," and try to play it on the guitar. I would spend a lot of time, I mean a lot of time trying to capture as much of that as I possibly could.. Same with Jimi. I would order VHS tapes and just listen and watch them over and over and over trying to grasp all of it. You know, to really have it down. You are familiar with his version of "Killing Floor," yes?

AAJ: Oh yeah, Killer tune.

AB: Just to give you an idea, it took me a year to learn the opening. It was like, man 'what is he doing there' ?

AAJ: Seriously have to admire that dedication. So you are about seventeen years old and you come to America having been awarded a scholarship from the Berklee School of Music. I just used this word, but that truly had to be a bit daunting to travel to the states for such a purpose at such a young age.

AB: Yes, well daunting is the right word for sure. But I had the benefit of being young and stupid and having no idea what I was getting myself into.

AAJ: Yeah, you just go and whatever happens happens.

AB: It actually hit me later, just everything I had been through. It was different, I suppose, then what I expected. Even though I really didn't know what to expect, if that makes any sense. I could speak English and had traveled all over Europe. I had seen many American movies. So I was thinking just how different can it be? There was a lot of pressure. We put in long days. I needed to keep my GPA up and succeed. My visa and my future was dependent on that.

AAJ: Highly competitive atmosphere there. Everyone there had a high skillset or they wouldn't be there.

AB: Yes, as a matter of fact I felt like I was on the bottom level. Kind of overwhelmed.

AAJ: Funny thing is that most of the other students probably felt the same way.

AB:: A common affliction maybe. But I felt surrounded by the confidence of others for awhile. But I had some great teachers and it all worked out.

AAJ: What did you miss most, other than your family?

AB: The food.(spoken without hesitation).

AAJ: Fast food burgers and fries didn't quite match up to the fine Italian cuisine you were accustomed to?

AB: No they did not. Not at all. I was lucky though. There was a guitarist in Boston by the name of Tony Savarino, who is from Cefalu' in Sicily. Tony is one of the first people I met. I got to know him and his family. Tony took me to the north end in Boston and just about everyone there is from Sicily. So I managed to get the food situation figured out (laughing).

AAJ: You likely didn't have time to take in much more of the great city of Boston.

AB: No, I did not. Boston is a wonderful place, but Berklee is very international. A very different or separate situation than attending any of the other colleges. I would say that I had an international experience as opposed to really having an American experience.

AAJ: So when it was all said and done, did you get as much out of the Berklee experience as you had hoped for?

AB: Well, yes I would say so. I had some great teachers. Julien Kasper taught me how to play blues changes over jazz guitar, and so much more. I learned many more styles of music and improved my playing skills. Tim Miller was also my instructor and was really great. I learned a lot from Tim as well. I also studied the audio engineering side, which was a big part of what I wanted to learn. It was a humbling experience, but I left there at a whole new level.

AAJ: After Berklee comes the question of, now what? Most Berklee cats I have talked with have opted for the Big Apple in pursuit of their dreams. What led to your decision to head out west?

AB: Actually I did go to New York, but only for a short time. There was much I loved about New York, but there were two things that didn't work out well for me. I wanted to pursue the audio engineering aspect. However at that time, which was 2007, all the major studios, such as Sony, were shutting down. Also the weather. I wasn't used to such cold. I went to Los Angeles to hang out with a guitarist friend that I had met at Berklee. It was just so nice. I could go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. I just fell in love with California and that was that.

AAJ: Well too, its not like there isn't a huge music scene in L.A. and Hollywood to pursue.

AB: Funny thing about it, Jim, is that I was ready to work for free as a runner for a year or two. You know, making coffee runs and cleaning toilets for free just to get my foot in the door. Instead I started working as a guitarist almost immediately. I had gigs almost every night at all the North Hollywood venues like the Baked Potato and all the other small clubs. At the same time I got involved with the ongoing blues circuit, playing in Long Beach and Los Angeles.

AAJ: That's amazing how sometimes things can come together so rapidly.

AB: Yes, I put together a trio quickly and we played consistently. It was not only fun to play cool little clubs like the Baked Potato, but to become a regular customer there as well. I mean, among others, I must have seen the great Michael Landau there at least ten times.

AAJ: Funny you should mention Mike as an example of the great talent you have seen and heard there. I have seen him there, and elsewhere, many times as well. Talk about a guitarist that is rooted in the blues and is very versatile with his axe.

AB: Yes, Landau is an amazing player that I enjoy both listening to and learning from. That kind of intimate environment lends itself very well to either one or both.

AAJ: So you took all the experience(s), the long hours, the dedication, and your sincere passion for music and put it on the table. The turntable that is. Any artist's first record is a big deal and a memorable experience. For you that was 2010. Tell us about Fine Arts Avenue (Spleen Records, 2010). What was in your mind at that time as far as a goal or an initial perception you wanted to make?

AB: A lot of people had told me that it was good to be different. We would talk about how this artist came up with their sound and how this other artist came up with their sound etc. But the record was really very spontaneous. I didn't want to overthink it.

AAJ: My takeaway was the diversification of your original compositions.

AB: Well, you know, I had been playing with a lot of guys that were very experienced blues players, who had spent quite a bit of time on the chitlin circuit. I had the privilege of playing with guys like Bobby Spencer (Balestra actually referred to the saxophonist as Hurricane—which he is better known as) who were very serious and very talented musicians. It was exciting to be able to play in some of the same vintage clubs that were part of the chitlin circuit back in the day. . It just kicked up a notch and got bluesier and a bit funkier every night. There were improvisations coming in from a lot of different directions.

AAJ: You refer to the chitlin circuit, which is a segregation term that goes way back. Maybe you could educate folks on what that is all about.

AB: Sure, yes well back in the days of segregation when a black artist would play in Hollywood or some other place like that, they could play but they couldn't sleep in the same hotel that the other musicians were staying. What they would do is go to the black neighborhood and become like a house band for that place. They were basically playing a second show, this one in a new location in a black neighborhood. They used to get paid five dollars and a bowl of chitlins. That's how it earned that name.

AAJ: Yes, much like the shameful way black athletes were treated at the time. Thank you for talking about that time in our past. Moving forward, three years later a record that is perhaps a bit more sophisticated came to be. What was the concept going into Painting on Silence (Spleen Records, 2013)? You had a few established musicians lend their talents to this project. Most noteworthy, Scott Henderson on your "Bulldozer" composition. I must say I really dug your stunningly bluesy take on "Come Together" (John Lennon and Paul McCartney).

AB: Thank you for that. I'm glad you liked the way I did it.

AAJ: Many many songs by The Beatles have been recorded by other artists, of course. However, "Come Together" has been reimagined by very many. In fact, I heard Henderson play it live at the Baked Potato a few years back. It's a great tune, but so are so many other Beatles songs. What do you think the specific allure of "Come Together" is?

AB: I didn't know that Scott did a cover of "Come Together." That's interesting to know that.

AAJ: It was laced, as you can imagine, with plenty of fervor. I like the way that your take grooves in off of that soft prelude. That prelude and subsequent coda created not only bookends, but the light dabble that graces the canvas. It seems to signify a respect for the space. It also then allows "Come Together" to break the silence with magnitude.

AB: That's very cool that you hear and appreciate the intent. As for why "Come Together" is a popular choice for artists to cover, it has a profound groove, melody, and progressions. It lends itself to be viewed and interpreted in many ways, in many genres. My version started out by necessity. We had a gig that the singer showed up forty-five minutes late. So I had to do something to entertain the crowd. I called out "Come Together," for us to play as a trio. No vocals, as I sing quite horribly.

AAJ: And it kind of just 'came together' on the spot. The blues approach making sense under the circumstances to be able to stretch.

AB: Yes and so we discovered it because of the circumstances, as you say, or the predicament we were in. So we left it in our setlist and it just continued to evolve with improvisations every time we played it.

AAJ: Some terrific originals on the record as well, such as "Café Rojo" and the highly melodic title track. I also was intrigued by your one other grab from the past. Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" was sequenced unexpectedly and boldly reimagined. It seemed as though you were determined to stretch into rock and jazz boundaries melodically and rhythmically. You were focused on strong compositions and structure.

AB: Yes, well a lot of guitarists focus too much on jamming. I'm not so interested in doing that. I am looking at melodic content. Usually compositions suffer when you are just jamming and not really improvising. I wanted to make sure that the compositions are on par with the playing. I was structuring for melodic and harmonic intent. I didn't want just a bunch of guitar solos. I really like the connection between blues and jazz. It's really apparent when you listen to Blue Note players. On "Round Midnight" I thought maybe I could do it similar to what Danny Gatton did with "Harlem Nocturne." It's a lot of responsibility. I was able to throw in some tricks I learned from Roy Buchanan.

AAJ: Shortly after that you became quite ill with Crohn's disease. If you are comfortable talking about it...

AB: Absolutely, not a problem. I started getting sick when I was recording Painting on Silence. With Crohn's you have lesions in your intestines and, of course, a great deal of stomach pain. It was horrible. For nearly three years I could not enjoy a meal. I lost a lot of weight. I was down to one hundred and forty five pounds, and I am six foot one. The doctors didn't know how to cure it. They just pretty much took all my symptoms and threw them in a bucket and called it Crohn's disease. Western medicine gave me pretty heavy medication but told me that I would never get better and this was my life from now on until I died. I finally found an acupuncturist who was able to cure me. The joy of coming back from that horrible pain and having your life back was just indescribable.

AAJ: Well to be told that you were flat out never going to feel or get better, that had to be just...well I can't imagine.

AB: Yes, and I was only twenty five years old at the time. This was to be my life and then I would die. Western medicine gave me a life sentence. But Chinese herbs and some experimental treatments involving pressure points and much much more completely healed me.

AAJ: That's amazing and so wonderful. Western medicine is indeed very walled in as far as believing that alternative treatments can't be effective. Through my own personal experiences I know better than that. Out of that experience came your EP entitled Time Home (Spleen Records, 2015). You can hear the expressions of happiness of being able to play again. That is just you and a drummer back in Sicily, correct?

AB: Yes, a very good friend of mine named Peppe Risitano. We have known each other since high school. He is an amazing drummer that plays in a fusion band called Daniele Gottardo & The Nuts. Gottardo is an excellent guitarist. Peppe and I had always wanted to record something together but mostly have been miles apart and were unable to do it. I took a little bit of a long vacation to visit with my parents, and we recorded it at my neighbors. It was very relaxed, recorded in a living room. I'm very proud of the compositions. There were some very special moments just because I have a particular chemistry with Peppe.

AAJ: Much of that translates through even before hearing the backstory. There is a joy and personal connection to it.

AB: There is a song on there that I wrote for my Aunt Maria. "Maria" passed away just last year at the age of ninety-five. "Travatura," which translates to treasure, is also a composition that speaks of a very special homecoming. It was beautiful spending time with my parents, observing the beauty of Sicily from a house on the coast.. I missed my parents very much and was so happy to be there and to be feeling good again. It was an emotional time and that is there on the record.

AAJ: By the following year you were strongly back with your EP Lucid Dreams (Jungle Strut, 2016). Two strong and uniquely different originals followed by George Gershwin's "Summertime" and Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." I have to say the Kern interpretation floored me with its sentimentality and lyrical melodicism. I must have played it over three or four times!

AB: Oh wow, thank you so much for that. I have always really loved that song. I really love straight ahead jazz. People are sometimes surprised when they hear me play live when I go in different directions.

AAJ: Well it demonstrates a lot of range. If one just wants to hear endless jamming, like we were just talking about, they might be disappointed. Their own limited range I suppose, depriving them of a more full musical experience. I find equal measure of appreciation in straight ahead jazz, fusion, and blues.

AB: Then we are the same, Jim. Songs like "All The Things You Are" or "Autumn Leaves" are a treasure chest of possibilities. It was said to me that if you grow tired of playing those tunes, then you are tired of yourself. I think that is very true. You can play or practice them in so many different ways. You could do that for a hundred years.

AAJ: Your continued musical search and experimentation brings us current to Trinity, one of the more explosive records of the past year. Due to circumstances already talked about, this was your first full album since 2013. It has a really 'going for it' and ready to burst at the seams feel to it. Is that somewhat close to your feelings going into it?

AB: Definitely. Most definitely. This is going to sound horribly arrogant, but I hope not. I certainly don't mean it to be. But I have had conversations with Regi Wooten, who I have studied with, about this record. The guitar is supposed to be played in three ways—harmonically , rhythmically, and melodically. In that way you are playing and taking the guitar to its full range. Regi and I were talking about Coltrane's classic Love Supreme and how Coltrane used that record to demonstrate his full range of technique in improvisations. I had never, until Trinity, done a record that demonstrated my full range of technique. When I say technique, I don't mean it in a dry sense, as in practicing. I am referring to all the genres that I have learned over the past several years. I could say fusion guitar., but there is really no such thing so to speak. Every genre that exists is a fusion of something. We are just putting things we know together. I am referring to jazz, funk, rock, blues, and the different variations of those. Its a scary idea to begin with. I was a little terrified that maybe it wouldn't all come together.

AAJ: You put everything on the table, rolled the dice, and it came out as you had hoped. As I had said, one of the strongest releases of 2020.

AB: That means a lot coming from you. Thank you for your support.

AAJ: The ratio of originals to classics fit what would seem to be your trademark. Your originals have really grown. The maturity of songs like "Shape of the Ocean" and "Sinkin' Above" show a real refinement. Sure it comes with time and experience, but how much do you think your illness, your gift being taken from you for a time, and a changed perspective on life, factor into it?

AB: Huge. A huge impact on my life, of course, but then my compositions come out of my experiences. Music is now so internally important. To have all these feelings and emotions and to be able to describe the beauty of the world because you are immersed in it is very impactful. Its a very hard thing to do, to just stop thinking, and just let your feelings come out naturally on their own. It took decades to be able to do that and to be able to release feelings that way on a record. It can run much deeper, but the message comes down to feel good, enjoy life, and find inspiration. Find that thing that inspires you.

AAJ: That naturalness you refer to I believe is illustrated in the fact that your connection to Hendrix runs very deep. To the point that his style or his muse has become a part of who you are. That is to say that it sounds as if you are playing "Little Wing" as yourself. Hendrix has just become part of who you are, just as Beck and Buchanan. You mention to just stop thinking. It doesn't sound as if you are thinking of Hendrix or doing a cover. More that you are playing "Little Wing" and owning it as yourself. Again, those influences have just become part of who you are.

AB: Miles Davis once said that "it can take many years before you can sound like yourself." I think of that when I listen to other musicians and when I study. I think it is very true.

AAJ: Yes, leave it to the great one to phrase it so succinctly.

AB: Yes, well he was a guru.

AAJ: You'll get no argument from me on that. You again went broadly in the genre scope. Lending your talents to "Countdown." Your guitar bends in the space of Coltrane's riffs were substantial.

AB: Yes, well there was a triangle formed in the symmetry of this record. Hence the name Trinity. Again, I was thinking about something Miles said. Which was, "there are only two skills, diminished and augmented, and the rest of it is a lie." (laughing) Pretty much what he meant is that everything we do is a derivative of major or minor. That music is kind of governed by duality in pretty much everything we do. "Countdown" though is a triangle in which he augmented the changes so beautifully. I wondered if I could play some blues or even rock in that configuration. My drummer, Alex Eckhoff started playing it a certain way and I knew that was it. That nobody had played it as a rock tune., There are some other beautiful takes on it for example by Brad Mehldau and by Allan Holdsworth.

AAJ: That's all very interesting. It educates musically, but also impresses upon the challenges and complexities of a project of this nature. One might say your triad was triumphant.

AB: That's so great of you to say... Thank you for all your kind words and the opportunity to talk with you like this. Enjoyed it so much.

AAJ: It's been great talking with you as well. You have played with a lot of cats, but I thought you might want to give a shout out to Bobby "Hurricane" Spencer before we wrap up.

AB: Oh, I am SO glad you asked me about Bobby. Thank you. Yeah, Bobby and I go way back. He is a very important person in my life and a very important person in my development. We met at Babe's and Ricky's Inn in Leimert Park, where we used to play a lot of gigs together..It was special little place owned by Mama Laura Mae Gross. The guys would all affectionately call her Mama. We would hang out in the kitchen, you know, and he would start teaching me things. I was, and still am, very grateful for that. Bobby is the one who really taught me how to play the blues. When I am playing fusion or jazz I am really thinking about the blues. I want that emotional contact. Bobby, quite honestly, is just as responsible for my sound development as Hendrix, Beck, or Buchanan. We are very close. He is like part of my family.

AAJ: Well, he is a very accomplished musician.

AB: Oh yeah. He played with everyone back in the day. B.B. King, Etta James, many many more. He wrote a song called "Fish in Dirty Water." The Koko Taylor version of it was nominated for a Grammy. Buddy Guy also plays on that track. He also used to play with Junior Walker & the All Stars. He would fill in for Junior from time to time when necessary.

AAJ: No wonder you have him on all your records. Just adds a whole other layer of depth and diversity.

AB: Oh, for sure. And I already have another entire record written. I have enough compositions for that. I am then working on some other things including one of Enrico Marconi's songs. That's something I have always wanted to do.

AAJ: Well, when we get past all this mess and have live music again, I hopefully will have a chance to catch you live where all the intensity of your records will pop out even more.

AB: Yes, yes, yes. I would love to meet you in person. To come out to a show, yes, we need to make that happen. It would be a privilege.

AAJ: Something to look forward to. Thanks for the conversation, Andrea. Be safe, and we will talk again soon.

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