Antonio Ciacca: Bringing People Together Through Swing

John Barron BY

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My style comes from playing with unbelievable giants who can say so much with just one chorus--something so beautiful, I would be up all night thinking about it.
Antonio CiaccaAntonio Ciacca knows a thing or two about multi-tasking. The New York-based pianist is a tireless statesman of jazz, composing music for his own small groups, arranging for various big bands and working as Director of Programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Adding to all of this, Ciacca and his wife are busy raising five children in the hustle-and-bustle of 21st Century Manhattan.

Born in Wuppertal, Germany and raised in Italy, the 40-year-old musician received a formal music education at the Bologna Conservatory, but learned about jazz on the bandstand. A brief stay in Detroit, Michigan in the early '90s and numerous performance opportunities in Italy with some of the biggest names in jazz prepared Ciacca for a permanent move to New York in 2007. The pianist has shared the stage with legendary artists Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Johnny Griffin and Dave Liebman, and has toured extensively with saxophonists Steve Lacy and Benny Golson.

2008 saw the release of Rush Life (Motema Music), Ciacca's fifth outing as a leader. It is a hard-blowing, straight-ahead quintet affair featuring Ciacca's hard bop-inspired compositions and a stellar cast of swinging associates, including tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli.

All About Jazz: What are your earliest musical memories?

Antonio Ciacca: I grew up in the south of Italy. My parents used to put together a dance party every Saturday during the winter. I grew up on a mountain and there wasn't much to do during the winter, so every Saturday at different houses in the village there would be three accordion players and people dancing all night long. That was my first encounter with the world of music. I decided to start learning about music during my middle school years. I took three years of piano lessons starting at age 11. When I started high school, however, I decided I wanted to be a soccer player so I pursued this for some time and even became semi-professional. I then went to college with the intention of becoming an engineer.

AAJ: What happened?

AC: I walked into the Bologna Jazz Festival in 1989, when I was 20 years old, and heard a trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis.

AAJ: A life changing moment?

AC: Yes, I went from wanting to be an engineer to wanting to study jazz, but I knew I if I was going to study jazz I would have to study it properly. I was lucky to study with one the world's greatest living saxophone players, Steve Grossman, who relocated from New York to Bologna, where I was now living. So I would study with Steve during the week and on the weekends he would be off to Paris or wherever to play gigs.

AAJ: Your first experience with America was a stay in Detroit. How did this come about?

AC: I met this guy in Bologna. His mother was actually from Bologna and his father was from Detroit. He's a brilliant pianist and a teacher at Berklee [College of Music] named Greg Burk. So he invited me to come to Detroit and I said, "Okay, sure, I'll come." I also had Steve Grossman telling me at the time that I had to go to the United States and play with the real cats. I wanted to learn everything about American musical culture—the American songbook, gospel, blues, everything that is a part of American music. So I went to Detroit for three months and met so many wonderful musicians. There were some great up-and-coming people there like James Carter, Karriem Riggins, Carlos McKinney. We were all in our early 20s back then.

Antonio CiaccaAAJ: This was the early '90s?

AC: 1993.

AAJ: You must have run across some of the older Detroit musicians like pianist Teddy Harris or saxophonist Larry Smith.

AC: Larry gave me my first gig. It was at Bert's Marketplace, October 20th, 1993. It was my first gig ever—a weekend gig, Friday and Saturday. Bert's was a great place to play. People like McCoy Tyner who might be in Detroit playing a concert would always come by to hang after their gig. We'd get a chance to play in front of some great people.

AAJ: Where did you go from there?

AC: Well, after three months in Detroit, I went back to Italy for awhile, met the woman who would become my wife and played as much as possible. Around this time, I started to bring different cats over to Italy. I would book special guests to play with my trio. I brought over people like Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Benny Golson. I wanted to take it to the next level and I felt that playing with these great musicians would really help me.

AAJ: Is this when you met saxophonist Steve Lacy?

AC: That was 1997. I called him in Paris and said, "I want you to come and play with my band." He said, "Well, no one's ever asked me that. I'll take a chance. Do you know any Monk tunes?" I said, "Yes, I know some." He said, "Can you read music?" I said, "Yes, I do." So he came and played with us and I guess he liked me because he started calling me for gigs for the next seven years. We had some great times together.

AAJ: Speaking of Thelonious Monk, there is an audio clip on your website of you playing at the Village Vanguard with saxophonist Wessell Anderson and Wynton Marsalis. Your soloing has some obvious Monk references.

AC: Well we were playing a Monk tune, "Bolivar Blues," so I just thought about throwing in some Monk ideas; Monk sounds, clusters. I've been playing his music for some time and feel I have a good understanding of how to approach it.

AAJ: Who else has influenced you?

AC: Definitely Bud Powell and one of my teachers, Barry Harris. As a writer, I'm influenced by Horace Silver and Benny Golson. That's my thing. Lately though, for my big band writing, it's Tadd Dameron and Thad Jones. I've been getting asked by different bands to write for them. I've written two charts for The Jazz Heritage Orchestra and I'm working on some things for a big band in Europe.

AAJ: You lead your own trio and quartet around New York. Has it been difficult to keep a core group of players together?

AC: Not really. I've been using many of the same guys since I landed in New York in February, 2007, like drummers Ulysses Owens and Rodney Green, and bassists David Wong and Kengo Nakamura. Saxophonist Grant Stewart has been playing with me since 1996, so we're longtime friends.

AAJ: Any future recording plans?

AC: I have a new quintet recording featuring Steve Grossman that will be released the first week of October. I was able to get Steve into the studio in Bologna. We played a couple of my tunes, a couple of his tunes. It was great. We recorded just a couple of days after Johnny Griffin died, so in a way it's a tribute to Griffin, who I've played with in the past.

Antonio Ciacca

AAJ: Let's talk about your style for a moment. Your soloing on Rush Life emphasizes soulful, swinging lines. Although you certainly have technique to spare, you display it rather sparingly.

AC: My style comes from my experience playing with unbelievable giants of the music who can say so much with just one chorus—say something so beautiful, I would be up all night thinking about it. One night, for example, I was playing a gig with [Steve] Lacy, it might have been in Portugal, and we were tired from traveling and being on tour.

Anyway, after the gig the audience wanted an encore, but nobody felt like going out, so Steve ended up going out by himself. He played one chorus of [Thelonious Monk's] "Pannonica" and just killed it. That one chorus was the most unbelievable version of "Pannonica" I'd ever heard. He played more music in that one chorus than the band had played during the entire concert. I said, "Steve, how in the hell do you do that?" He said, "Man, it took me a long time to figure out what not to play."

There was another time I remember with Lacy when I asked him, "Steve, how do I know when I'm playing good?" Looking back now I think it was a stupid question to ask, but here was this guy who had played with Monk and so many others. How could he ever be impressed by my playing? Anyway, he said, "You're playing good when you've played something you've never played before." It was the same with Benny Golson. I've known him for 13 years now, and every time I hear him, there's something new. Lee Konitz is another one. He once told me that not everything you play is music. These guys force you to take out all the bullshit in your playing and just play music.

AAJ: Describe your work as Director of Programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

AC: It's a fantastic place for a jazz musician to work. My job is to program the shows. I work closely with Wynton [Marsalis] on upcoming concerts. He'll have ideas, and my job is to identify the people who can implement those ideas. For example, he wants to put on a Mary Lou Williams centennial show so I have to find people who know that music or are capable of playing that music. I'll find the musical director, the soloists, and the right ensemble.

So I end up spending a lot of time talking to people like Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Cyrus Chestnut, Tony Bennett. Talking about music, arrangements, you know. It's really great. Plus working side-by-side with someone like Wynton is fantastic. He has so much energy and passion for everything he does. He tries to be thorough and accurate with every project. He never gets tired and is always thinking of something new.

AAJ: Your work offers you a unique perspective of the music business. What advice would you have for an up-and-coming jazz musician?

Antonio CiaccaAC: My advice is to learn the history of the music and every aspect of the business. Guys like Duke Ellington used to know how to take care of business. You could even go back to people in Europe like [Muzio] Clementi and [George Frideric] Handel. Clementi was teaching professionally, creating teaching methods, producing operas. He even had a piano factory at one point. I mean, here was a guy who was born poor in Naples and died rich in London. You have to learn every aspect of music, not just about doing a gig. As Leonard Bernstein once said, "music is not gigging."

Music is much more than showing up to a gig, play a couple standards, throw in a few clichés, play some boring arrangements. Music is much more than that. Music is about creating a sound or a concept like Duke Ellington, Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet. It's about creating a repertoire like Benny Golson and The Jazztet or Wayne Shorter, people like Miles Davis who created great bands and had a vision, creating opportunities like Richard Wagner did when he created his own festival in Beyreuth, Germany for "The Ring Cycle." Today it's like a pilgrimage to go to Beyreuth and hear Wagner's music. It comes down to students needing to know all aspects of music, not just gigging.

AAJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?

AC: Living here in New York with my little family of five kids, watching my children grow up. I'll continue to play my music and try to improve in everything I do. Improve at producing shows for Jazz at Lincoln Center, improve at writing and arranging music, and improve my social relationships. My goal is very simple: it's just like the goal of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is to bring people together through swing.

Selected Discography

Antonio Ciacca, Rush Life (Motema Music, 2008)
Antonio Ciacca, Ugly Beauty (Soul Note, 2006)
Antonio Ciacca, Autumn in New York (Splasc(H) records, 2002)
Antonio Ciacca, Hollis Avenue (YVP Music, 1999)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Courtesy of Antonio Ciacca

Trio Photo: Courtesy of Rochester Jazz Festival

Bottom Photo: G.C. Rebus

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