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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.

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