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Dan Kinzelman: Stream of Consciousness

Neri Pollastri By

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I like to think of improvisation as problem solving in real time
U.S. born saxophonist and clarinetist Dan Kinzelman first moved to Italy in 2005 and over the last decade has grown to become an ever-present figure in Italy's flowering underground jazz scene thanks to his central role in some of the country's most interesting and original projects: leader of Dan Kinzelman's Ghost, co-founder of collective trio Hobby Horse and its recent expansion into a sextet (Ghost Horse), he is also active as a sideman with projects like the Francesco Ponticelli Quartet and Simone Graziano's Frontal.

All About Jazz: You were born and raised in the United States, but you are now so deeply rooted in the Italian scene that some of us simply think of you as an Italian musician. How did you end up moving here?

Dan Kinzelman: It was simply a series of coincidences that brought me here, which aligned with my desire at that time of my life to throw myself into new experiences as the opportunities presented themselves. While studying for my bachelor's degree I discovered a passion for foreign languages thanks to an introductory course in German. At the same time I was starting to listen to a lot of ECM records in the school's music library, which at the time were not so easy to come by in the USA with the exception of Keith Jarrett and a few others. I'd had access to a handful of ECM records in my father's record collection, but he had practically stopped collecting after meeting my mother, so his collection had slowed drastically in the late 1970s. In any case, I was deeply attracted to what seemed to me like a profoundly different and more mysterious approach to sound as an autonomous musical element, and its influence on compositional and improvisational choices. It felt new to me, even though we are talking about records from the 1970s and 1980s. When I graduated in 2004, I felt like I needed a break from the university, but I felt like I needed a change of scene and lots of time to practice. So I decided to move to Europe, initially Germany because I already had a basic grasp of the language, and because in the meantime, ECM had assumed a mythical status in my mind. In Germany I met Emanuele Maniscalco, and immediately fell in love with his playing. Later that summer, he invited me to Italy to play for the first time, and in the course of the next six months he introduced me to many friends and musicians including Giovanni Guidi. With both Emanuele and Giovanni I felt an immediate and profound friendship, and I returned to Italy several times to tour with both of them. In late 2004, Giovanni was beginning to organize his first project as a leader and wanted me to play winds, but he told me clearly that this would be possible only if I moved from Germany to Italy. So in the spring of 2005 I packed everything I owned and flew from Cologne to Bergamo, first on a tourist visa, then a student visa, then a visa for work as a manservant, and finally now I have an artist visa.

AAJ: You ended up in Foligno, a town of 60,000 inhabitants in central Italy. Can you talk about how and why this happened?

DK: Foligno is Giovanni's hometown, and I'd traveled there for rehearsals during the first few tours with his band. In the summer of 2005 I returned to the city for the first year of the Young Jazz Festival, a festival he directs which has been seminal in helping give credibility and visibility to original projects led by musicians of my own generation. On that occasion, Foligno seemed like a paradise to me: a small town nestled in the green hills of Umbria and filled with enthusiastic young people who organized this beautiful festival, pulsing with vital energy. This sensation, together with my deepening friendship with Giovanni (who also helped me navigate the bureaucracy necessary for my visas), made it an easy choice. In the following years, our musical and artistic relationship blossomed as well, and it's hard for me to imagine how different my musical life would be had I not shared those formative years with him. In addition to all the new music I discovered thanks to him, in the first several years I performed almost exclusively with Giovanni, including my first chances to perform in serious concert venues and festivals. This kind of experience was totally different than the cafe and wedding gigs I had been doing in the US, and I think these opportunities deeply changed the way I thought about my work and my musical goals.

AAJ: I know what you mean. A lot of young musicians are having a hard time finding opportunities to play in serious venues. There is an incredible amount of quality music being made, but it's a hard road for emerging musicians in Italy.

DK: I no longer think of myself as a young musician, and since starting to teach at Siena Jazz in 2016 I have done a lot of thinking about the path my career has taken, and how different it will be for young musicians attempting to break through today. I meet a lot of amazing young musicians in Siena, including a handful of musicians who are already deep into writing and producing outstanding records. The quality of projects among musicians in their mid-20s in Italy is growing at an incredible rate, but unfortunately artistic directors in Italy often seem totally oblivious, or in some cases they don't have the freedom or courage to take the risk of programming unknown artists. The result is that if you don't have someone with serious credibility to whisper your name in the ear of the people who matter, you're out of luck.

There is a gleam of hope in a handful of festivals and clubs in Italy who are working hard to create opportunities and visibility for new bands and less well-known musicians, and when this kind of project is well curated, there is definitely a positive response and a lot of curious young people come out to see shows. There's no shortage of interesting music being made, but promoting and programming it is not easy, and requires courage, intelligence and deep conviction on the part of organizers, as well as long-term support by sponsors and public funds.

I am hopeful that the more cautious or traditional festivals (which, unfortunately, are often the biggest and most 'important' ones) will take note of the groundswell which is happening among some of the more adventurous venues and begin programming younger bands. In my opinion, this is the only hope that we have to gain traction with a younger and more vital audience and regain cultural relevancy.

In the long term, I hope that Italy will invest some serious resources in promoting Italian jazz abroad. Italy has always had plenty of great musicians, but the error in the past has been to promote a tiny handful of the most famous ones, leaving emerging musicians in the cold. This means the vast and active underground remains completely under the radar for most Italians, and for almost all concert programmers around the globe. An excellent example of how this can be done well is Norway, which (to my knowledge) supports emerging bands with tour funding, while commercially successful artists are expected to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately this tendency to push big names rather than cultivate a plurality of projects and musical directions has a long tradition within Italy as well. There is a lot that could be done to promote critical listening and audience development, but this is work for organizers, artistic directors and promoters, and it takes time and courage. There is so much happening in Italy right now, but nobody knows because most organizers and programmers seem to be following an old model: this can be pretty frustrating to watch, although some things do seem to be changing in recent years.

AAJ: Indeed, it seems like the most common strategy for festivals in Italy is to push one big name in the hope of drawing a huge audience, but this is a dangerous practice. Listeners already know the artist, and thus arrive expecting to receive a known musical product, which they will then compare to their musical expectations. This seems more appropriate in the field of pop music, and the result is a gradual decay in critical listening and the audience's openness and desire for surprise, as well as a loss of interest and apathy on the part of listeners who do want to be stimulated and surprised. But to return to your own work, you explained how you arrived in Italy, but you haven't explained why after living your whole life in the birthplace of jazz, you now find yourself living and working in a country where jazz arrived much more recently and doesn't have a particularly central role. Do you ever regret your decision?

DK: No, I think it would be very hard for me to return the USA now. I didn't know it at the time, but over the years I have realized that I found something here that I was seeking desperately: a work environment that allows me to nurture and invest in projects in the long term. It's hard for me to imagine how any of my bands could have survived the first year or two in the USA. I have no doubt that we would have had to substitute members at a high percentage of the concerts, and this is an insurmountable obstacle for the kind of musical specificity that interests me, which is possible only if the band members are always the same.

AAJ: That brings us to the topic of your own projects, which you began developing not long after moving to Italy.

DK: To be honest I didn't initially feel a need to lead my own projects—this desire developed gradually, although I received regular encouragement in that sense from a musicians, agencies and record labels in the first few years. As I gained experience and matured I gradually became more conscious of my own interests and desires, and this led to a desire to start a band of my own to explore the musical consequences of this growing awareness with people I trusted. I had already been touring for years with Giovanni as well as Enrico Rava (Under 21, Tribe, PMJL) and Mauro Ottolini (Sousaphonix), and I was fascinated by the profound changes in the music which inevitably occurred every time we had to perform with a substitute. Equally important were offstage relationships, which ended up revealing themselves (often decisively) in the music as well. With these factors in mind I began trying to organize projects, going through numerous iterations, some of which never got further than the first rehearsal. Eventually I ended up with Hobby Horse, the first band I started which I feel has arrived at maturity, and the longest-lived project I have ever had.

AAJ: How did Hobby Horse start?

DK: I had a quartet which I liked, my first real band, with David Boato on trumpet, Francesco Ponticelli on bass and Armando Sciommeri on drums. Unfortunately it was extremely difficult to rehearse and tour because we lived so far apart. This made it hard to meet and play regularly, which for me is a crucial aspect in developing a band. As this became clear to me I decided to move on to a new project. I knew I wanted a trio because I had always loved the freedom I got from playing with no harmonic instrument, and the added benefit was that it was simpler and cheaper to tour with only three musicians. In that period Joe Rehmer, a bassist and friend from university whose playing I loved, had decided to move to Italy. I knew I wanted him on bass, now all we needed was to find the right drummer.

In one of the last shows in quartet, Sciommeri wasn't available and Giovanni Guidi suggested I call Stefano Tamborrino. I didn't know Stefano but I trusted Giovanni so I called him. I met him several weeks before the show at his house in Florence to do a rehearsal in duo because meeting in quartet would have been impossible. At the time, Stefano didn't read music, but he took written notes in a notebook as I explained the pieces and played them for him. A few weeks later we played the show, and Stefano killed it! Evidently, he'd studied the notes from his notebook—I was amazed by how prepared he was, and by his drumming, but above all by his approach to my music and to his role in the group. I had never played with someone who played in that way before; it was like opening my front door and finding a different city outside.

Until that day I had always unconsciously compared drummers I was considering calling to my reference 'ideal' drummer, but suddenly it felt to me like that concept didn't matter anymore. Stefano offered such a wild mix of things that my 'ideal' drummer would never have done, because he wouldn't have thought to do them. He had amazing control of the drum set, but he was unpredictable. Totally self-taught, he tended to take wild risks, and he believed in what he was doing. It wasn't easy to play with him, and at times I even hated some of his choices, but from the start I always respected the thought process which had generated those choices, and this pushed me to try new things as well. In any case, the show went great, and at that point I decided to move on from the quartet to form a new trio with Stefano and Joe.
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