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Eleonora Strino: Leading The Way

Eleonora Strino: Leading The Way

Courtesy Riccardo Piccirillo


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I think it’s natural that I combine jazz with Neapolitan influences.
—Eleonora Strino
Any young person who dreams of becoming a jazz musician surely imagines the romance of a bohemian life spent traveling the world, playing to appreciative audiences. But it is not an easy career path. It requires complete dedication and many years of study and practice. The economics are hardly enticing either. And life on the road, for weeks or months at a time, is not for everyone.

Eleonora Strino knew she wanted to be a jazz guitarist when she was fifteen. The young Neapolitan embraced her dream, taking private lessons, studying the guitar greats on video, and practicing tirelessly. By her early twenties she was playing and recording with Dado Moroni, Emanuele Cisi and Greg Cohen. At the age of thirty-four she was already a professor of jazz guitar in Cosenza.

Her sparkling guitar skills have taken her around Europe, the Americas and Africa. Not content to rest in the shadows, Strino has also been leading her own trio since 2017, with I Got Strings (Cam Jazz, 2023) marking her debut as leader. Flanked by Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, Strino shines on a set of jazz standards and Italian classics.

The album cover photo shows Strino embracing her cherished L7 Gibson 33. It is a striking pose. Her gaze, confident and determined, speaks of her inner strength, her commitment and resolve. The way she is holding her guitar speaks unequivocally of her love for this music.

Sticking Her Neck Out

"My baby. My old baby!" Strino calls her Gibson, laughing. "It's a part of me now, like an extension of myself." She admits to feeling uneasy if her guitar is not in the same room as her at night. When touring, Strino takes two seats on a plane. Her guitar is never far from hand.

Once, when traveling to Greece on holiday with her sister, Strino discovered that she could not bring her guitar on the flight. It was a Fender Telecaster, a gift from Greg Cohen. Refusing to admit defeat, Strino sought a solution. "I saw a video of Julian Lage dismantling the neck of a Telecaster guitar. So, I took the neck off and put it and the body in my backpack." Strino beams and pumps her fist at the memory. "Yes! I did it!"

It is that kind of determination that has characterized her journey from the get-go.

One of four children, Strino grew up in a family steeped in the arts. "My father was a great artist, an amazing painter. My older sister is a painter, my brother is a film maker, my mother writes. I am also a good painter. In fact, for my next album, all my original songs, I have the idea to do a painting for each song—the union of my passions. To be a painter was really what I wanted to be."

No Joke

Nobody in her family listened to jazz. Strino's introduction to jazz came aged fifteen, when her two sisters' boyfriends brought a CD to the family house. It was Beyond the Missouri Sky (Verve, 1997) by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. For Strino the music was a revelation. She was spellbound by their version of Ennio Morricone's "Cinema Paradiso."

"I thought, 'My God, what is this?' I fell in love with this music," she recalls. The other album that had a profound effect on the teenage Strino was Undercurrents (United Artists, 1962) by Jim Hall and Bill Evans. "It changed my life because I thought, 'I would like to be like this.' I went to my father, and I said, 'Papa, I would like to be a jazz guitarist.' He thought I was joking."

Her father's surprise was understandable, as prior to this bolt from the blue, Eleonora had planned to study mathematics and physics at university. That boat sailed.

One of her sisters introduced Eleonora to a friend who was a guitar teacher who gave her private lessons. Strino found a staunch ally in her mother. "My Mum was like, 'you have to do what you want in life.' She bought my two guitars. She brought me to lessons."

Thus began Strino's total commitment to her art. "When I decided to play jazz, I just closed myself in my room and listened to CDs; Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Ralph Towner, Chuck Wayne, Jimmy Raney, I studied a lot."

She studied different approaches to the guitar; "Three fingers for Wes Montgomery, I tried two fingers after Django Reinhardt—I studied everything."

This total immersion provided Strino with a firm foundation in the jazz guitar tradition, with a leaning towards the style of Barney Kessel. But Strino did not want to sound like Kessel or anyone else for that matter and began seeking inspiration elsewhere.

"I began to study other instruments. I also studied classical composition and listened to pop music. I studied singing. I really wanted to find my sound."

Early Setback, Big Bounce Back

Strino's formal music education took her to the conservatory in Naples in 2005, where she studied with Pietro Condorelli, one of Italy's greatest guitarists. Strino is full of praise for Condorelli, but unfortunately the conservatory did not quite work out her. She concedes that it was in fact a dark time for her, one which she attributes to the environment not suiting her nature. In fact, Strino stopped playing for two years. Thankfully, after this hiatus, she turned things around and decided that jazz guitar was indeed her true calling. In Naples she duly met another guitar maestro who would prove crucial to her artistic growth. Gianluigi Goglia, an electric bassist, has been a mentor and teacher to too many Neapolitan jazz musicians to name. It was Goglia who really taught Strino the foundations of bebop language.

"Gianluigi taught me a lot of things," acknowledges Strino, "but in the end, I understood that the important thing is that jazz is a language, and I tried to understand it by studying the great masters. The Great American Songbook—what beautiful music!"

Strino immersed herself in listening to albums, watching videos and transcribing at length. Having rekindled her passion, and with a newfound determination, Strino took up her studies again, this time in Amsterdam, where she spent a year in 2015.

"It was a beautiful experience. I felt I was in the right place. There were jazz musicians from all over the world, and they played the old jazz songs like me, so I thought, 'I am not the only one,'" she laughs.

In the Tradition, Out on Her Own

Listening to I Got Strings, what stands out about Strino's playing, apart from its quality, is the absence of obvious stylistic references. An unabashed traditionalist of the old school, one raised on bebop, Strino has undoubtedly learned from the masters, but she has succeeded in developing a distinctive voice of her own. That is no mean feat in a language that is so familiar.

The influences run deep, however, as Strino explains. "For a period, I was playing the music of Thelonious Monk. It was amazing to translate Thelonious Monk on the guitar. Two of my favorite guitarists are Peter Bernstein and Bill Frisell. I hear in their music a lot of Monk. But instead of transcribing them, and maybe end up sounding like them, I instead transcribed Thelonious, and I fell in love with this album Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (Riverside, 1955). I mixed my two passions, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. What amazing music!"

Three of Ellington's tunes grace I Got Strings, on which Strino demonstrates her mastery of tumbling bebop lines as well as her sensitivity at medium and slow tempi.

Close to Home

Other highlights include wonderful versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and two songs with strong Neapolitan ties—Bruno Martino's "Estate" and "IL Postino," the ravishing theme tune from Massimo Troisi's film of the same name. The latter holds particular resonance for Strino.

"I am from the south of Italy, from Napoli. The film was shot in Procida, a little island in front of Napoli. It is my favorite island. It was a homage to that place. Napoli is my most important influence, the music of Napoli. I have never thought about it, but the way I write you can hear a lot of the Neapolitan tradition. I think it's natural that I combine jazz with Neapolitan influences."

In the Spirit of Jazz

The recording session for I Got Strings was a spontaneous affair. Strino was in the middle of a long tour—two months in America followed by a month around Europe. In the middle of her European dates, she got a call from Cohen. "He said, 'Eleonora, can you come to Berlin? We have the possibility to record this album with Joey Baron.'"

Strino had been playing with Cohen for a number of years, recording with the bassist and drummer Massimo Del Pezzo on Si, Ci (Prismi Editrice Politecnica Napoli, 2016), a multi-media project in tribute to composer Cy Coleman. After this album, Strino and Cohen talked about further collaborations.

"We had this project in mind to do an album as a trio. But with Joey Baron? My god!" exclaims Strino, recalling her emotions at the time. "I have to go!"

The question of repertoire was up in the air. Time was short. Strino decided not to overthink it. "Just go into a studio with two legends, two amazing musicians and just play jazz. You don't know what will happen. This is the most jazz thing you can do in your life," she laughs. "It was a really important experience."

The album was recorded in a single day with most tracks recorded in a single take. There were no overdubs. Not for nothing does the album have the energy and feel of a live recording.

Working with Greg Cohen

Strino had first met Cohen in Berlin in 2010 when she was taking an audition at the Jazz Institute of Berlin. "I passed the practical test, but I didn't pass the theory test because at that time I couldn't speak English so well. They said, ok, study a little bit of English and we'll take you next year."

Any disappointment at failing the audition was tempered when Cohen contacted her shortly afterwards to compliment her playing and ask if she would be interested in doing a project together. Thus began a musical relationship that continues to thrive.

"Greg is an amazing musician. He's played with Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones—you hear all this music in his playing. And he loves traditional jazz."

Cohen encouraged Strino to be open to all kinds of music, not just jazz. "I really grew as a musician with him," Strino acknowledges. "I was very lucky because Greg took me under his wings. He has been a very important presence in my life."

The Italian Jobs

Two other musicians who have played a formative role in Strino's development have been Dado Moroni and Emanuele Cisi. Strino was thrilled when each of them invited her to join their respective groups.

"I also grew so much as a musician thanks to them. They key is to play with musicians that are much better than you. Great musicians teach you how to play. Dado is an amazing talent. When he was eleven years old, he played like now," laughs Strino.

"He was the substitute for Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. He lived twenty years in New York. When you play with him you have to play strong, like Wes [Montgomery], to really make the sound come out of your guitar. Before I was, not afraid, but maybe timid. He taught me a lot, because after I had this big sound."

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Cisi also boasts an impressive curriculum, having played with Ron Carter, Clark Terry, Nat Adderley and Enrico Rava, amongst many other heavyweights.

"Emanuele is also an amazing musician," says Strino. "He has a great sense of musicality. So, I am really lucky to play in these two quartets."

Doing the Math

Having realized her dream of being a professional jazz musician, Strino is helping the next generation of young jazz musicians with the wisdom of her hard-won knowledge. Since 2021 she he has been a professor of jazz guitar in various Italian institutions of higher education. It is a role she relishes.

"I love teaching. It is my second passion. I would like to develop this side of my career. You know, I had wanted to study mathematics and physics at university. But I decided, ok, I cannot do everything, and I wanted to be a jazz guitarist. I found mathematics in music, in the harmony. So, I tried to develop my own method, a really scientific method to teach the language of jazz."

To her list of accomplishments as a performer, recording artists and jazz guitar professor, Strino can add the title of author, as 2023 also saw the publication of her educational book Bebop Scales for Jazz Guitar (Fundamental Changes).

Yet for all the technical aspects and mathematics in her methodology, Strino's approach to teaching is simple and direct. "My philosophy is to make students play from their hearts. I try to give them all the tools to bring out what they have inside, to develop their own sound, to develop their own ideas."

For Strino, solid foundations in the roots of the music are essential. "For me, it is really important that students know the tradition, because jazz is like a language. Bebop is a language. I say, let's take John Coltrane, let's take Brad Mehldau, let's take Ornette Coleman—the really knew how to play bebop. They studied that and then grew from there. You have to know the language of the masters, and then you can develop and play as you wish."

In the Footsteps of The Great Guitars

Strino has enjoyed some notable highlights in her journey as a jazz guitarist. In 2022, Strino claimed a little piece of jazz history when she played with Martin Taylor and Ulf Wakenius as The Great Guitars, becoming part of a tradition that dates back to the 1970s and the original trio of Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd.

That the concert took place in Strino's hometown of Naples was the icing on the cake. "To play with them was absolutely wonderful. I feel so grateful."

From Brazil to ... New York?

At the end of that year, Strino went to Brazil to participate in the inaugural Salvador de Bahia International Guitar Festival. "I felt the calling of Brazil, the energy, before I went there. When I arrived, I felt it was an amazing place—really poor yes, but the energy, the spirituality of that place is special. It changes your life. I hope to go back to Brazil to tour in Rio and Sao Paolo."

Strino harbors another ambition, one that may require a leap of faith. "My dream was and is to go to New York, but I was so afraid," she admits.

"So maybe I had to do a lot of work on myself as a human being before becoming a musician because it is not an easy life. I dreamed of being a musician and now that I am a musician, I understand how hard it is. You are always traveling, going all over the world. It can be stressful and tiring. And as your career grows you have to be always strong. It's an amazing life, but it's not easy."

Another album is in the pipeline—one featuring Strino's original compositions. It will be a different beast to I Got Strings. "That album was just one day, but this next album I would like to take my time over and think about it very well," she says.

"Like any artist I want to keep developing, developing my music so that people can really hear me. This is the most important thing."

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