Enrico Rava: To Be Free or Not To Be Free

Ian Patterson By

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Freedom, it could be argued, is most deeply understood by those who have been somehow constrained against their will, or who have been prisoners of their own skewed vision of what it means to be free. Trumpeter Enrico Rava knows the meaning of musical freedom; he was part of the free-jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s where chords were frowned upon, and made recordings almost at will in the 80s and 90s, "many of which were not necessary," he freely admits. Rava has learned that true artistic freedom does not lie in allegiance to a school centered on a highly conceptual approach to music, nor does it mean recording at the drop of a hat. True freedom, Rava has gleaned, means choosing to play freely or not, to play "in" or to play "out," but choosing, above all, to play what the mood dictates. And after half a century playing jazz, Rava is surer than ever of what he wants: "I'm 72; I like what I do to be necessary and important."

Since returning to the ECM fold in 2004 after a 15-year hiatus, Rava has produced some of the most important music of his storied career. Albums like Easy Living (ECM, 2004), TATI (ECM, 2005), The Words and the Days (ECM, 2007), The Third Man (ECM, 2008) and New York Days (ECM, 2008) have shown Rava to be enjoying a late-career high, playing and composing better than ever. Although he doesn't consider himself to be a talent scout, his working groups have allowed a stream of young talent, including pianists Stefano Bollani and Andrea Pozza, trombonist Gianluca Petrella and bassist Rosario Bonaccorso, to step into the international spotlight.

Tribe (ECM, 2011) is another powerfully seductive offering from Turin- born Rava. There are a couple of familiar faces in the lineup, like drummer Fabrizio Sferra and Petrella, but, not for the first time, some talented newcomers throw their hats into the ring, challenging and inspiring Rava once more. Pianist Giovanni Guidi, bassist Gabriele Evangelista and guitarist Giacomo Ancilloto bring a youthful zeal to the ensemble sound, and will all be names to watch out for. Rava gets the best of the musicians around him by allowing them the utmost freedom to express themselves within the confines of his very democratic tribe.

All About Jazz Does the title Tribe have any special significance for you?

Enrico Rava: It didn't have it at the beginning. I recorded it in 1975 with [guitarist] John Abercrombie, [bassist] Palle Danielsson and [drummer] Jon Christensen, for ECM. My pianist now [Giovanni Guidi] wanted to play it and I said, "Why not?" It sounds very contemporary. But now that I've recorded it, I think that Tribe is not only the right title for the CD but also for my band because really I feel it's like a tribe-a very democratic tribe.

AAJ: On Tribe, you've recruited a couple of old colleagues in trombonist Gianluca Petrella and drummer Fabrizio Sferra, and a few newcomers in bassist Gabriele Evangelista, pianist Giovanni Guidi and guitarist Giacomo Ancillotto. Were you specifically looking for a balance between old and new blood for this CD?

ER: No, no, no. I call the musicians because I like them. They can be 16 years old or 95 years old. I'm not a talent scout. It often happens that they are very young because the young musicians are closer to my vision of the music and they have a lot of energy. I don't like too much to play with people of my age. I feel closer to younger people, but there are some contemporaries of my age who have the same vision I have. I play with them very often, and I'm very glad to do it.

AAJ: Who, for instance?

ER: One of the very few Italian musicians of my age who I enjoy playing with is [pianist] Franco DAndrea. Another is The Dino & Franco Piana Jazz Orchestra, a great pianist and composer. Dino Piana-who is now 82-played all his life in a radio orchestra, but when he was about 30 and I was 20, he was just playing jazz. Everybody wanted to play with him all over Europe, but then he joined the orchestra. When he retired, he started playing only jazz. When I have the possibility I call him, and for me it's always a great pleasure to play with him because he's very open. [drummer] Aldo Romano is another musician. But most of the musicians of my age tend to stick to what they were doing when they were at the top of their trend, and that's no good for me.

AAJ: On Tribe your connection with Petrella sounds really intuitive; the pair of you sound like siblings. Tell us a little about what it's like playing with him and what he brings to the mix.

ER: First, let me tell you that I met Gianluca when he was 18. I knew his father, who was a very good trombone player, too. A couple of years later, Gianluca came on a long tour with me in Canada at all the festivals, and he stayed. The rest of the people changed, but he stayed. I have a special relationship with two musicians-one is Gianluca and the other is [pianist] Stefan Bollani-a kind of telepathic thing where when we play it's like we talk to each other all the time. These are the best musical relationships I have had in my life; another one was with [trombonist] Roswell Rudd many years ago. With Gianluca, I have the same kind of rapport.

AAJ: Are there other musicians whom you've deeply connected with over the years?

ER: When I play with somebody, I look for a deep connection, and I had a very deep connection with [alto saxophonist] Steve Lacy at the end of the '60s when I was playing in his band. We had a very strong musical understanding when we played together. I also had that a lot with an alto saxophonist from Italy, who died many years ago, called Massimo Urbani. I brought him to New York when he was 18. Then I had a fantastic thing with [saxophonist] Joe Henderson when we did a long tour together in Europe, which was fantastic. I also really love to play with [saxophonist] Mark Turner; he's a tremendous player, though we play together rarely.

AAJ: You played trombone prior to taking up the trumpet. Do you feel you have a special affinity with trombonists?

ER: Yeah, I do, though my experience as a trombone player was almost nothing. I played in a Dixieland band as an amateur when I was 16, and we were playing [Louis] Armstrong Hot Five tunes, "At the Jazz Band Ball" and "Jammin' the Blues," but I was a very rudimentary player. It lasted a very, very short time. Two years later, I bought a trumpet. But I love the trombone. I like the tone and the register of the trombone, which is the same register as the male voice. If you talk and, while you're talking, you start playing the trombone, it's the same tone and register, while the trumpet is always high pitched-I feel like someone is always hanging me [laughs]. The trumpet and trombone is exactly the same instrument except that one is higher pitched. That's why they sound so good together. I learned that playing with Roswell [Rudd], because he was showing me certain intervals that we were playing together- the two notes we played could generate all the overtones and the harmonics. Sometimes you can play a chord of two notes, but you can hear four or five notes. You can't do that with flugelhorn and trombone because flugelhorn is a different instrument- it's a cornet instrument-but a trumpet is exactly like a trombone except for the higher register.

I like very much that sound. There are a couple of records of the quintet of [trumpeter] Clark Terry and [trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer, and the sound is so beautiful. There are also recordings by trumpeter Conte Candoli and [trombonist] Frank Rosolino; I am a fan of that sound [laughs]. I know all of them.

AAJ On Tribe, drummer Fabrizio Sferra brings a beautiful touch and at the same time great propulsion to the music, particularly on "Planet Earth" and "Choctaw." You've recorded with him before on Full of Life (Cam Jazz, 2005). What do you like about his playing?

ER: I like Fabrizio because he's ready for everything. He's very open, so he can play beautifully in, but he can play very well out. He's open to anything that can happen. He's a very good musician, too. He plays piano, he's a leader of his own band, and he's a composer of very nice tunes, too. He's a very musical drummer. He's not just a rhythmic drummer. All the great drummers-I think of Billy Higgins-are complete musicians.

AAJ: A drummer who lit up couple of your ECM recordings, TATI (ECM, 2005) and New York Days (ECM, 2008), sadly passed away recently. What will be your abiding memories of Paul Motian?

ER: Paul was a master musician, one of the great drummers. He was a very good friend of mine because when I moved to New York, in 1967, I would go his apartment on Central Park West. He was the only person I know who stayed in the same apartment all his life [laughs]. He was there for, I don't know, almost 50 years. It's incredible, because in New York everything changes every two seconds; if you go away one week, when you come back, your friend doesn't live there anymore, the fruit vendor isn't there anymore, your friend who was a taxi driver isn't there anymore. The only thing that didn't change was Paul Motian in Central Park West; everything and everybody else moved.

He was a very good friend, and we played in many different situations; we played in some bands with Roswell [Rudd] and in the Jazz Composers Orchestra with [pianist/composer/arranger] Carla Bley, and we toured together with Joe Henderson, and later with [Stefano] Bollani. He was a fantastic guy, and he was a teenager; he was a young old guy. He was 18 years old in his head. I'm going to miss him. Everybody is going to miss him. He was a different musician, a very unique drummer. He had his own technique, his own sound, and he was very, very creative. You didn't have to ask him to do this and do that. Anyway, he wouldn't do it [laughs], so you didn't ask him to do it; you let him do what he wanted. It was always better than what you would have asked him to do.

AAJ: Let's talk a little about ECM, with whom you've had a long relationship. How was the ECM 40th anniversary bash in Mannheim? It must have been a fun occasion, no?

ER: I remember it very well. I remember everything of that night. I played with [bassist] Larry Grenadier, Mark Turner, but with Jeff Ballard on drums because Paul [Motian] wasn't traveling anymore. We had a very good concert.

AAJ: How had ECM changed in the almost-20-year gap before you returned to record Easy Living in 2004?

ER: Basically, I think it hadn't changed, because Manfred Eicher has a very clear idea of what he wants. He records only musicians that he likes and musicians that he knows he's going to like their music; it's the only law, and in that sense it hadn't changed much. Except that, when I came back, he was giving much more space to contemporary music. Before, he had [composers] Arvo Part and Philip Glass, but now there is much more contemporary music. He's also more open to southern European music, and now there are a few Italians that record for him. Back in the '70s there was me, if we're talking about southern, Mediterranean musicians. But now, besides me, there's Stefano Bollani and [saxophonist] Stefano Battaglia, [clarinetist] Gianluigi Trovesi. And now we did a concert playing only the music of [singer] Michael Jackson for him [Eicher], which is a big surprise for a lot of people.
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