Francesco Turrisi: In Pursuit of Ecstasy

Ian Patterson By

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It has often been said that composer/harpsichordist/violinist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the first jazz musician. His contrapuntal techniques and ideas on harmony, rhythm and form have influenced countless jazz musicians. Numerous are the jazz musicians who have also studied classical music, usually prior to shifting to jazz. Few, however, are those who have taken a Master's degree in jazz and then opted to study early music, a term that refers to European classical music dating roughly from the Medieval era, through the Renaissance and until the end of the Baroque period, marked by the death of Bach.

Italian pianist Francesco Turrisi is one such rare case. His impressive debut as leader, Si Dolce e il Tormento (Diatribe Recordings, 2009) intertwined the threads of jazz improvisation, Italian folk melodies and baroque roots to stunning effect, and garnered highly positive reviews in the press, with the Irish Times describing it as "exquisite." It may be the first jazz recording to feature the theorbo—a long-necked lute more typical of the late 16th and 17th centuries—alongside clarinet and a jazz rhythm section. Not many would have imagined such juxtaposition, but for Turrisi, part of the joy of music is searching for interesting sounds that complement each other. That recording announced the arrival of an individual voice on the jazz scene, something which they've known in Ireland since Turrisi made Dublin his home in 2006.

The pianist/accordionist/harpsichordist/percussionist is what you might call an all- rounder, playing in at least half a dozen different contexts where he is able to explore his passion for jazz, early music, and the music of Africa, Brazil, the Balkans, southern Italy and the greater Mediterranean area, and of course, his adopted Ireland. Turrisi's second CD as a leader, Fotografia (Diatribe Recordings, 2011) is another distillation of the pianist's southern Italian roots, baroque rhythms and a jazz trio aesthetic. Gone is the theorbo, and in are more jagged, brooding, improvised pieces, with lyrical folk numbers strewn throughout, like pools of calm amongst the turbulence.

Turrisi is not afraid to throw a little caution to the wind, and this CD is further proof of an important musician in the making. Fotografia exhibits a certain fearlessness, though as Turrisi intimates, it's perhaps easier to create the music than it is to release it: "It's always very difficult to let it go, if you know what I mean—to let it leave your home and send it out into the world." Initial responses to Fotografia have been uniformly positive, with Ray Comiskey of the Irish Times noting the "gripping trio mood pieces" and describing Turrisi's piano playing as "beautifully articulated." Turrisi is, naturally, pleased at the response: "People seem to like it, which is great, but I've listened to it so many times that it's very hard to listen to it with fresh ears."

Making up the trio on Fotografia are Danish bassist Claus Kaarsgaard and Portuguese drummer João Lobo. Turrisi met both while studying jazz piano at the Conservatory in The Hague. They played together occasionally, and the bassist and drummer lent their support for Turrisi's final exam. It was, however, complete happenstance that they should regroup several years later to record the trio pieces on Fotografia. "They don't live in Ireland," explains Turrisi. "Just by complete chance, an Irish singer, Emilie Conway, organized a tour with the two of them and me. We played together on a few gigs and did one piano trio gig at the end of this tour. I said, 'Why don't we just go for a day in the studio?' So we did. Everything was completely improvised, and we didn't really have a plan for what was going to happen."

Seven trio improvisations from that day in the studio form the backbone of Fotografia, but at the time Turrisi felt they were insufficient to warrant a CD. A year passed by, and Turrisi decided to venture back into the studio to see if some additional solo pieces might provide the missing parts of the picture. "It was a challenge to combine all the sounds and see if it made sense from beginning to end," says Turrisi. "The main idea at the end is that we have the alternation between melodic songs—some of which are my own songs, and traditional Italian tunes which I always play—and highly improvised sketches." The improvised trio pieces, called pensierini (Italian for little thoughts), are a nod to the Italian childhood tradition of writing short essays on a given theme. The baroque bass line, ciaccona, provides the form around which these improvisations take place, and in this regard reflects a similar approach taken on Si Dolce e il Tormento. For Turrisi, however, the similarities between his first CD and this one are superficial: "Si Dolce e il Tormento was much more preconceived and something that I had worked on for a few years. This one was just a snapshot of what happened after one and a half days in the studio."

The titles of the improvised pensierini, translate from the Italian as: "I Am the Shadow Man," "Remorse," "In a Thousand Pieces," "Towards the Depths," "Ants," and "The Ghost Lake," and they reflect the impressionistic, somber tone of these pieces. "We were just messing with the [baroque] bass line ciaccona," explains Turrisi. "The bass line is very open; we started messing with it and Claus [Kaarsgaard] came out with some crazy stuff. I thought, 'Jesus Christ! This is really spooky.' I hadn't said anything about what it should sound like; we just played. My only instruction was to try and keep the pieces short. Later on when I listened to them and imagined what they could be, I gave them really spooky titles."

Interspersed among these trio improvisations are melodic folk tunes from Turrisi's native Italy, a beautiful interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luiza," and several Turrisi originals notable for their lyrical depth. The contrast between the completely improvised and the more melodic, form-based tunes in a way defines Turrisi's approach to the piano trio: "I'm very interested in two main aspects of music: one is music which has a lot of energy, and the other is beauty—something which has a beautiful melody but which is quite simple. I like the juxtaposition between the two," says Turrisi. "I'm not sure if it's always a conscious thing, but I observe that this is the pattern that very often the music follows in a lot of my themes."
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