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."

Bassist Kaarsgaard and drummer Lobo excel on the trio pieces, bringing inventiveness and an energy that clearly inspired the leader. Turrisi is enthusiastic in his praise of his trio colleagues: "They are good at finding stuff without me telling them what to do, and they make me sound different. Claus [Kaarsgaard] is very quick and has incredible ears. He gives you a lot as well. A lot of bass players are waiting for you- -especially if you're a pianist, they try to follow you—but you give Claus one second of freedom, and he blows you somewhere else. It was very interesting playing with Claus, who is a very active bassist compared to bassists in Ireland, and maybe it had the reaction of making me feel like playing less. I am very attracted, from a conceptual and aesthetic point of view, to music that has a lot less than what I do; I'd like to be able to do less. I listen to a lot of ECM-type music, and I always feel jealous of people who can say a lot with just a couple of notes. I don't think I can do it because I don't think it's in my personality. I have to make a big effort to try and play less, and in a way I'm trying to go more and more in that direction."

João Lobo

Drummer Lobo also made a big impression on Turrisi: "João [Lobo] is an incredible colorist. I had to get up sometimes and see what he was doing because I couldn't believe the sounds and colors he was getting out of his drums. Not every drummer is capable of that, of not necessarily playing with you, but sometimes against you. If I'm playing a certain rhythm, he'll come up with something that is really out. He uses the drums as a melodic instrument as much as everybody else." Playing live with Kaarsgaard and Lobo with singer Emilie Conway was an experience, as Turrisi recalls, laughing: "It was quite challenging, and I was a bit scared at the beginning when we were doing some gigs because it was pretty straight-ahead stuff, and we were all over the place. The singer was going, 'Guys, can you please play straight-ahead chords and cues?' It's like a roller coaster for me playing with them. You never know what's going to happen next, and that's the fun part."

Three traditional Italian pieces mark the midpoint and bookend the pieces on Fotografia. "Alla Carpinese" is an episodic piece which highlights Turrisi's lightness of touch, whereas "Attaccati li Tricci I" and "Attaccati li Tricci II" feature lovely, tumbling Arabesque lines. These traditional pieces are inspired by Italian singer Pino di Vittorio's interpretations: "He's a bit of a legendary character from the Neapolitan area," says Turrisi of di Vittorio. "He was one of the first to approach traditional music using the original instruments, taking these songs and refining them. I have always felt a great connection with the way he sings but also with the repertoire he sings. If you hear a field recording of 'Attaccati li Tricci,' it's hardly recognizable as a melody, but he refined it. The songs that he sings become very much his songs."

Turrisi first came across di Vittorio through L'Arpeggiata, the renowned early-music ensemble led by Cristina Pluhar, with which Turrisi has played and recorded for a number of years. Pino di Vittorio had collaborated with L'Arpeggiata prior to Turrisi joining the ensemble, though his songs remained in its repertoire: "Even though the singers changed, I played those tunes a lot, and they are tunes I know very well. Both 'Alla Carpinese' and 'Attaccati li Tricci' are tunes that I really like, and I always play them in different contexts." "Attaccati li Tricci II" ends after six minutes, followed by three minutes of silence, suddenly shattered by Turrisi's rather hectic piano, which returns with a vengeance. It's an unusual coda to say the least: "It wasn't a mistake," says Turrisi, laughing. "It's a kind of a ghost track. I don't know exactly what I wanted to say with that. It was something from another pensierini, almost like a little afterthought."

Recorded in just a day and a half, Fotografia has a resulting free spirit to its playing, though composition and improvisation appear to be almost one and the same thing: "People often ask me if I compose, and I don't dare to say that I do because I don't write a lot of notes, especially in a trio format," Turrisi states. "My compositions are just an excuse for improvising. I feel that at the end of the day, I am more an improviser than a composer. Most of the tunes I have written are simple melodic stuff, and I never really write drum parts or bass parts."



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