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Franco Ambrosetti: Busy Businessman, Exquisite Artist

Franco Ambrosetti: Busy Businessman, Exquisite Artist

Courtesy John Abbott


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You need to have an artistic talent in your blood. Then you can do whatever you like
—Franco Ambrosetti
Franco Ambrosetti, a horn player from Switzerland, has a unique perspective on music and art. Because his vantage point is different than many musicians, having held the position as CEO of a significant company in Europe. He plays trumpet and flugelhorn with a rich tone and an approach that has matured over time, shifting from a propensity to blaze through bebop runs to a more thoughtful approach where the listener is taken on a smoother ride—not less meaningful, but different. (He can still light a fire when the time is right).

Based in Europe, he has played with some of the great figures in jazz, like Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Lee Konitz, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, Louis Hayes and Donald Byrd. But he is also an academic, with a masters degree in economics from the University of Basel. He was CEO of his family business, Ambrosetti Industrial Group, with operations in Switzerland and Italy. The company made steel wheels for vehicles and landing gears for airplanes and had some 650 employees. He sold the companies in 2000, but still writes newspaper and magazine articles on economics.

He's also authored an autobiography, Two Roads, Both Taken, (Dohr Verlag Köln (Cologne), 2020) that talks about his journey over the decades. He turns 80 this year.

"I was explaining in the book," he says from his home in Switzerland, "If you have any kind of artistic talent—it could be a painter, it could be a writer, or musician— You can do whatever you like. You can be a lawyer. Maybe even a politician... what you cannot do is, if you are a lawyer, and decide to become a musician—no. That doesn't go that way. You're born as a musician.

"I mean, the talent of the musician or a writer or whatever, you need to have an artistic talent in your blood. Then you can do whatever you like. And then it's up to you how you practice your instrument. Or you buy your pencils and colors if you are a painter. That's up to you, how you deal with two professions. But it is possible. But it is possible only if you are an artist in your soul. And you do another profession. The other way around it doesn't work."

Ambrosetti has led that life. He has the music gene and the business acumen. As the book title indicates, he took both paths.

"Running two companies, doing wheels and landing gears, is not really the same. But there are many points in common, you know. Creativity. You have to be creative in business too. As a jazz musician, you learn at the beginning, you are nobody. You go around with a group of musicians that are all famous and you are just a new guy who nobody knows. And so you realize they're treating you differently than the others. And this is something that happens in a factory when you're a worker, and the CEO never goes to you and asks you, 'How's your wife?' Or your kids— which I did. So I think there is a human side."

Ambrosetti followed his music muse that lead him to the height of jazz in Europe and collaborations and gigs in the U.S. The latest contribution to the art form is an album of ballads, Lost Within You (Unit Records), released this year with a superior band consisting of Jack DeJohnette on drums, John Scofield on guitar, Renee Rosnes and Uri Caine on piano, and Scott Colley on bass. A couple of years ago, the same band, without Rosnes, recorded Long Waves (Unit Records), containing a more stylistically varied song list.

He says producer Jeff Levenson was important in gathering the band because of his familiarity with the New York City scene and the players. It was Levenson who got in touch with DeJohnette for the two recent recordings. Ambrosetti has known Scofield for years, including a stint with the guitarist in the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, of which Ambrosetti is a co-founder. Scofield also appeared on two other Ambrosetti recordings, Movies and Movies Too (1987 and 1988, both Enja).

Ambrosetti played with Caine in New York and sat in with him years ago in Lugano on a radio show, where they played Mozart. Colley is someone he met at various festivals. "I always wanted him as a bassist." Rosnes he met more recently, in the fall of 2019 before the recording was made the following January, just before the coronavirus lockdown. "I was invited by Ron Carter to play two concerts with him in Switzerland. She was the pianist. Since we played a wonderful ballad together, I realized she would be perfect for some of the ballads I decided to record."

The recording process, with such accomplished players, was smooth and easy. And not without special moments. "Going into a studio, there are things that happen without thinking about it. Like "Flamenco Sketches." That was a surprise for me. I never played it before. After Miles Davis it's very difficult to think about playing it."

It happened at the end of one of the sessions. Rosnes sat at the piano and started to play. "She was kind of jamming. I didn't know what kind of melody to play (over it). I improvised. But I didn't remember what Miles was doing on 'Flamenco Sketches.' Jack came and said, 'The melody is like this.' He sang it and played it on the piano. Then we decided to record it. It wasn't planned. These things happen when there is a friendly and funny atmosphere in the studio. You are relaxed and enjoying doing what you're doing. This is apparently what happened to everyone in the studio those three days we were there. Something comes out of the blue like this. That is one of the best pieces on the album."

The album is ballad bliss. It leads off with Horace Silver's "Peace," a thoughtful rendering with a twist: DeJohnette plays piano, introducing the song with a pensive statement leading to a luscious entrance by Ambrosetti's flugelhorn that gives the melody the treatment it deserves. (DeJohnette studied piano and is an accomplished player). His voicings behind the horn are delectable. Of course the contributions of Rosnes and Caine are also stellar, their creativity running high. "Peace," and a few other selections, also display Scofield's softer side. Well known for his blues, fusion and bebop strengths, he floats beautifully through the ballads.

The recording establishes Ambrosetti as a wonderful balladeer. Assured, yet vulnerable. With gorgeous tone he paints alluring pictures that can be an oasis in these frustrating times.

Comparing it to the previous Long Waves, Ambrosetti says he was in better shape for the newer CD. "I was playing a different flugelhorn, which makes it easier. While recording Long Waves, I realized that I was not always perfect in terms of cleanness of the phrases that I was doing. And in fact, Jim Anderson was a fantastic sound engineer. He did a lot of work after I finished recording that album." Whereas on Lost Within You "there is nothing fixed. Exactly what you hear is what I played. We didn't cut anything. We didn't do any editing. Nothing."

A ballad-themed album is something Ambrosetti was ready for.

"I think a ballad is something that you can play really going deep inside. It's like a poem. Because you have to be old enough to restrain your phrases, your notes," he says. "When I started playing trumpet, my idol was Clifford Brown. In my generation, they were all influenced by Clifford. But at the beginning, when I was playing with my father's band, he told me all the time, 'You know, you play ballads very correctly. They're cleaned up. But there is no heart in it. There is no feeling.' And I realized my goal then was to play as many notes as possible. Also, there was a kind of funny competition in jam sessions with other trumpeters. You know, the guy who gets higher notes, the guy who gets faster and doesn't lose the timing. All these were the goals I was trying to achieve.

"Then becoming older I realized what Miles did with Charlie Parker—many, many notes. And then (as his career advanced), few notes, but the most important ones that you could choose in that particular chord. I realized that this is a natural process for a musician who ages and get mature. And the maturity is something that you get after you have been experiencing, in life, many things. From love to hate, from a rage to happiness, all this inside you. Finally, I realized that I wanted to have a ballad record. We just played the ballad, respecting what it was meant to be. For this I think the age is definitely a positive aspect. Because you feel you can get out your feelings, not with many notes, but with one long straight note. You need one note that expresses the feelings that you have inside while you're playing these ballads."

Ambrosetti's professional career began in 1961 when he was still studying economics. He made his professional debut in Rome with a quintet and a year later, he enrolled at University of Zurich, then moved to Basel where he eventually earned his economics degree. He played festivals around Europe, but kept up with his academic studies. He was doing jazz gigs, including playing with his father's band. "I was supposed to be a student, but I was basically a professional musician. My father, in '68, said. 'It's time you decide what to do.'" Ambrosetti, meanwhile, had won a trumpet competition in Vienna, organized by renowned pianist/composer Friedrich Gulda. "Then I decided that I would finish my studies as an economist. I stopped thinking, 'What should I do? Be a musician or be a businessman?' I stopped doing that and I said, 'You can be both.' And in fact, that's what I did."

His father, Flavio Ambrosetti, played bebop alto saxophone around Europe in the 1940s and led a band. That was a natural early influence. An important event was when his father took him to see the Stan Kenton big band in Milan, Italy, when Franco was about 12. "That's when I decided to play trumpet. [He had been studying classical piano]. The Stan Kenton big band was so fantastic. And so innovative. Totally different. But one thing that impressed me so much was when Conte Candoli was playing a ballad all by himself. He played that in such a fantastic way. Going back home in the car with my father I said, 'Daddy I decided I would like to play trumpet.' When I fell in love with the instrument, it was with Conte Candoli. Incredible. I still have these memories," Ambrosetti marvels.

"My father had a quintet with George Gruntz and (drummer) Daniel Humair. During the '60s, we were playing in Prague and in the communist countries where all the American musicians were invited because it was fun for the people. It was the only way for them to forget a little bit the dictatorship that they had. It was like freedom. Jazz is freedom, right? Improvisation is freedom, although with rules, but it still is freedom.

"In '68, I graduated, and then I started to work first as a consultant, and then I went to the companies." Franco joined the family company in 1973 as vice president. He became CEO when his father retired. "This is one part of my life. But I kept playing every day. I kept practicing every day. Those were also the years where I started to come to the States." In 1979 he recorded an album with Bennie Wallace, Gruntz and some others. About every two years he would travel back to the U.S. to make recordings, which he still does to this day.

"I did in fact, two professions. I've been a trumpeter, and composer and co-founder of the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. But I was also a CEO of the companies of the family. And I ran this company. We had about 650 people, which for America, it's a small company, but here in Switzerland and in Italy it is quite big. And we were manufacturing steel wheels for cars and trucks. And also landing gears for airplanes and brakes for airplanes. I did some 450 landing gears for the F-18s, for the Navy.

"In 2000, I sold all the companies that we had. So now, I'm only a professional musician, but I was always doing business. I'm still an economist. Economics is interesting. It's very close to philosophy, to ethics. So it's interesting. I never give up. I still write for newspapers. Mainly not on the cultural side, mainly on the business side, as an economist."

His influences along the way are varied. "I've been, especially in the later years, strongly influenced by Miles' concepts. The way he puts a band together. The way he organizes events. The freedom he gives to the musicians. Also, the kind of music he picks. What kind of standard does he play? And did he play a lot of standards? So, I was influenced by Miles and a lot also by John Coltrane. I mean, in the phrases I play, in the way I approach changes. Coltrane is a great influence. Although I'm not a saxophonist, I can try to play some licks that 'Trane was playing.

"And another person that influenced me very much is not a trumpeter. It was Michael Brecker, with whom I have played a couple of times. And I have two albums that we did together. His playing was so fantastic, because he was a good mixture of 'Trane and a lot of other things. Mike really influenced me a lot. And I was copying these phrases on the trumpet. It's more difficult because we have three fingers [playing only three valves] and not 10. But it can work."

Freddie Hubbard also impressed Ambrosetti as a superior example of the Clifford Brown trumpet school. "We were all somehow influenced by Clifford. So that is very important." Later, Wynton Marsalis came on the scene with a different approach, but it did not capture Ambrosetti's fancy. "His way of approaching music is totally different than the Clifford Brown way of approaching music. And I never followed that. I stay with the Brownists. I think Freddie was the number one example. Woody Shaw also was a fantastic trumpeter and a good friend also. He went in different directions, like going in and out in the changes. He was the first that used to do what already Coltrane was doing. I remember we practiced together sometimes when he was in Paris and Zurich. In the younger years—'67, '68, those years—I was always looking at him. 'What the hell are you doing? What is that?' That was Woody. But basically, we all come from Clifford Brown, and then Marsalis came and changed the style and now the new trumpeters play different stuff."

As he continued to mature, learn and explore on his instrument, the importance of the sound became prominent.

"It's a long search, the search for the sound. I started with trumpet, then from trumpet I moved to flugelhorn. But I was still playing the trumpet. Like most of the younger trumpeters, I was playing both. But then if you look around, among my colleagues, most of them switch at the end to flugelhorn for a simple reason. It is easier to play. It pardons you much more. Because the air flows through the instrument much easier. Because it's conic [shaped]. It's not cylindrical like a trumpet. It means they start with diameter, and the diameter gets slowly, slowly, slowly smaller. Until the end, of course, when it comes out of the bell. But it opens up and it means that the air flows much better. Whereas the trumpet, being cylindrical, you're tight, the air is tight. And it is much more difficult to approach and to play. And so, at the end of the day, now I play mostly flugelhorn.

"The trumpet, sometimes I practice with it, but it's more a technical thing. The sound of the flugelhorn is always nice. Even a bad flugelhorn has a nice sound. Whereas a bad trumpet has a horrible sound. And also the chops, you know. The lips change over the years. And the teeth—where you put the mouthpiece—they also move. I guess the flugelhorn is a solution for somebody who is over 70," he says with a laugh. "I will recommend it to every trumpeter who is over 70 that wants to continue to play clean and perfect."

Like all musicians these days, COVID made 2020 a nightmare. Ambrosetti would have already been touring in support of the new recording if it were possible. With vaccines being administered, there is hope. In fact, there is a gig scheduled for November in Basel, Switzerland, "if we can. I don't know. The possibility of things loosening up? Right now I don't see it. But in fact, they are booked for 24 November in Basel because it's a kind of celebration for my 80th birthday, which is only two weeks later, on the 10th of December. And so the idea is to play all together. Only one concert, maybe two concerts, and then they would go back to the States. But who knows whether they can?"

He says the shutdown has allowed him to relax, but "I would say that is much too relaxed. Because at the end of the day, you practice every day a little bit of trumpet, and then you sit on piano. And what I do is I compose a lot for the next album, whenever this is going to happen." He's also trying to figure what the theme will be for his next project. Something away from ballads. "But it has to be original. It has to be different than what I did before. That's what musicians are supposed to do, right?

"This is a time for thinking deeply inside yourself. Which direction do you want to go? What should be an album after this one? It is not going to be easy to do another album. Ballads is a concept. Finding another concept is not the easiest thing, so I'm still thinking about it. In a way, it is welcomed that we have no concerts so we have the time to think about what to do. Because one day we will have to start again. So right now, I'm trying to find out what I will be doing next. And I have the time to do it. That's the positive aspect. The negative aspect is that basically we are always alone. Of course I am with the family, but no musician can come to the house. You cannot go to the studio. You don't see a concert. You cannot approach other kinds of music, like symphonic. We have a very good symphony orchestra here, but they cannot play. Everything is streaming. But the streaming is not the same. I mean, streaming is plastic."

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