Gabe Terracciano: A Constant State Of Arriving

Ian Patterson BY

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You go through these periods where you take on an enormous amount of the language of someone else. How do you break out of that and find what works for you and what doesn’t? That takes time.
—Gabe Terracciano
It may seem strange that a jazz violinist should admit to hating jazz violin, but Gabe Terracciano is not your run-of-the-mill jazz violinist. For starters, what other jazz violinist plays Ornette Coleman tunes in a bluegrass band? Nor are there too many jazz violinists who have taken first prize at an old-time fiddle competition, toured Ghana with the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, play punk-salsa, or who improvise on madrigals by Luca Marenzio. Talk about strings to your bow.

Terraciano's debut album as leader, In Flight (Red Piano Records, 2020), is an impressive calling card featuring some of New York's finest in Adam Rogers, Mark Ferber, Matt Pavolka, Dave Pietro and Mike Rodriguez. It highlights not only Terracciano's mesmerizing playing, but also his compositional skills. It is an assured first step in what promises to be an exciting solo career. But does Maine-born, New York based twenty-seven-year old really hate jazz violin?

Grappling With Grappelli

"I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but I hate jazz violin. I do," says Terraciano, laughing heartily. "When you think of jazz violin the image immediately comes to mind of the classical player saying 'Now we're going to do something fun and exciting. We're going to play some jazz!'—followed of course with some imitation of Stephane Grappelli."

Starting out a decade ago, while a student at Tufts University/The New England Conservatory of Music, Terraciano found that most people's notion of jazz violin was quite narrow in definition.

"When I would tell people that I play jazz violin the immediate response would be: 'Oh, like Stephane Grappelli,' and I would say: 'No, not really.' I wanted to be so far away from that because that was what was expected. I think that's why I hate jazz violin; that was the rubric against which jazz violin was measured. I have no personal vendetta against Stephane Grappelli as a player, believe me, he's an incredible player," Terraciano laughs, "but jazz does not only mean this. There are other ways of playing."

Crunch Time

Terracciano's personal take on how jazz violin can be played struck a chord with Ron McClure, when, back in 2011, Terracciano sat in with the bassist and an NYU student ensemble when one of the horn players failed to show. McClure suggested Terraciano play the horn parts, and so taken was he with Terracicano's playing that afternoon that he invited the young violinist to record with him. "I was eighteen!" laughs Terraciano.

That record was Crunch Time, (SteepleChase Records, 2012), which also featured Shareef Taher on drums and pianist Mike Ecroth on piano. A year later Terraciano appeared on another McClure record, Ready Or Not (SteepleChase Records, 2013), with the same line-up augmented by tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown. It was during the recording of Crunchtime that McClure shared with Terraciano the impression the violinist had made on him during that student ensemble performance a year before. "When I started playing those horn parts, Ron was texting Richie Beirach to say: "Zbiggy just walked in the room!"

Enter Seifert

Zbiggy is the affectionate nickname for Zbigniew Seifert, the brilliant Polish violinist who died at the age of thirty-two from cancer, in 1979. A member of Tomasz Stanko's first quintet from 1968-1973, Seifert then forged a brief but exceptional solo career, translating the language of John Coltrane to the violin. Beirach played on Seifert's last album, Passion (Capitol Records, 1979), along with Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Nana Vasconcelos.

Seifert impressed all who played with him, and over thirty years after his death, a young Gabe Terracciano would fall under his spell as well. Terracciano had stumbled upon a trailer montage for a documentary on Seifert by film-maker Erin Harper. "I've said it before, but Seifert changed my life. That was an insane experience, watching that movie montage and not knowing who Zbiggy was. I was never the same after that," Terraciano laughs.

"Seifert showed me things that were possible that I did not think were possible on violin, aside from the sheer force of what he was able to do. Afterwards I immediately looked up Zbigniew Seifert and there was almost nothing available at the time. There was maybe one recording of Man Of The Light (MPS, 1977). I remember when I first got a copy of Solo Violin (EMI Electrola, 1978), oh my god, that was special too."

Like most jazz violinists starting out there had not been too many role models for Terracciano. "The only jazz violin that I had been aware of was all pre-1940—Stuff Smith and Grappelli, and then (Jean-Luc) Ponty, who came way later." Terracciano is something of a historian of the jazz violin, having posited in his Masters degree thesis how Stuff Smith was one of the architects of bebop. "For all Stuff Smith did and for all the influence he had on Dizzy Gillespie and other people like that, he was not playing like Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, and between 1945 and 1960 there is this huge gap for violin. It disappears, and I don't know why. Then Seifert is for me the epitome of the post-Coltrane era. I have never heard his equal when it comes to that music."

Terracciano is also quick to acknowledge the influence on his own development of Ponty and Harry Lookofsky. "The three albums that influence my modern playing were Ponty's playing on Sunday Walk, [SABA Records, 1967], Seifert's Man Of The Light (MPS, 1977), and Harry Lookofsky's Stringsville (Atlantic, 1959)."

Coming from Maine, the world of jazz violin seemed small to Terracciano, being concentrated mainly in Berklee and New York. That perception changed a little in 2018 when Terracciano entered the second edition of the bi-annual Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition. Over sixty applicants from around the world were whittled down to twelve finalists, who competed over two days in the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, Poland. The final was held in Seifert's hometown of Kraków, where Terracciano won third place behind and Mario Forte and Layth Sidiq.

For Terracciano the Seifert competition was an edifying experience in more ways than one. "Going to the competition and to suddenly be in that violin community, to be a part of it and to play on stages where you wouldn't believe violinists could play...that type of music...was really eye-opening," reflects Terracciano.

"It was a great time and it taught me an enormous amount. Knowing that the international jazz violin community is there is such a welcome thing. There are so few people doing what you do that you can feel a little but like 'why am I doing this?' And then you see there are other people doing it too, and it makes you feel so much more confident. You know you're on the right track and it's a wonderful thing. I was so proud to be a jazz violinist."

Maine Influences

Terraciano grew up in a musical family. His father, Carmine Terracciano, is a pianist, his great-grandfather was a violinist. At a very early age Terracciano took a shine to his grandfather's instrument. "I would get the violin and run around the house with it, yelling and screaming, and I became really attached to it. Of course, I broke it because I was two," Terracciano laughs. "My parents looked at the situation and thought, 'Well, maybe we should give him a violin and see what happens.'

Classical studies and the Suzuki method followed, but Terracciano was not entirely at ease. "It wasn't so much that I had resistance to the violin, I had resistance to the manner in which I was being taught. I wasn't connecting with the classical pedagogy. I wanted to play differently. I didn't just want to play what was written on the page. I remember hearing my father practicing jazz and pop and wanting to play like him. The nice thing about having a dad who's a pianist is that you have an accompanist at home," Terracciano laughs. "He was very willing to indulge me. We might take this little Suzuki Bach minuet and play it like a jazz waltz instead of as a classical piece."

Terracciano was as pleased as Punch with his creativity, his teachers less so when he showed them his jazz-filtered Bach. "They would be like: 'No! That's not what you're supposed to do,' so I remember feeling resistance to that. I was maybe nine or ten now. I became very angry and resistant, and I lost my love of playing. I very nearly quit when I was around eleven or twelve."

Luckily, Terracciano found other teachers in the area with a more inclusive approach to music. "Maine has a lot of people from French Canada, so a lot of Quebecois. I was studying with a French fiddle player named Lou Matthieu and I got into that. I actually went and did a couple of fiddle contests, which were kind of interesting. I started studying jazz when I was around thirteen and that was it."

Fiddling About

Well, not quite. In 2018, the same year Terracciano came third in the Seifert Competition in Poland, he took First Prize in the Freshgrass Festival Fiddle Contest, held in the north-west of Massachusetts. "I did not think that was going to happen, by the way" laughs Terracciano. "There's a long tradition of contests in that world and it was something that I was so new to. I remember feeling like a total foreigner there, a total outsider. I was wracking my brain about what to play, because I had never done one of these before."

Ornette Coleman anybody? At the time Terracciano was playing in the Harmolodic String Band, a quartet with Ethan Sherman, Ethan Setiawan and Dan Klinsberg playing Coleman tunes with bluegrass instruments. "I decided to do a straight-down-the-middle fiddle tune and I wanted to do an Ornette Coleman tune. I didn't even care about winning, I just wanted to see what happens. In the end we played an original tune of mine, but it was a free tune. I remember talking to people afterwards and they said they'd never heard anything like that before, which could be a good or a bad thing," Terracciano laughs. "And I won. And I'm still not sure how."

By any standards 2018 had been a good year for Terracciano. He recorded his debut album, won third place in the Seifert Competition, and just two weeks before winning the Freshgrass Fiddle Contest, he was recruited to the Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet. "You know, there's nothing like joining a band that you've been listening to your whole life and getting to play that music," says Terracciano.

Turtle Terror

Since its inception in 1985, The Turtle Island Quartet has upended the notion of what a string quartet should sound like, blurring genres and embracing everything from Jimi Hendrix to John Coltrane. With gigs booked in Illinois, Terracciano had just two weeks to get up to speed with the quartet's repertoire. Along with violinist and TIQ co-founder David Balakrishnan, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit and cellist Malcolm Parson, Terracciano found himself camped in an Illinois casino-hotel for a week, touring nursing homes and schools during the days.

The final gig of the TIQ's week-long residency holds a special place in Terracciano's memory. "We played A Love Supreme at the local high school, because one of the aspects of the residency was working with a local high school orchestra. That was special. They were really awesome." The first gig, for different reasons, was also noteworthy. "I once got asked in an interview if I'd ever played in front of a hostile crowd, and the answer is the closest I ever came was at the first gig I ever played with the Turtle Island Quartet, which was in an elementary school gymnasium with five hundred screaming children at nine a.m. And I was terrified!" Terracciano laughs.

In Flight

In what was an eventful year, 2018 also saw Terracciano complete his Masters degree. It was while studying that Terracciano recorded In Flight. "As part of that degree we took a class taught by the saxophonist Dave Pietro, who is actually on my record. He's first alto with Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider. It was a practical class and the end project was that they gave you a day in their studio, a professional grade studio, where you could do whatever you wanted as long as you emerged with forty five minutes of recorded material. It was a way to make a demo and the idea was that you would be graded."

Terracciano saw an opportunity. "I took it as a way to actually make an album, and I've got the studio for free. I had been teaching guitar and violin, so I had put aside a little bit of money. I hired Adam Rogers, Matt Pavolka, Dave Pietro and Mark Ferber. Dave Pietro was very gracious and did the recording for free because he said if I paid him it would be a conflict of interests because he was teaching the class. Mike Rodriguez, the trumpet player, I had studied with him a couple of semesters before, he owed me a few lessons and I figured I would just cash them in," Terracciano laughs.

Melody is central to Terracciano's playing on In Flight. The violinist has no doubt has to influences in that regard. "Bill Evans, definitely—I've listened to him a ton. Then Freddie Hubbard for ballads, particularly on the album Straight Life. The entire album has three tracks. There's a five-minute version of him and George Benson playing "Here's That Rainy Day"—and that's the track I keep on coming back to. It's incredible. Thinking vocally, I always love hearing Sinatra or Charles Aznavour phrase a melody, or Nancy Wilson."

The Great Cash Cow

With all that was going on in Terracciano's life at that time, the music sat in the can a while. "By the time I realized what was happening a year and a half had passed since I recorded the material," Terracciano laughs. "The actual releasing of it took a long time. The lesson I've learned from doing this is get your stuff out quicker, because if you don't, you're going to forget about it."

Frustratingly, Covid-19 has meant that Terracciano has been unable to tour In Flight, though he did manage to launch the album before the world stopped turning. "I did that right at the end of January, two days after the official release. Everyone came and it was cool."

Terracciano jokes about "milking the great cash cow that is jazz violin," but making it as a professional musician in New York, or indeed anywhere for that matter, requires a huge amount of work, not to mention a certain degree of compromise. "I always have this struggle between how much of my own music do I want to do and how much other music do I have to do for work. I think of myself as a working musician. This is my job. This is my livelihood. And that's not to say that there isn't artistic merit in it or that I can't be creative, but I have to work, and I need to be able to provide for myself and to fund my projects."

You Are What You Is

For a role model in terms of striking a balance between practical needs and musical ambitions, Terracciano looks to one of the 20th centuries great iconoclasts for inspiration. "I've always seen Frank Zappa as a big influence when it comes to that stuff, because he was able to take all the money from the rock 'n' roll and put it into all the classical works and all the avant-garde stuff. When I think of a success story of a working musician who is able to fund their pet projects, he is who I think of."

From bluegrass to Zappa, clearly Terracciano as a jazz violinist has a broad musical palate, one which he attributes, in large part, to former Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman trombonist Don Doane, one of the violinist's early jazz teachers. "One of the biggest things I learned from Don was to know how to play in a bunch of different genres, because that's going to get you work. And that's what I did. I love playing bluegrass, I love playing jazz of course, and there are a lot of other things. There was also a period where I was in a salsa-punk band called El Malo. I lived in Ghana for a while and I got really into West African music. What I have always tried to do is to be in different bands that satisfy different aspects of my musical interests."

Fishing Lines And Fishing Nets

For the liberal arts part of his double-degree programme, Terracciano studied Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts, writing on ways in which music can be used as a tool in social movements and social justice works. In 2014 the programme took Terracciano on a six-month study course to Ghana, which opened up another musical world.

"It was full-on study at the university there. I took all these different classes, I got really into drumming and I was sitting in with a couple of local groups that I got introduced to by teachers. I was learning this instrument called the seperewa. It's essentially an eight-string harp tuned in a mixolydian scale, and the strings are made of fishing line. That's an instrument that has existed in Ghana for hundreds if not thousands of years. I was working with a guy named Osi Korankye, who was the seperewa teacher at the university, and I've since gotten to play with him a couple of times when he's come to New York, which has been really fun."

Naturally, Terracciano had his violin with him, which opened up all kinds of doors. "When you're in a place where there aren't a lot of violinists, the violinists tend to find you, and so I was introduced to a number of the faculty members and they said: 'We play in the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, you should come to a rehearsal.'

Not only did Terracciano rehearse with the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, he ended up playing with it, discovering along the way that in other parts of the world things are done differently. "When we would go to gigs, they would put the basses without any coverings on top of the bus and tie them down with fishing nets. I was watching this in horror. I was freaking out," laughs Terracciano "and they just said: 'This is how we've been doing it. It works.'"

There followed gigs with a string quartet, playing movie premieres and embassy parties. Ghana made such an impression on Terracciano that upon his return to the States he successfully applied for a grant for an internship programme that took him back to Ghana, as a teacher in a school in Accra. The school was the national centre for the ABRSM, the world-wide British music assessment scheme. "We had all these people coming in from all over Ghana to play for this one British guy, who had set himself up in our back room. And it was great, because it gave me a chance to see what the deal really was because it was all classical music. I was meeting people from western Africa who had a passion for playing European classical music. It was really something."

The experience was an eye-opener for the man from Maine. "You can talk about remnants of colonialism and white supremacy on the African continent, of course, but on the other hand, in talking with these people they really did love what they did and they wanted to excel and they wanted to work. It opened up all sorts of things," explains Terracciano.

"There is no doubt that having the background that I did and being a white foreigner gave me a certain amount of power and a certain amount of influence, especially when it came to violin playing," Terracciano expands. "It falls into the whole European white supremacy idea. I was immediately seen as someone who knew everything, even though I knew very little about teaching that sort of thing. I tried to do the best I could in terms of teaching and being available."

The most surprising thing of all, Terracciano relates, was the provenance of the students. "The vast majority of music students, and there were some Ghanaian students who were very good, were the children of Chinese expats, which I was not expecting. That's when I began to learn about China's involvement in Western Africa, which is a whole other thing."

Terracciano's radar, naturally enough, led him to local jazz musicians and the bands of drummer Frank Kissi, and that of keyboardist Victor Dey. "There was one jazz club, it was called +233, which is the country code. I would play on Tuesday nights with the Frank Kissi electric band—it was keys, drums, bass, me and a singer. The gig was six to twelve —it would usually start closer to seven—and there were no breaks. We would play for the first two hours instrumental, then the singer would do three hours, and that was every Tuesday. It was unreal," laughs Terracciano.

Terracciano also played in a trio with jazz singer Toni Manieson, a long-term American ex-pat, who has since passed away. "She had this amazing keyboard player, Terracciano recalls. "He would turn up with two full keyboards. He had the keyboards set up at right angle; on his left side was the keyboard that had all the bass sounds and drum pads, and the right side was the keyboard with all the soloing and chords. I have never seen anybody manipulate keyboards the way this guy did. It was incredible. It was like I was watching a full band. And it sounded real. I have never heard a more real version of "Smooth Operator" in my life. Good times," reflects Terracciano. I would love to go back."

Language Acquisition

A question that confronts all musicians at some stage in their development is how to find their own voice on their instrument. Terracciano is no exception. "It's hard, because you idolize someone for so long and you absorb so much of their sound, and you absorb so much of who they are, that you might turn into a clone. There was a period where I was really afraid of that," Terracciano admits.

"I think when you first start playing you have to sound like somebody else. You have to speak in the same way that your teacher taught you how to speak. When I started playing with the Avalon String Band, my first instinct was 'I need to play like Stéphane Grappelli.' I need to do that thing, because I know for a fact that that way of playing works in this genre. It will mesh with the rest of the band and that is what is important. I'm going to be content to maybe sound a little bit imitative. The music needs to be served first. If that serves the music better, to me, I believe it's worth it," Terracciano acknowledges.

"It took time to develop my own sound, because again, Grappelli is so omnipresent—he is that world, and not sounding exactly like him is really hard. A turning point came with an observation by Jerry Bergonzi, who was part of a jury assessing an end-of-year performance by Terracciano. "Jerry said: 'It's good, but how do you make jazz violin not be a novelty? because that's what he heard, and that really made me stop. I realized that I was going to have to do something else. Something else drastic was going to have to happen," Terracciano explains.

"That's when I started to go more into Zbigniew Seifert, because he didn't sound like a violinist. He was a violinist doing violinistic things that sounded fully serious, and not like he was trying to prove anything, because for a long time with my own playing I was obsessed with being inadequate and having to prove myself against horn players, which I think you have to. I think every violinist goes through that stage.

"Then when I heard Seifert, it brought me back into this idea of this violinistic point of view of thinking: 'I can take the vocabulary that I've been working on and this energy and this bow work—his bow work is unbelievable, the articulations he's using in his right hand—a kind of metamorphosis of different things,' Terracciano explains.

"You go through these periods where you take on an enormous amount of the language of someone else. How do you break out of that and find what works for you and what doesn't? That takes time. That takes learning from Ron McClure, and that takes fucking up on recording sessions, it takes all sorts of good and bad things. You arrive, never fully, because nothing is ever perfect, but you arrive at a place where you can feel a bit better about yourself," says Terraciano with a laugh as full of the joie de vivre, and as distinctive, as his own playing.

Photo: Courtesy of the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation

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