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Ilaria Capalbo: In Fearless Pursuit Of Her Muse

Ilaria Capalbo: In Fearless Pursuit Of Her Muse

Courtesy Paolo Sorini


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This album for me, on a personal level, was a way of finding a voice, so to speak. I wanted to be completely myself, without half steps.
—Ilaria Capalbo, double bassist
After years playing in different bands and drawing widespread praise for her lyricism and rhythmic agility, double bassist Ilaria Capalbo has stepped up to front her own project. The Neapolitan's debut album, Karthago (Bluenord Records, 2022), is a remarkable statement of intent. Inspired by the ancient Mediterranean city of Carthage and its near-mythical figurehead, queen Alyssia, Capalbo harnesses duo, quintet and septet in a suite that is powerfully alluring.

The rise and fall of Carthage may seem like an unusual source of inspiration for a debut album, but for Capalbo, who grew up in the no-less storied Mediterranean city of Naples, history and mythology are like food and drink.

"I come from the South of Europe—from the South of Italy—and there you are told these stories from early on," explains Capalbo. "Carthage was founded by a queen, and it became a powerful entity in the Mediterranean. Then it was completely destroyed after a long war with Rome. I thought this could be a good metaphor for not being afraid of the final outcome, but just to persist with one's intention..."

Persistence in following her own muse has paid off handsomely for Capalbo, for Karthago is impressive by any yardstick. It is a very personal musical statement and one that speaks volumes for Capalbo's compositional strengths, but the bassist is quick to acknowledge the input of the musicians in her band.

"It was a long process to write it and bring it to my musicians but in the end, I think I managed to pull them into the vision, so to speak, and I think they did an awesome job. I felt like it wasn't just my compositions, it was something that was shared between us in terms of experience."

Having studied jazz formally in Naples and then at the Conservatorio di Musica de Salerno G. Martucci, Capalbo moved to Stockholm to complete her Masters degree at the Royal College of Music, where she also studied classical music and composition. In the Swedish capital, all the pieces of the jigsaw came together for Capalbo to realize her debut as leader.

The core band on Karthago features guitarist Andreas Hourdakis, drummer Fredrik Rundqvist and the twin-horn attack of baritone saxophonist Thomas Backman and tenor saxophonist Fredrik Nordstrom. Capalbo plays with Hourdakis and Nordström in the saxophonist's own quartet, Dolores. The other musicains were, bar the odd jam session meeting, new musical collaborators.

On one of the album's outstanding tracks, the episodic 'Beloved; Part l Ab Radice,' Capalbo employs cornetist Tobias Wiklund and trombonist Mats Aleklint to bring additional depth and color. "'Beloved... ' was the last track that I wrote," says Capalbo. "For me, this particular tune is the sum of all experiences on this album, in a way. I have been writing for larger ensembles for a while, so I thought of trumpet and trombone as the obvious choice."

As Capalbo explains, her charts were lent wings by the very distinctive musical personalities in her band. "I wanted to put together a group of people that I thought would play this music the way I intended it to be played. One of the most exciting aspects was the choice of people—a musical meeting of souls. Andreas, whom I think has an unmistakable sound on guitar, shares a Mediterranean background with me, he's from Crete, whereas the other musicians in the quintet all come from the same town north of Stockholm called Sandviken, which is a little fun," says a smiling Capalbo.

"Fredrik Nordström and Thomas play a wide array of reeds, especially on our live set, and have a different approach to the instruments which I like very much. Fredrik Rundqvist is a true listener behind the drum set, and as a bassist you really want to have that. I think they all add a lot to the music."

There is a real vitality to the music on Karthago. Capalbo's melodies are handsome, her sense of rhythm is sure and dynamic. No less impressive is her harmonic sensibility, the way she layers the ensemble's voices whilst allowing room for personal expression. Or the way she draws on history and mythology to create something utterly fresh and contemporary sounding.

Another aspect of Capalbo's music, which is not necessarily connected to the themes of ancient Carthage and its queen, is the sense of narrative flow that permeates it. Hers is music that tells stories of sorts, whatever sense the indiviudal listener may choose to attribute to them.

"That is something I think happened quite naturally and purposefully," says Capalbo. "Generally, composing comes easier to me when I have to think of a leitmotif and then I can shape the music around it, so it becomes like a message that I want to convey rather than a collection of tunes."

Queen Alyssia of Carthage's epic story has made her an enduring figure in popular culture since Roman times, with writers, painters, poets and composers inspired by her exploits. There is some historical uncertainty surrounding Alyssia (or Dido) but that didn't stop Francesco Cavalli, Henry Purcell, Hector Berlioz, Dante, Virgil or William Shakespeare from falling under her spell. Capalbo too...

"It's what she symbolized. If you read an epic poem like the Aeneid, written by Virgil, it also tells you more about this story. She was not afraid of being vulnerable and of being who she was. I moved to Stockholm permanently two years ago and that was a new start for me. I kind of recognized myself in that story. I was also interested by the fact that the city of Carthage was founded by a queen, and she brought it to prosperity," reflects Capalbo.

"This album for me, on a personal level, was a way of finding a voice, so to speak. I wanted to be completely myself, without half steps. It was also the first time that I have been confronted with the task of being a leader, which is something that is very nice but also sometimes challenging on many aspects. It changes you on some level. It made me more aware of many dynamics."

One of the most striking aspects of Karthago is the originality of the music. Whilst clearly in the jazz tradition, the music displays no obvious historical reference points. Capalbo is, above all, an original voice. She freely admits, however, that the writing process was far from straightforward.

"I found a lot of challenges in this project. First of all, I came to a point where something in my confidence had to shift in order to achieve what I wanted to. I also wanted to feel comfortable with the material, so I basically engaged in a long process of composition, of editing, and going back sometimes to the same few bars for detail. Some of the tunes came naturally and were easily composed but others were the result of a larger effort. Then there were the logistics of rehearsals and recording: that was harder as we all know how the last two years were."

Nor was it entirely easy to adapt from the way of life in Naples, Italy, to that of Stockholm, Sweden. "It was something of a culture shock, I must say," Capalbo admits. "I mean, because I don't think there is a more different place compared to where I come from. Here things are more organized, generally speaking, and stuff happens more easily but I can miss the spontaneity, the warmth and the way of connecting to others that exists in Naples. Probably that's the biggest difference. I think both places could take a page out of the other's book," she suggests, sagely.

Making a living as a jazz musician is challenging anywhere, but Capalbo finds Sweden slightly more accommodating than Italy in that respect. "I would say it is a little easier. There is a different work system that makes thing easier in general here in Sweden. There is the opportunity of support and there is a good community. Also, it is easier to make a day job work together with the independent profession compared to Italy."

Capalbo's day job is teaching classical bass and cello. "I like teaching. I would like to continue but as an ideal job, rather than teach younger children as I mostly do now, I would like to teach young adults. I feel that I would have a lot more to say, probably, in that situation."

Capalbo's bass playing on Karthago is sumptuous but never flashy, unhurried but resolute, lyrical but free. In past years, her playing has brought comparisons to Percy Heath and Eddie Gomez, but there is perhaps more of Charlie Haden's magic in her approach to the instrument. It is a comparison that resonates with the Italian. "He is probably the single biggest influence on me. Gary Peacock is also another whom I really, really love."

The bass, however, was not Capalbo's first instrument. "I started when I was young with the classical guitar first, and later on with the cello for a while. Then I started listening to jazz music mostly. I was very struck by the first trio of Bill Evans and I think that was what brought me towards double bass in my late teens. It was love at first sight. I decided that the double bass was the way forward for me."

Naples is a city renowned for its rich musical history and Capalbo acknowledges that this atmosphere impacted her greatly in her youth.

"I had some very strong pulls towards the musical world when I was a child. My sister played the piano, and I was completely in love with that when I was little. I don't come from a family of musicians, but my parents are musical. They were listening to a lot of stuff when I was small. I got to go to concerts and the theatre, like Teatro San Carlo. They have a really good symphonic season. Naples is vibrant when it comes to art, so I got exposed to a lot of different things. There was a very vibrant jazz scene and also pop music, like Pino Daniele, for example."

Daniele, whose star shone from the late '70s until his death in 2015, was a brilliant guitarist and a highly distinctive vocalist. His brand of pop, blended with Italian folk traditions, Mediterranean influences, blues and jazz, garnered significant commercial and critical success. Collaborations with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter and Alphonso Johnson punctuated Daniele's career.

"People loved him!" says Capalbo of Daniele. "I think he gave that something extra to his music. You would always hear something that was unexpected, and always beautiful, in a way."

It was another guitarist, however, that fired the young Capalbo's imagination and planted a seed that would later blososm.

"I think my 'lightbulb' moment would have been when I was seventeen or something. It was at one of the Pat Metheny Group tours, Speaking of Now probably, or something like that. I didn't know much about the music, but I went to this concert with a couple of friends, and I was kind of blown away by the musicianship I saw on stage. I thought 'I want to do that!' I came home and I told everyone," recalls Capalbo, laughing.

Capalbo has an ear for a good guitarist. In recent years she hasstruck up a deeply empathetic collaboration with Swedish six-stringer Susanna Risberg, whose albums Vilddjur (EhMM Music, 2018) and Boiler Room (CAM Jazz, 2021) have marked her out as a rising star of European jazz. The possibility of realizing a duo recording with Risberg is something that appeals to Capalbo.

"I would like to, very much. We have been sometimes mentioning this. She's one of my favorite people and a dear friend. I really like playing with her, so why not? There is something in the way we approach our instruments, I think, that fits together. And also there is a good connection, in real life as well," laughs Capalbo.

For the time being, though, Capalbo's focus in on her own group and the on-going tour to promote Karthago. No sooner was the album out, however, than she was thinking of how to adapt and grow the music. At the January release gig for Karthago, in Fasching, Stockholm, Capalbo led a septet for the entirety of the second set.

"We played 'Beloved... ' and another couple of tunes that are not on the album," says Capalbo. "It was very fun. I think it works very well. If the global situation improves and makes it easier to travel with more people, then I would like to bring a full septet to the stage and arrange the other tunes for a septet."

Slowly but surely, the global situation does seem to be improving. In addition to gigs around Sweden, Capalbo has toured Karthago on two separate trips to Italy, with festival appearances also lined up in Ireland and Finland. It is just the beginning of a great adventure, which will surely spread Capalbo's name far and wide, and like queen Alyssia of Carthage, inspire others in her wake.

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