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Italian Jazz

Thomas Conrad By

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In one way or another, most of the Italian jazz action in New York bears the fingerprints of Enzo Capua, an Italian resident of the city and a tireless promoter of good music in general...
There is a disconnect within the culture of the North American jazz community. On the one hand, jazz people, thrill-seekers by nature, are endlessly in search of sounds they haven't heard before. On the other hand, most North American jazz listeners are oblivious to the richest, deepest source of fresh musical concepts on the current scene: jazz out of Europe.

American ethnocentrism and isolationism is only partially responsible for this blind spot. Many of the best European musicians appear rarely or never in the United States and acquiring their recordings can require special effort and a willingness to pay import premiums. Most of the European musicians who have followings in the United States either live here or record for ECM.

In the last years of the 20th century, the strongest jazz scene outside the United States was Scandinavia. In the new millennium it is Italy. Many factors have played into the recent flowering of Italian jazz. Italy has long been popular on the touring itineraries of major American artists, providing young Italian players direct exposure to primary sources. There are now several jazz curricula like that of the St. Louis College Of Music in Rome. Italy has proactive indigenous jazz record labels like Philology, CAMJazz, Egea and Auand. There is an enthusiastic, devoted jazz audience. There is a formal and spiritual affinity between jazz and Italian popular music.

While it is still not widely known outside Italy, many of the greatest piano players in jazz are Italian. Most of them began their careers as thoroughly-schooled and technically-accomplished classical pianists, then discovered jazz and underwent a metamorphosis. They emerged as artists uniquely capable of shaping wildly spontaneous improvisations into forms both elegant and passionate with Italian romanticism. Some, like Stefano Bollani and Enrico Pieranunzi, are beginning to build reputations in the United States. Others are mostly unknown here, like Stefano Battaglia (whose Re: Pasolini, on ECM, was one of the important jazz achievements of 2007), Danilo Rea (one of the great solo concert improvisers in jazz), Renato Sellani (the ageless Hank Jones of Italy) and Riccardo Arrighini and Giovanni Guidi and 15-year-old prodigy Alessandro Lanzoni.

There are superb bassists in Italy like Enzo Pietropaoli, Giovanni Tommaso, Massimo Moriconi. And there are world-class horn players, a few of whom have been discovered by the American jazz press, like trumpeter Enrico Rava and trombonist Gianluca Petrella. (Yet in the 2007 Downbeat Critics Poll, 18-year-old virtuoso Francesco Cafiso, a "rising star" if ever there was one, placed no better than sixth in the alto saxophone "Rising Star" category and that lyric poet of the trumpet, Paolo Fresu, did not get on the board at all.)

When it comes to Italian exposure, New York, not surprisingly, has been the most fortunate American city. Most of the Italian players mentioned here have appeared on a New York jazz stage at least once. And now an imminent event is evidence that the word on Italian jazz is at last beginning to reach the street; "Italian Women In Jazz" will take place at Blue Note February 1st-3rd.

In one way or another, most of the Italian jazz action in New York bears the fingerprints of Enzo Capua, an Italian resident of the city and a tireless promoter of good music in general (in his weekly series "Enzo's Jazz At The Jolly Hotel") and Italian jazz in particular. Capua is the US representative of the Umbria Jazz Festival, an organization so powerful that its reach has extended beyond Italy to Australia and Japan and the US. Umbria Jazz sponsored the "Top Italian Jazz" mini-festival in 2005 and Francesco Cafiso's tribute to "Charlie Parker With Strings" in 2007, both at Birdland. Capua also works closely with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, the "official supporter" of the "Italian Women In Jazz" series, now in its third edition. The 2008 event will, for the first time, run for three nights at a major New York jazz venue.

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