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Italian Jazz: Peppe Merolla

Nick Catalano By

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The international jazz scene has been a major focus in recent editions of this column. This month we turn to Italy. The emergence of Italian jazz has long been felt in the U.S. primarily through the word-of-mouth exchanges that emanate from American musicians who have worked in Italian jazz festivals such as those in Umbria, Pisa and Siena. But there has long been a steady club circuit for visiting American stars, who are able to utilize the growing talent in many Italian cities. A while back, I spent long hours talking with the late tenor legend Harold Land, who had spent decades working the Italian club scene. His impressive descriptions of Italian jazz players were compelling, but few American writers picked up on the story.

These days it is impossible to ignore the cavalcade of talent in Italian jazz as more and more of the best players come to New York seeking exposure and record deals. Some of the musicians from Italy (and other countries) remain here in the world jazz capitol for reasons explored previously in this column.

Peppe Merolla began his musical career as a drummer, singer, and actor at the age of five, performing and touring with his parents Tina Barone and Gino Morelli. The family once played a concert in New York opening for Frank Sinatra, who was so impressed with Merolla's talent that he nicknamed him "Little Joe." Soon the 14-year old signed a three-record contract with Zeus records.

Upon returning to Italy he studied at the Conservatory of San Pietro A Majella in Naples, where he earned a Master's degree in classical trumpet. After this he became intrigued with the drums and began a love affair with jazz, studying with noted percussionist Walter Scotti. Because his singing and acting talent was so prodigious, he felt compelled to continue those careers and appeared in the award-winning film Scugnizzi as an actor, singing on the movie's best-selling soundtrack.

But it was jazz that finally won Peppe's heart. Once he made a commitment to the music, he plunged into the core of the Italian jazz scene, playing alongside jazz notables Enrico Rava, Guido Pistocchi, Mimmo Epifani and Franco Ambrosetti.

After migrating to the U.S., Merolla immediately plunged into the treasury of leading American jazz giants, performing with them when possible. "I moved to the States because I want to live where this music was born and created" he said, echoing the sentiments of other jazz émigrés. "I want to play this music with the best players in the world" he continued and indeed he has. The list is impressive: Richie Cole, Vincent Herring, Frank Lacy, Steve Davis, Jeremy Pelt and Russell Ferrante of the Yellow jackets.

He shrewdly waited for the right moment to record as a leader and that time has come with this month's release of Stick With Me (PJ productions). The CD features an all-star cast: Steve Turre on trombone, Jim Rotondi on trumpet and flugelhorn, John Farnsworth on tenor, Mike LeDonne on piano and Lee Smith on bass. The sound is straight ahead hard bop—a tradition long favored by young European players—and the compositions truly swing.

Peppe Merolla"s debut as a leader of top American sidemen will undoubtedly pave the way for other leading Italian artists to bring their indigenous jazz traditions along with their individual artistry to this side of the Atlantic.

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