Massimo Colombo: Italy's Erudite Jazz Pianista

Jim Worsley By

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I had a giant in front of me. When you are playing with Peter Erskine you are playing with the history of music.
—Massimo Colombo
Nestled in Northern Italy, the city of Milano is steeped in artistic tradition. Revolutionary in the historical sense in literature, music, art, science, and other scholarly endeavors, Milano is still today a hotbed of innovation and a source knowledge and creation.

Enter one Massimo Colombo to the forefront of the conversation. A gifted jazz pianist, Colombo was born in Milano in 1961. In addition to his inventive and wide-ranging jazz narrative on the keys, Colombo is a true representative of both the past and present references. As a composer, arranger, pianist, and professor, his work is the embodiment of shared musical knowledge and modern sophistication. A well-respected veteran of the rich music scene, Colombo has some thirty records to his credit as a pianist, writer, or both. In addition, he imparts his knowledge and carries on the tradition at conservatories in Italy.

Here are the highlights of a recent chat All About Jazz was pleased to have with Colombo:

All About Jazz: Your most recent record, Powell To the People (Jazzland, 2018]) is a tribute to legendary jazz pianist Bud Powell. How did this project come about?

Massimo Colombo: Bud Powell is one of my favorite pianists. I've been working on his material for many years. I've studied his style very hard. I had not yet found the courage to record something until I met Maurizio Quantizable and Enzo Zirilli.

AAJ: Tell us about your trio bandmates, bassist Quintavalle and drummer Zirilli.

MC: We met in 2015 at the Conservatory Niccolo Piccinni in Bari. We were all teachers of our instruments and discovered we had similar musical interests. Enzo and Maurizio represent a creative rhythm section. They are always ready to follow my ideas and to propose new ones. As we started to perform together, audiences were astonished by our interaction during concerts. We were surprised by the magic and spontaneous atmosphere on stage. I'm speaking about very special moments that can give a real sense and purpose to what you are doing.

AAJ: Aside from Powell, what other pianists influenced you at an early age?

MC: When I was fourteen, I was a fan of Keith Emerson. He opened up the gateway for me to the world of jazz. He did so in particular with a live album entitled Welcome Back My Friends to The Show That Never Ends -Ladies and Gentlemen by Emerson Lake & Palmer in 1974. During the live session there is a short track where the three musicians play swing. It's not purely jazz, of course, but I was so impressed by that sound I started researching. I then discovered lots of musical references from Bud Powell to Bill Evans, for instance.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family? At what age did you start playing the piano?

MC: Some of my relatives played piano and I remember my grandmother singing while cooking in her kitchen. She sang the best arias from La bohème by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. But I can't say that I came from a musical family. We listened to a lot of music and had lots of classical music albums. I started out playing the organ when I was nine. Then I shifted to the piano and it was not easy. They are two completely different musical instruments.

AAJ: As a composer, arranger, and pianist, you have compiled a large volume of music in your career, both as the lead artist and as a writer. Of these, are there a few that stand out in your mind? What would be a good starting point for someone new to your music to begin listening and get a real feel for the essence of Massimo Colombo?

MC: With no doubt, Trio Grande (2015) is my most representative album. It best captures my musical point of view and my trio arrangement concepts. It was recorded in 2015 with drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz. I think that writing and improvisation blend together nicely in this record and can be perceived as a whole. That is to say, music, simply flowing pleasantly, without any hurdles. This kind of atmosphere can also be found on my first album, Alexander (1989) with bassist Marco Michell and drummer Francesco Sotgiu. I composed lots of music, all for the piano, to get to the point of being able to create Trio Grande. Chamber Music (2002) has a crucial role as well. It is an orchestral view of my style meant to develop new perspectives.

AAJ: Your records have a variance of jazz influences and styles. Tempered Blues (2017) offers up solo vignettes that are short, soft, and melodic. The aforementioned Trio Grande treats the listener to a union of classical music with jazz. Whereas Virtualmente(2003) underscores the jazz piano with more of a techno pop sound. What leads you in these directions?

MC: I love music and I love combinations. Classical, jazz, ethnic, etc. When an idea comes up, I immediately think of the proper sound. If I need acoustic, I write for an acoustic instrument. If it should be electric, then I work with electric components. My life is not in just one way. I love to explore all possibilities in music.

AAJ: You have recorded and played with a few jazz heavyweights including Erskine, Billy Cobham, Bob Mintzer, and Jeff Berlin. In your experiences, are there comparative stylistic differences in working with your fellow homeland musicians and with those on the international front?

MC: No, I don't think so. Good musicians are good musicians. I don't think that stylistic differences have a role. However, some of them made the history of music. This is the only difference I see. So, the artistic weight changes. When I recorded with Peter Erskine, I had a giant in front of me. He previously collaborated with Jaco Pastorius, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter. When you play with Erskine you're playing with the history of music.

AAJ: You teach arranging and piano at conservatories in Italy. Please expand and educate us on your associations and curriculum in these domains. At which conservatories do you share your knowledge?

MC: It's very exciting and interesting to teach at the conservatories. I have taught at conservatories throughout Italy. Currently I am teaching at the Niccolo Piccinni in south Italy in Bari. It is the biggest in Italy with thousands of students and 250 teachers. In the interior theater they perform classical and jazz concerts hosting both national and international musicians. I find that teaching is important for my personal development and so that I can help people grow together. It is an important task that I love because when you are in a conservatory you can analyze and practice everything that is related to the instrument. In regard to jazz, everything is related to composition and improvisation. I have written many books to deepen insights into music, not only from the theoretical side. In fact, most of them consist of collections of piano compositions which include my knowledge of the classical and jazz paths. If you really want to know music, you must read it first, then understand and develop it. The knowledge of different musical styles and languages and of different musical periods is essential to developing ideas and creativity. It's crucial to really understand music. A master, then, must transmit knowledge. Conservatories are places where knowledge flows.

AAJ: Is it a challenge to interest young students in the classics and other traditional jazz? What do you do to engage them?

MC: The audio quality from the past can be a stumbling block when introducing them to such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Powell. So, I encourage them to listen to recent versions by other musicians. Then we make a comparison. The best students recognize the value of the original works and they appreciate them. In this way, my lesson turns into very deep research. The cleverest take advantage.

AAJ: Was there a defining moment in your career that references that kind of knowledge and growth?

MC: In 1997 I took part in the recording session of an album for the Sony Classical Series dedicated to the music of Nino Rota. Rota was an important Italian composer who authored the best soundtracks for Federico Fellini's motion pictures. The director was Riccardo Muti with the Orchestra La Filarmonica della Scala. I was involved with dozens of musicians that were part of an entire different area of music. That is to say that I was the only jazz musician, and there was nothing to improvise. In reading all the sheets there was no space for personal creativity. But during the recording sessions it was like feeling part of a mutating organism producing great sounds. Taking part in that integral sound mass was as exciting as an improvisational process. From that moment on, right then, I knew that improvisation itself can be found everywhere. Even in written musical scores.

AAJ: What is on the horizon for 2019? Are you working on any new projects and/or a new record?

MC: I have always produced albums with different concepts, writings, sounds, forms, and orchestral layouts. After Powell to the People, the next challenge is related to Weather Report. Once again with Zirilli and Quintavalle, a new album to be released in 2019 is simply called Acoustic Weather. It has been recorded and is currently being mixed. Then a series of CDs concerning cycles of my compositions for piano, that have been written over the years, will finally be recorded and released afterwards. I am also completing a book from the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is music that I have always been fascinated by and a subject of study since my adolescence. Also, a manual of harmony focused on piano accompaniment to be used in the Conservatory and in all schools of music, with pop and jazz courses, is coming out.

AAJ: So not much going on....ha! Thank you very much for taking a break from an obviously full and productive schedule. Ciao.

Photo Credit: Danilo Codazzi

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