Massimo Sammi: Dawn of a New Day

Matthew Warnock By

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Massimo Sammi has lived a diverse life, to say the least. Growing up in Italy, Sammi began playing the piano at an early age, before quitting his lessons because of his cigar-smoking instructor. After graduating high school, Sammi studied law, graduating in 1997, then served in the Italian military, where he played trumpet in the army brass band. Admitted to the bar in 2000, Sammi quickly realized that his spare time was focusing more and more on his love for composing and for the guitar.

A few short years later, Sammi made the leap from lawyer to full-time music student when he was awarded a scholarship to study jazz composition at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the midst of his full-time study, and maintaining a busy performance schedule, Sammi self-produced his first album First Day (2009) to wide acclaim.

The album is a rare find in the jazz world today, as it is derived from a single concept, in this case the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, with each piece connected through elements derived from the movie and from the theories of the film's main character, mathematician John Nash. Mixing elements of modern classical, jazz, rock and freely-improvised music, the album represents the deep emotional connection that Sammi feels to the storyline and to Nash himself, while avoiding becoming an "alternative soundtrack" of sorts. With an all-star cast of sidemen, including bassist John Lockwood and legendary saxophonist George Garzone, First Day is an enjoyable album that features some extraordinary performances by these seasoned jazzmen.

As he furthers his study of jazz composition, film scoring and classical composition, Sammi is only scratching the surface of the possibilities that his music holds. With a keen ear for the dramatic elements that define great music, a strong sense of modern harmony and rhythm and the ability to step back and focus on the bigger musical picture, First Day is more than a reference to a scene in the film; it is the dawn of the first day in what should be a long and successful career for this gifted composer.

All About Jazz: Your album First Day is a concept album. Can you give us a brief outline of what that concept is and what inspired you to use that as the backdrop for this album?

Massimo Sammi: The concept behind the recording relates to the movie A Beautiful Mind, which is the story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. I wanted to write music that represented the concepts and feelings that I derived from the movie. I didn't want to write a soundtrack, I wanted to write music that was meaningful to me and that dealt with my love of jazz and non-jazz music.

So, I came up with the idea of trying to apply storyboarding techniques, which is something that I learned from Ron Blake at the New England Conservatory. Basically, storyboarding, in a musical sense, is a technique that utilizes imagery and emotion from a cinematic work as the inspiration for a composition or improvised work. That's one of the concepts behind the recording; to write and improvise music that is inspired by the images and ideas found in the movie, and five of the seven tracks were directly inspired from scenes in the film.

AAJ: Can you give us a few examples of songs that were inspired from specific scenes in the film?

MS: Sure, the song "First Day," was inspired by the scene where Nash first arrives at Princeton and he feels like a boat floating in the ocean, that he's somehow different than most of the other people. I tried to recreate that lunacy and wondering in the harmony, melody and general mood of the song.

Another example is the song "Encryption," which was influenced by the scenes where Nash is hired by the CIA to break different codes. So, those five tunes were direct representations of specific scenes in the film and that was the first concept for the album.

The second concept comes from his mathematical theories, so not just moments from his life but his actual work. This was the inspiration for the two free jazz improvisations on the album, called "The Prisoner's Dilemma" [#1 and #2]. These were based on Nash's theory that he called the Prisoner's Dilemma.

AAJ: Could you explain, briefly for us non-math folks, the concept behind the Prisoner's Dilemma theory?

MS: The Prisoner's Dilemma, I'm not a mathematician but this is what I understand it to be, is a theory that is used to explain certain aspects of human behavior. The theory describes two criminals who have been caught by the police and are being interrogated separately. They know that if they both talk they're going to get five years in jail; if they stay silent they both get two years; and the catch is that if one talks and the other doesn't, the one who talks gets one year while the silent criminal gets eight years in prison. So therein lies the dilemma, what will each criminal do given those specific circumstances?

AAJ: How did you take this concept and apply it to those two freely improvised pieces?

From left: Massimo Sammi, George Garzone, Yoron Israel

MS: We divided the quartet into two teams. George Garzone and I were the prisoners, and Yoron Israel and John Lockwood were the prosecutors. George and I exchanged one-bar musical ideas at the beginning of the tune, not knowing what the others would play. Then, I would know if George was "confessing" his musical idea and George would know if I was confessing my idea. The purpose was to develop an interplay between the prisoners and the prosecutors through the exchange of our musical ideas.

I was really happy with the amount of tension and drama that we were able to convey on these tunes, that's directly underlying the Prisoner's Dilemma theory. The first of the two tracks was quieter, trying to represent the initial mood of the participants in the dilemma, then the second track was louder and more outgoing, where we wanted to represent the struggle of the prisoner's as they tried to break out of their precarious situation.

One thing that I've noticed about modern jazz is that there is often a lack of dramatic energy. The musicians are really super proficient and incredibly technically advanced, but a lot of the times when I listen to that music I don't feel emotionally involved, like I did when I listen to jazz from the '60s, '70s and '80s. So, these two tracks were also a bit of a tribute to those musicians who inspired me by bringing such a high level of dramatic mood and engagement into their playing.

AAJ: Because these two takes were totally improvised, and the goal was to capture the emotional content of each musician in that moment, did you do multiple takes of each to get a comparison or just stick with the first go around for each?

MS: Each was done on the first take, no editing, just straight up. We had never played free jazz together before that take. I was astonished at how well we played together given those circumstances. Both songs were first takes, just one right after the other, and it felt like we had been rehearsing them for days.

We didn't talk about the music beforehand. I explained the Prisoner's Dilemma concept to everyone and then we just dove right in. With the quality of the musicians, not myself but the other guys in the band, they are just incredible, so it was really easy to make that music right in the moment and have it come out like it did.

AAJ: Since some of the pieces on the album are based on specific scenes in the film did you write them while watching the scenes, like a film composer would, or did you write those pieces without having the film in front of you?

MS: I was tempted to use the first method but I was afraid that the music would come out as too obviously related to the movie, almost like an alternative soundtrack. What I did was watch the movie several times during the weeks that I was composing these pieces in order to be inspired from these scenes, but more from what really struck me in each scene, rather than an accompaniment to those scenes. I'm happy with how the music came out because it represents how I felt about the film and Nash's theories. It's very transparent in that context.

AAJ: It seems like the idea of a concept album is a little bit of a rare thing in the jazz world, though it's commonly done in rock music. How much of an influence do bands like The Who and Pink Floyd have on your writing in the context of their concept albums?

MS: I love rock music and I'm deeply in love with rock music from all eras. For guitarist it's kind of a common disease that we all share, it's often the first music that inspires us to pick up the guitar. I'm pleased that I was able to bring out my three biggest passions on the album, rock, jazz and film scoring. Pink Floyd is one of my favorite bands, and I put them on my shelf right next to [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) and [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), both of which are concept albums of sorts in the jazz idiom.

I find that most of the albums that I really connect to have some sort of concept or theme that brings together the album as a whole. Music, for me, tells a story. Whether it is rock, opera, symphonies or jazz, the music should have a storyline that brings the smaller pieces together into a whole. If a story is told in the music I connect to it more, and I think a lot of other people out there feel the same way.

AAJ: Now that you've recorded a concept album and released it, are you planning on continuing to write in this vein as you move forward towards your next recording project?

MS: Absolutely, yes. Right now I'm starting to study classical composition and film scoring with different film composers. My goal is to try and create a common vocabulary between all of these things in my art. To create an organic unity where I'm able to bring together my guitar playing, my jazz composition, my classical composition and my film scoring into one coherent focus with the purpose of always telling a story.

Just today I was reading an article that was describing the different pillars to every great story. There is the desire, the obstacle, the villain, the conflict, the resolution and the balance etc. Just like a novel, I felt that these elements should be present in every composition.

In this project the story was pretty apparent, because it was based on a specific concept, but going forward I want to bring this idea to other projects that are less specific as far as the concept is concerned. Even if all of these ideas sound like they're unrelated, at least from far away, my goal is to bring them all together and continue to write music that tells a story and connects to the audience in an emotional way.

Selected Discography

Massimo Sammi, The First Day (Self Produced, 2009)

Photo credits

Page 1: PuroJazz

Page 2 Top: Julieta Cervantes Courtesy of Massimo Sammi

Page 2, Bottom: Katherine Castro, Courtesy of Massimo Sammi

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