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?


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