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Luciano Troja: Second Earl Zindars Tribute


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Fans of pianist Bill Evans know that one of his favorite composers was Earl Zindars. The American songwriter's work recorded by Evans includes Elsa, How My Heart Sings, Mother of Earl, Lullaby for Helene, Quiet Light and Sareen Jurer. Today, one of the most exquisite interpreters of Zindars' music is Italian pianist Luciano Troja (above).

Luciano recorded his first Zindars tribute albumAt Home With Zindarsin 2010, which I mentioned in a 2018 post (here). Now he has issued his second volume, To New Life (Almendra). The album's 14 tracks are solo works and are exceptional, capturing Zindards' sophisticated lyrical quality and his depth.

Recently, I interviewed Luciano in Italy by email on his own background and passion for Zindars:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up in Italy and how were you introduced to the piano?

Luciano Trojax: I was born on July 6, 1963 and grew up in Messina, Sicily (above). I started to play keyboards when I was 8. Before that, I used to play drums along to records my family owned. These records were by artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Bert Kaempfert.

JW: You also wrote as a child, yes?

LT: Yes, short stories. One night, after dinner, I gave a 10-page story to my dad. He said: “I love it very much. You deserve a gift. What would you like?" I said, “A keyboard.” He bought me a three-octave toy keyboard made by Antonelli. It was monophonic, meaning the sound if each note wasn’t sustained. It was my first real training. In the lower octave, I could run a bass line with my left hand and in the other two octaves I could work the melodies with my right 

JW: What did you think?

LT: From the moment the piano arrived, I practiced and worked on my improvisation every day. I still have the notebook in which I wrote the story that impressed my father. I keep it in my night table by my bed.

JW: Were your parents musical?

LT: My parents didn’t play an instrument. My father was a lawyer, and my mom, who also graduated with a law degree, was a homemaker. They had such beautiful records. The records of my big sister, Pinella, also influenced me. I remember listening to Duke Ellington with Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson’s My Favorite Instrument, and The Best Of Nat King Cole on Capitol. I loved the song Stardust; Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s songs, especially This Guy’s Love with You, played by Herb Alpert; and Eumir Deodato’s orchestral arrangement for Moonlight Serenade and Rhapsody in Blue. I listened to all of that until I was 11. They had a huge impact on me.

JW: Tell me about your hometown, Messina.

LT: Messina is the gateway to Sicily, It sits on the Strait of Messina, which separates the boot of Italy from Sicily and connects two seas—the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian. The city is a marvelous place, with all the shades of blue imaginable and where myths and history meet. Growing up there was serene, especially in the summer, when we enjoyed the sea. I studied law and graduated with a degree from Messina Faculty Law. As for jazz, there was the Messina jazz Meeting, an important late-summer jazz festival and one of the best in Italy. This event was very inspiring.

JW: How was music education in school growing up?

LT: We didn’t have much music instruction during middle and high school, but the music played in the community was very good. In Messina, there were three major music societies that nurtured students, each with a beautiful concert season. For 10 years, until 2022, I was the artistic director of one of them—the Filarmonica Laudamo, which was founded 102 years ago. While there, I formed a creative 35-piece ensemble with musicians from the Italian mainland and Sicily. In Messina, there are many excellent players such as R.J.Iacovone, Blaise Siwula, Salvatore Bonafede and Marco Cappelli, to name a few. I was initially self-taught but then took private lessons for many years with Salvatore Bonafede, one of my favorite piano players. I also took some lessons in New York with Richie Beirach. I graduated from the Messina “Corelli" Conservatory after majoring in jazz composition.

JW: Who did you listen to on the radio and on records in your teens?

LT: Pop music was always an influence and an important part of my training. I love soul music accompanied by a lush, orchestral sound. More specifically, I love what was known in the 1970s as the Philly Sound. I also liked the Ennio Morricone orchestral scores for director Sergio Leone’s Westerns with Clint Eastwood. Of course, I listened also to Italian pop stars like Gino Paoli, Mina, Gianni Morandi and Patty Pravo. I was stunned when I heard the first few bars of Aja by Steely Dan on local radio. Steely Dan, and Donald Fagen on his solo albums were constant inspirations. In those same years, I began taking an active interest in jazz.

JW: When did you first hear the music of Earl Zindars?

LT: In July 1980. I had the opportunity to see the Bill Evans Trio at Ronnie’s Scott Jazz Club in London. From that night forward, I lived with his music, as is the case with many musicians and passionate fans. As you know, Evans’s repertoire included originals, jazz tunes and songbook standards, but they also included Broadway songs and movie and TV themes. Through his hands and mind, these simple songs became complex and unique. The more I listened to Evans and read album liner notes, the more I noticed that a considerable number of the songs he recorded were composed by Earl Zindars (above).

JW: What did you think?

LT: That Evans and Zindars were two very connected artists. They both seemed to be in search of authentic beauty and transcended trends. Before the Internet, I knew nothing about this mysterious composer, except the friendship and musical empathy he shared with Evans. Then in 2005, I discovered the existence of a songbook you could purchase from the website of the composer. Unfortunately, Zindars had passed away a few months earlier. During a stay in New York for some gigs in April 2006, I recorded some Zindars tunes in the studio. Then I sent them to his wife, vocalist Anne Bohigian, who gave me her blessing.

JW: Then what happened?

LT: The follow year, with my wife Valentina, I went to his home in San Francisco at Anne’s invitation. As soon as we arrived, Anne opened the cover of Earl’s grand piano, which had remained closed since his passing in 2005. She said, “Please, play it!” We remained there for a couple of days at Anne’s insistence. Our stay included a gracious Easter dinner. Anne and her family were very loving.

JW: What’s the difference in the feeling and mood between your first and second album dedicated to Zindars’ music?

LT: The two albums are different but are directly related. The first album, At Home With Zindars (2010), was self-produced and recorded in a New York studio over different years. It comes with a 40-page booklet paying tribute to Zindars and his family—his wife, Anne, who in addition to singing is a composer and pianist, and their daughters Helene, a well-known soprano, and Karen, with her son Evan. This album is the result of my wonder for the beauty and love I received at Ann’s home.

JW: And the new album, To New Life?

LT: It represents the closing of the circle and is divided into two parts. The first was recorded live in concert at the Maybeck Recital Hall in the Berkeley Hills, near San Francisco. Among the 50 audience members present in this beautiful, intimate studio space were his family and several of their friends as well as musicians who played with Earl and were inspired by him. The Zindars family once again showed their love by inviting people very close to him during his life.

JW: And the second part?

LT: The second part of the CD was recorded in my native Sicily. Shortly after the Maybeck concert, I received three gifts from Helene: her father’s tambourine—a precious Syrian riq—the sheet music of an unpublished Zindars song entitled Wissahickon Walk and a poem called To New Life, which I used for the album’s title. Then, I completed the work by adding a four-part suite inspired by the poem. It was recorded at the Zeit Studio in Palermo, Sicily. This completed the album in beautiful synergy with the Almendra Music’s staff.

JW: What were the big revelations for you about Earl Zindars and his music?

LT: From a strictly musical point of view, I discovered an interesting new sense of form and writing that is complex but at the same time lyrical on several levels. I also discovered a way to compose classical music that can be inserted into jazz in a natural way. In other words, a bit like Bill Evans’s approach, but from the point of view of composing. Also, Zindars was one of the first jazz composers to incorporate the use of different rhythmic metrics into the same piece.

JW: And Zindars’ deep soulfulness?

LT: Yes. I found a great spirituality behind his music and Zindars himself, which I discovered through his family and their stories. This discovery was possible only because I was able to come into contact with his family and visit where he lived and worked. It was at that point that I tried to translate the music simply through myself and my playing.

JW: After all of this exposure to Zindars, what are your favorite artist interpretations of Zindars songs?

LT: In addition to Bill Evans’s magnificent interpretations, a few others come to mind: Bill Cunliffe’s album How My Heart Sings, which is entirely devoted to Zindars' compositions. Zindars’ own albums—The Return and And Then Some, with piano greats Don Haas and Larry Dunlap. My Father’s Garden (2007) by his daughter Helene, which includes wonderful interpretations of his songs, such as The Eve of Ascension Day, Under a Telephone Pole, Fog and I Sang.

JW: And your favorite Zindars songs?

LT: There are a bunch:I love very much How My Heart Sings, recorded by Jarmo Savolainen on his album First Sight (Timeless, 1992).Elsa by Cannonball Adderley on the album Know What I Mean (Riverside, 1962).

Overall, How My Heart Sings, Elsa and Lullaby for Helene are my favorites. They introduced me to Zindars through Bill Evans’s versions. Sareen Jurer and My Love Is an April Song are mystical, profound and innovative pieces. Roses for Annig, written a few weeks before Zindars' death, is perhaps the most moving piece, a tender goodbye to his wife, the woman who accompanied him with love throughout his life. I played this composition on both of my albums.

JW: Where do you live today?

LT: I live in Messina, with my wife, Valentina. I love living in Messina more than ever because I’m no longer young. Messina is people-friendly, so I can live a simple life and focus on music and projects. Some of my major music projects came to life here, especially the duos with guitarist Giancarlo Mazzù and with the bassoonist Antonino Cicero, and the Pannonica Workshop ensemble. Messina is where my family, two cats and my heart live.

Here's How My Heart Sings from his first album, At Home With Zindars...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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