Paolo Rustichelli: Mystic Man


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I feel that Miles, Carlos and I are kindred spirits. Like Miles, Carlos and I speak the same mystical language.
Paolo Rusticelli Paolo Rustichelli is a futuristic visionary whose music is highly distinctive. Miles Davis, when he collaborated with Rustichelli near the end of his life, called the keyboardist's music "Total Music. Carlos Santana, having signed Paolo to his Guts and Grace label, has said: "Paolo Rustichelli's music is hauntingly beautiful...a romantic, mysterious soundtrack for life. Rustichelli recently reached the first position on the Nu Jazz MySpace artist list.

Rustichelli is not a jazz artist in the conventional sense of the term. He believes in making music that does not fit neatly into any one category. His creative objective entails the exploration of various genres in order to conceive something uniquely acroamatic and true to his vision.

Katrina-Kasey Wheeler caught up with Rustichelli to discuss his upcoming projects and to get the bona fide facts behind his work with Miles Davis and Carlos Santana.

All About Jazz: At the age of sixteen, you released Opera Prima (RCA Italy, 1973). Having accomplished so much at an early age, what was it like to experience such success so early on in your career?

Paolo Rustichelli: I started playing piano at the age of four while I studied classical guitar. At the age of ten, I started playing bass guitar with bands. I randomly watched my father working on movies, learning the process to compose a score. My career in the pop/rock world started with playing the C3 Hammond organ at the age of fourteen and at fifteen I owned my first monophonic synthesizer called the ARP 2400. At age sixteen, I made my first album of baroque rock, Opera Prima, and then started to work as a session man at RCA Italy in Rome; which was the most important label in Europe at that time.

AAJ: Your father, having been so successful and garnering Oscar nominations for his scoring, must have been a tremendous source of inspiration for you. Growing up around that, was that something that you wanted to emulate and achieve for yourself?

PR: I am very eclectic in my style. I like to have fun with music so I like to challenge myself by trying different styles of music. My father was influential, but I feel that I have my own peculiar style.

After two years at age eighteen, I started to work on soundtracks that were completely made with the synthesizer; perhaps someone else earlier on experimented with this, but I believe I was the first. My inner unreachable musical satisfaction research of perfection made me always jump from one style to another, from one genre to another—that's why I left my career as a "rock star," newborn to make soundtracks.

AAJ: You have scored over one hundred soundtracks for Italy's large and small screens. Why did you stop?

PR: Due to the lack of freedom in the musical context due to the tyranny of directors and producers, I decided to stop scoring. Next followed a period of intense spiritual research and I stopped playing for years.

Paolo AAJ: You pay careful attention to melody and synthesizers. You have said that those are things that you feel are sorely missing with many film composers. Why do you think that is? Is it simply a difference in artistic vision?

PR: With film scores, there are sometimes differences among the artist, the director, and the producer, etc...in terms of what each would like to see in the film. Some composers are really good at finding harmonic clusters and then there are some that are not good at finding simple melodies, it all depends. My goal is always to attain a good melody with those harmonic clusters and good orchestral patches.

In the United States I am known in the smooth jazz arena, especially in the Nu Jazz movement. I don't strictly define my music as that; my music tends to be many different styles. I don't like to restrict myself to just one genre.

AAJ: It should be all about the craft and making the music that is in one's heart. Is the jazz scene much different from that in the United States?

PR: In my opinion, Italy has a lot of what I would call the form of a song; from the pagan chants to the Gregorian chants. Since the time of Claudio Monteverdi to Arcangelo Corelli, all of the big composers in Italy have learned how to develop melody, which is like a legacy. It is very common for Italian composers to have these types of peculiarities. The music in Italy is really just about Italy and there are really good musicians with the tools to express themselves for a universal audience.

AAJ: So do you mean to say that the musicians in Italy are in a way, submerged within their culture, or cultural heritage?

PR: Yes. In ancient times the language to know was Latin and through time it has become English. Many Italians have a problem with speaking English. Another funny thing that I like to underline is that rap music as it is was made taking many elements from the Italian mafia, which is one of our exploitations.

AAJ: Some rap stars idolize that type of persona.

PR: Yes, characters like Al Capone, Michael Corleone, etc...

AAJ: In 1989 you attended the Umbria Jazz Festival, and this is where you met Gordon Meltzer, Miles Davis' road manager.

PR: Yes, coincidentally, a friend invited me to see Miles Davis play in Perugia... before going to the Umbria Jazz festival, in Perugia, I quickly made a demo of three songs for Miles, to submit to him. This was the beginning of my new career as a Nu Jazz artist/composer and the beginning of my album project, Mystic Jazz (Polydor,1991).

I'd like to make an accurate and truthful report of how I met Miles. A friend of mine, the photographer Sergio Bonnaco, invited me to the Umbria Jazz festival in 1989. He mentioned to me that he knew Miles Davis' road manager, Gordon Meltzer. I then had an idea to make three cuts to submit to Miles. I was really not expecting anything—I was moved by a superior force—not really believing that it can be possible for an almost unknown artist to be considered by Miles. I was known in Italy but not by him.

Paolo Rustichelli with Miles Davis

AAJ: You handed Meltzer your tape which included two upbeat songs and a ballad. Did you expect to receive word back, let alone from Miles himself?

PR: Yes, and it didn't take me several times to submit my music to Miles. I only did it once. Gordon received the tape with a promise to reply to me, saying, "I will give it to Miles. I don't promise anything. He may never listen to it." I said, "Fine, thanks Gordon, thank you for your kind help anyway, whatever is going to come of it. I remember that Gordon let me and my girlfriend go backstage and I watched Miles' performances from the side of the backstage. There was a moment that Miles looked over to me and my girlfriend Marchella Ghio... and Miles looked at me really straight in the eyes.

I went back to Rome and I didn't receive any call back from Gordon, and this was confirming my pessimistic vision of life. My girlfriend—a big fan of Miles—days after told me about Miles' performance in a beautiful arena theater called Sferisterio, in the city of Macerata in the center of Italy, not too far from Rome. Coincidentally, my friend Sergio Albonico was there too. I met him before the gig and before the end of the gig Gordon told me, "Miles wants to speak with you. My first thoughts were, maybe Miles wants to beat me, knowing his wild personality, so I was prepared to be offended and maybe injured. Then I went backstage after the gig. I was invited in his dressing room and found him semi-naked, watching me again, and without saying hello or anything, he said to me in his scratchy voice "I love the tunes, I may have to play with you." I said, "I'm honored to be considered.

AAJ: Miles said of your music, "I like to call his peculiar style 'Total Music,' like a musical soup with plenty of ingredients with a classical/futuristic/jazzy/spicy flavor. What is it like to have such an iconic figure in the world of jazz to say that of your music?

PR: I try to be very unique with my music and it is a little different compared to the niche that Miles and Carlos are in with their music. I feel that Miles, Carlos and I are kindred spirits. Like Miles, Carlos and I speak the same mystical language. If you give him a melody, he plays it, respects it, and allows it to grow. He makes his mark while respecting your melody. A lot of musicians won't do that.

And speaking of Miles, by coincidence, I met singer Joni Mitchell at a party. She told me that she had always tried to record with Miles, but was unsuccessful in her attempts. It was amazing to meet her because she is one of my heroes; I like her music very much. She thought it was wonderful that I had the opportunity to work with Miles, and I said, "Joni, what can I tell you? Maybe my music fit with him in some way. Unfortunately Miles left us, and I really lament his passing.

AAJ: Yes, but what a brilliant legacy he left us. Miles Davis is one of the most influential musicians of all time and continues to inspire countless musicians. What was it like to work with such a genius? Were you amazed at the results of the songs that you two recorded?

PR: We didn't record immediately, but was just after his last performance in Rome, the day after he came in Rome (at Palazzo D) that he went to my personal recording studio and spent almost a day recording and overdubbing my tracks. It is also nice that his lawyer—Peter Shukat—was with him so that I could sign an agreement. Peter told me how to deal with Miles. In reality, I didn't follow the suggestions of Peter. Miles genuinely applied my artistic direction to the music, giving me a completely different picture of what people said of him being a difficult man (prima donna). If he was a prima donna with me, then he was a really treatable prima donna, and very accessible.

We recorded several versions of the songs and I was able to make him play without the Harmon [mute] device and with the full trumpet on the song, "Capri. According to Miles experts, Miles played his most long-lasting notes on the trumpet on this song; and according to George Cole from his book, The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005), it was his best performance ever as a guest on a recording.

After the recording was finished, he kindly invited me to Los Angeles to help him with a score for a movie, Dingo. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers had different plans for the movie, and they chose Michele LeGrand. It is known that Miles was having, as many of us, a conflict with Warner and this is a testimony of his displeasure with them. However, his invitation in itself was a great honor.

AAJ: What did you learn through playing with Miles? Working with him must have left an amazing mark on your creativity?


PR: My final thoughts on him are that he was extremely open, as I am, to experience new musical paths which, for me, is the seal of a brave and honest musician. I disagree when people look to artists that change from one style to another as not linear or not serious artists. I really think the opposite—that a truly talented artist can eventually challenge himself within various genres.

AAJ: A great opportunity came about when you met with Wayne Shorter who happened to be good friends with Carlos Santana. What was it like to work with Santana?

PR: Following my recordings with Miles, I went to Los Angeles to complete my album, Mystic Jazz, in 1989. While in Italy I had tried unsuccessfully to contact Santana's management; in order to invite Carlos as a guest artist on Mystic Jazz. The other artists on my list were Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Andy Summers. It turned out that Wayne and Santana were really good friends and, coincidentally, after Wayne and I recorded together, I was invited to a private party at the Shorter house.

During the party I had access to Wayne's private studio where there was a Grand Coda Steinway piano. I composed very quickly and played my song, "Full Moon, for Wayne and his wife Anna Maria. They loved the tune and when I told them I would like this song to be played by Carlos Santana, Anna Maria blew me away by calling Carlos immediately. I tried, again, to contact Santana's management but I was always told that I needed to be called back and to send a demo of "Full Moon. I didn't receive any callback.

After a month, I went to see Carlos play at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Can you imagine my surprise when in the middle of the show he starts playing "Full Moon? It didn't take me long to go back stage and meet him. We embraced literally as old friends and he overwhelmed me with accolades, especially mentioning that he loved my work with Miles. Then he asked me to record the song "Full Moon in San Francisco at Record Plant Studios. The recordings went so well that the song was included on his album Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (Columbia, 1990). The song has become an evergreen that you can find on many of Santana's compilations.

After "Full Moon, Carlos was really excited to take me onboard to his new label Guts and Grace. I was signed, and since the label was distributed by Polygram, we entered a special deal with Chris Blackwell's Island Records. The single "Paisa, from the album Mystic Man (Island, 1996), went to number one on the smooth jazz radio stations after a few months.

Carlos and I toured successfully worldwide, until Universal Records bought Polygram. I remember when we played at the Beacon Theater in New York in June of 1996 for a hot audience which included George Benson as a guest, and George Harrison and Lou Reed, who were spying on us from the backstage. Following the gig, in the dressing room Carlos and I met Chris Blackwell, the legendary owner of Island Records. Carlos and Chris got into a disagreement and I felt there was some kind of impending change. In fact, after a month, Seagram started the purchase of Polygram Group, creating Universal Records. Subsequently, I decided to go independent because Island Records was in a frozen status due to the traumatic change of ownership. Carlos then signed with Arista Records and I started my own label, Next Age Music.

We still randomly play together, like we did in Europe and in US in Santa Barbara, the summer of 2006. The most amazing attitude of Carlos is his creative energy—always open to explore new musical paths and his own peculiar sound that makes him a living legend.


Carlos and I are really connected not only in terms of our music, but we share similar mystical visions.

AAJ: I can definitely see that. So Carlos having signed you to his label, was it a surprise to you that "Paisa was such a hit from the very beginning? Although it was released eleven years ago, it still garners a lot of airplay. Were you surprised at how well that song was received here in the United States, and are you pleased to see its continued success?

PR: I had no idea that the song would fit in so nicely in the smooth jazz genre, because it was honestly not composed with that result in my mind. I had no idea that it would become a smooth jazz hit. I wasn't trying to make a hit.

AAJ: That is true, especially with the record industry as it stands presently. You never know what is going to be a definite hit. You really have to stand by the music that you want to make and hope that that is acknowledged and well-received by the public.

PR: Exactly, and if you have a distinct melody then the song has a greater chance of becoming a hit.

AAJ: There are deeper undertones to your music. The common thread seems to be the exploration of the mystic forces of music and life. On your album, Mystic Man you have said that it was a "compilation of sonic glimpses. Can you elaborate on that?

PR: I was looking to do a record with a compilation of songs from various genres. As I have said before I do not like to be limited by one genre and so that album is a result of that. I think it is important for an artist to try different things with their music from time-to-time.

AAJ: Especially in light of major record companies cutting their jazz divisions.

PR: The industry likes to categorize every artist, it is just easier to define someone in that way. I consider myself an artist that follows cutting-edge technological developments. This implies using new ways of musical expression with plug-ins and supporting new distribution media as digital downloads.

If I don't consider the CD totally obsolete, honestly, I think that it's at the sunset of its existence. For example, my album Neopagan (New Age Music, 2006) is still a work-in-progress, even though it has been released. The album can be downloaded with new versions and remixes as soon as I upload them onto my MySpace page. I think also, as do some of my colleagues, that the concept of an album will be obsolete soon.

Paolo Rustichelli with Carlos Santana

AAJ: I think Neopagan is a good example of your departure from this categorization placed on artists. What is behind the title?

PR: Since I was young, I have been interested in archaeology and things like that. I consider myself a free spirit and therefore I would classify myself as a Neopagan. I used this theme as a pretext to put together music history and spirituality. Neopagan can mean that one is into the environment—global warming, etc...

AAJ: Tuned into nature and one's surroundings?

PR: Exactly. For example, the song "Gaia Mater is dedicated to mother earth. The ancient Greeks used the word Gaia when referring to our planet. So there are a lot of songs dedicated to this Neopagan outlook on life.

AAJ: Are you currently traveling?

PR: I am working on a new album which will probably be released sometime this year. I hope to be touring soon, as well.

Selected Discography

Paolo Rustichelli, Neopagan (Next Age Music, 2006)

Placido Domingo, Sacred Songs (DG Deutsche Grammophon, 2002)

Paolo Rustichelli, Mystic Man (Island Records, 1996)

Paolo Rustichelli, Mystic Jazz (Polydor, 1991)

Carlos Santana, Spirits Dancing in the Flesh (Columbia, 1990)

Paolo Rustichelli, Opera Prima (RCA Italy, 1973)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Paolo Rustichelli

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