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Roberto Bonati: Macbeth and the Whale

Duncan Heining By

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Italian bassist-composer Robert Bonati is one of the most ambitious and literate composers in contemporary jazz. Between 2000-2006, he released four ground-breaking extended works with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra. While they attracted notice in Italy, they seemed to pass by the wider jazz audience in Europe, North America and the Far East. If at one level, the issue was one of a lack of exposure, at another, the twin curses of conservatism and localism in jazz no doubt applied. The history of jazz is primarily that of a music outside, a music that challenges expectations. Enter stage left, Roberto Bonati, a composer of jazz beyond the margins.

It is no surprise that Bonati took his first degree in literature. His music frequently explores literary themes, drawing sustenance not just from the subject matter but from similar processes of narrative and story-telling. His work is dramatic, speaking often of tragedy and tragic figures. It is driven by a profound love of Italian elegiac poetry and by the music and language of his native Italy.

Bonati was born in October 1959 in Parma. He returned to Parma in 1996 after some thirty-five years living first in Rome and then in Milan. Since then, he has been the artistic director of the ParmaFrontiere Festival, as well as teaching bass and jazz composition in the Conservatorio di Musica-Arrigo Boito in Parma.

The bassist started out playing piano and rock guitar. Then, when he was eighteen years old, a jazz drummer friend played him a cassette of John Coltrane's "India." "I was really moved by the sound of the bass," he says. "I said, 'That is what I want to do. I want to play double bass.'" I came back to Milan and borrowed a broken-down bass from a German girl I knew, found a classical teacher and started my studies. But at the same time, I started to play jazz."

On completion of his degree in literature, Bonati undertook a music degree on double bass at the Conservatorio Vivaldi in Alessandria and studied with the first bassist in the Italian Radio and Television Orchestra in Turin. Equally important for his later work with the ParmaFrontiere Orchestra were the private studies he took in composition and orchestral conducting with the highly-regarded conductor Kirk Trevor.

He played his first gig in 1981 and that summer attended the Siena Jazz Summer School, where he got to study with the great Bruno Tommaso. "At the time, the scene in Milan was very active," he explains. "So, I could play three or four times a week in jazz clubs and I got a lot of experience playing with some great musicians like Claudio Fasoli and Antonio Faro. I played with Paolo Fresu for a couple of years -we started together—and I played many, many times with Massimo Urbani."

For a while, Bonati had a trio with pianist Mario Piacentini and American drummer Anthony Moreno. Together they recorded three records, one with saxophonist Paul McCandless as a guest. Then, around the same time he started in Parma, he began working with Gianluigi Trovesi, playing in his octet, and also with that colossus of Italian jazz, pianist-composer Giorgio Gaslini. In fact, Bonati continued to work with Gaslini until his untimely death last year.

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