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Take Five with Jacopo Penzo

Jacopo Penzo By

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About Jacopo Penzo

Jacopo Penzo is a producer and engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from Switzerland and raised in Milan, Italy, he lives in the US since 2012. He has produced, recorded, and mixed records for artists mainly in the jazz world, from acoustic to fusion to free improvisation, but also in other genres, like indie rock and pop. Artists he frequently collaborates with are Tamara Usatova, Yakir Arbib, Half/Brother, and more. He has also worked as postproduction sound editor for a broad range of clients, including major studios like HBO, Amazon Studios, and Netflix, as well as independent filmmakers and local businesses. Jacopo has a B.A. in Music Production & Engineering from Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA), and a M.A. in Media Studies and Media Management from The New School (New York, NY).

Instrument(s):

Piano

Teachers and/or influences?

The Beatles have been my first great influence. My mother in particular has always been a big fan, and I can remember her always putting on The White Album cassette tape in the car (yeah, those were the early '90s..). Already as a child, I was very fascinated by the originality of their productions. I remember in particular loving the birds chirping in Blackbird and the pigs grunting in Piggies. Listening to The Beatles was even how I started learning English! At some point I wanted to understand what they were singing about, or to simply sing along, so I started opening the CD booklets and learning the lyrics. As I started studying piano when I was 8, and learning more about music in general, I started getting more and more into analyzing the production aspect of their records, learning all the little details and "ear candy" of every song. Then I discovered about the giant behind most of those creative choices, George Martin, and the whole universe of production opened up for me. I can say that to this day, George Martin is still my biggest professional influence, and his style informs much of my taste and creative choices when working on music.

I've also been lucky to have some great teachers throughout my life and musical career. First Lorenzo Definti, who taught me classical and jazz piano for nearly 20 years. Then my mentors at Berklee, Sean Slade and Susan Rogers. They are all incredibly experienced musicians, producers and engineers who were able to transmit me not only a great deal of technical knowledge, but even more importantly their experience and inexhaustible passion for music.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. More than one single episode, I can identify a series of important moments that eventually brought me to the decision to pursue music professionally. When I was 8, I started studying classical piano under the encouragement of my parents. My first teacher was the great jazz pianist and composer Lorenzo Definti, with whom I ended up studying until I was 24. Classes with him were always fun and that certainly helped to go over the inevitable frustration of the early stages of practice. I know so many people who stopped playing because they didn't have fun with their teacher when they were practicing as kids, so I think that was very important. Also, starting to play simple pieces by famous classical composers like Mozart or Bach definitely gave me a boost of confidence while still a beginner. Then, around the time I was 10, my parents brought me to La Scala, Milan's famous opera house, to hear Beethoven's 9th symphony directed by Riccardo Muti. That concert made a great and long-lasting impression on me. I remember the magic of the 18th-century theater's atmosphere with chandeliers, gold ornaments and red velvet, and the orchestra members tuning their instruments before the performance. I already knew the music, but listening to it live was a very powerful experience that made me dream of becoming a musician one day. Finally, many years later when I was 22, I was visiting some friends in New York and I met a friend of a friend who at that time had just started studying at Berklee College of Music. I went back to my hotel that night thinking to myself, that is the place I need to go to, and music is what I want to do in life. Two years later I graduated college in Milan and moved to Boston to pursue my Music Production and Engineering degree and music career.

Your sound and approach to music.

I particularly love records that are able to mix a natural sound with a creative use of technology. To me, nothing can beat the feeling and connection of a group of talented musicians playing together. That should always be the backbone of a solid record and it should be the main focus. At the same time, I like when a recording is a sort of illusion that can take us to a different place or dimension. That's where technology plays a great role. When done tastefully, the results of this balance can be amazingly creative. The Beatles are a great example of that, but it applies to any genre. A lot of "world music" like Dub or Afrobeat use this combination, as well as many jazz musicians, from pioneers like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, to more emerging artists like Christian Scott or Adam Ben Ezra (just to name two). This is the thread that links a lot of the music I love and listen to across different genres, and what I strive to achieve when producing and mixing.

Your dream band

As a producer, my dream band to work with is one composed of people who know how to manage their egos and put music before their personal issues or desire to show off technique. Keeping a calm and focused mindset is really essential to any creative process, and particularly so in music, where inevitably the work is done by more than one person. When this state of mind is there, amazing things happen creatively and personally. When it isn't, the music becomes secondary, and something intangible ends up missing in the final product.

Favorite venue

My favorite recording studio was The Magic Shop in New York, that sadly had to close its doors in 2016 after over 28 years of activity. It was the first recording studio where I worked after graduating. The name says it all: behind a small and nondescript grey door on Crosby Street without even a sign outside, you would enter a parallel universe filled with incredible vintage instruments (among which an original Mellotron) and rare gear (the studio featured a legendary 1970s Neve console). The live room had fantastic acoustics and I heard a lot of great music being recorded there, from acoustic jazz to fusion to indie pop and rock. It was a place with a soul and great personality, and I could see how that helped musicians of any genre to get in the zone and into their best creative mindset.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

December Trail by Yousif Yaseen. It's the first song I fully produced, recorded and mixed, and it represents something very special to me.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

As a producer, I find that the most important thing I can contribute musically is making sure that all the pieces are there in order for a musician to fully express what they want to express. What is fascinating is that this can vary wildly from one situation to another: for example, working with jazz musicians, musically important elements like arranging, instrumentation or solos are usually in the hands of the composer or band leader, and I'll tend to take care of the technical side of things (recording and mixing), or more logistical aspects like picking the studio with he right atmosphere for the music. In other situations, I'll have more control over fundamental musical aspects and decide the arrangement or even change the form of a song. On yet other projects, maybe all the musical elements are already put in place by the band, but I'll have the freedom to add some touches in the mix that will give a unique and distinctive character to the recording. The common denominator is being able to really listen to who you are working with and to understand what the music needs. Sometimes it simply needs practical guidance, other times it needs a deeper artistic involvement.

Did you know...

After music, my great passion is cooking. I always cook at home for my friends and family. I also volunteer to cook lunch once a week at a Zen Buddhist temple in Brooklyn. I particularly like simple and mostly vegetarian dishes with tasty and fresh ingredients. My highlights are any pastas, saffron risotto (a quintessential Milanese classic), and I make a great chickpea curry.

The first jazz album I bought was:

Herbie Hancock: Gershwin's World (Verve, Polygram)

Still one of my favorite records ever. With a stellar personnel including Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, James Carter, Stanley Clarke, and many other incredible musicians. You could call it a concept album, featuring Ira and George Gershwin's songs rendered in brilliant arrangements that showcase the past, present and future of what we call jazz, from orchestral pieces and African percussions, to classic standards, funk and fusion. I was 11 when it came out in 1998 and I remember being particularly blown away by Blueberry Rhyme, a two-piano duet with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

Music you are listening to now:

Adam Ben Ezra: Pin Drop (Ropeadope)
Harold Budd: The Room (Atlantic Records)
Queen: A Night at the Opera (EMI, Elektra)
Miles Davis: Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud (Fontana)
Franco Battiato: La Voce del Padrone (EMI)

Desert Island picks:

The Beatles: The Beatles (Apple)
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia)
Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert (ECM)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Glenn Gould: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Columbia)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karayan: Symphony No. 9 (Deutsche Grammophon)

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

I think that jazz is alive and well. Music schools like Berklee, Juilliard and many others seem to be thriving, with growing numbers of students, excellent programs and great professors. There's always an interesting live show to catch or new record to discover, and audiences are listening. Especially in big cities like New York, jazz benefits from the mix of different cultures that keeps on fueling creativity and new ideas. It may not ever be a big genre commercially speaking, but jazz keeps providing genuine creativity and spontaneity that people crave for in our hyper-commercialized and hyper-produced society.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

As long as jazz will be a source of genuine creativity and spontaneity, people will be drawn to it. I believe that should be the main "mission" that a jazz musician should keep in mind. Jazz has always had an incomparable capacity to address social and political issues in a way that is direct and graceful at the same time. This is especially true today: jazz has grown to become a term that identifies a really broad variety of musical expressions. Maybe purists don't like that, but I think that cross-contamination with other genres and expressions from other cultures and parts fo the world is essential to keep jazz alive and growing, and it is at the same time its greatest social and artistic strength.

By Day:

My day job is also related to audio: I work as a sound editor on movies, documentaries and TV shows. I work on many projects with a great studio in Brooklyn called Red Hook Post. They do many of the movies that end up going to Sundance Film Festival, so the higher end of independent films. I love working on this type of projects, that have both a great production quality and deep, artistic content.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Probably a chef! After all, it still has to do with harmony and balance.

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