New Jazz Voices from Northern Italy

The Italian love of melody informs their distinctive style of improvisation
CODA Issue 332

By Ken Waxman

Think of their improvising as melodious Free Jazz for the Internet Age.

United by nonpareil technique and sense of communal values, three accomplished Northern Italian improvisers are building international reputations with music that is expressively individual, while undeniably Italian.

All three share backgrounds that involve advanced studies in classical, jazz and free improvisation, an extensive, knowledge of jazz history, and – like most musicians around 40 – a familiarity with rock music.

Innate to Italy though, no matter how advanced their playing gets, each feels his country’s love of melody informs his work. Additionally, one reason they’ve been able to refine their skills relates to the establishment of musicians’ collectives in many Italian cities. These co-ops allow the members to improvise with other advanced players from Italy and abroad.

“The quality of the music is growing because together we’re rediscovering the social meaning of the improvising experience,” explains pianist Alberto Braida, 40, who lives in Lodi, near Milan. “More and more musicians are organizing gigs themselves and finding places to play.

“For instance there’s a new initiative called ‘Map of Moods’, a circuit of venues where it’s possible to play improvised music for the door. The idea came from musicians in Bologna and almost immediately it was taken up in places like Rome, Lodi, Livorno, Verona, Torino and many others. These collectives are really necessary since in Italy this music isn’t supported by anyone, either governments or foundations.”

Sicilian-born pianist Fabrizio Puglisi, 37, whose PhD thesis was on Cecil Taylor, is a moving force in the Bologna-based Bassefere cooperative. “I think of jazz as a collective language, a way of expressing the ideas of a community,” he notes. “In the future more musicians’ collectives will come into being to create contexts, venues, labels, and festivals where musicians can exchange ideas, develop their poetics and express themselves”

Braida, who teaches piano, harmony and improvisation at a local music institute, has long focused on improvisation’s relationship to composition. In 1997, he was one of the founders of the Takla Improvising Group. Takla has released CDs that feature Braida in contexts ranging from solo piano to part of a large ensemble.

Europe’s extensive festival scene means that he and the others frequently play with respected outsiders. A few long-term, cross-border connections have even been established. For instance Braida plays in a duo with Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode; in a trio with Canadian bassist Lisle Ellis (see CODA Issue 330); and is part of a quartet with British saxophonist John Butcher.

Puglisi, who teaches jazz at the local conservatory as well as leading improvisation workshops, has a working trio with drummer Han Bennink and bassist Ernst Glerum of the Netherlands. He also plays in different-sized combos with Italians from other cities and is featured on electric keyboards with the Deus Ex Machina rock band. Puglisi was on board when the 16-piece all-star Italian Instabile Orchestra made its North American tour in the summer of 2005.

Commissioned to write a piece for the Tetzepi Dutch big band, to be premiered in 2007, Puglisi’s other foreign associations include Dutch reedist Ab Baars, American saxophonist David Murray and American expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger.

Serendipitously enough, Paolo Botti, a 37-year-old Rome-born, Milan-based violist, recently toured with Honsinger’s Free Strings & Drums combo. Then in late fall, he joined American pianist Dave Burrell on the European festival circuit in a program featuring the veteran keyboardist’s arrangement of Puccini’s La Boheme.

“Maybe we younger musicians have the opportunity for more international contacts, since there are more seminars and places where you can study jazz or improvisation,” he muses. “But it still seems very difficult to pass from a very good student to a professional.”

Botti, proclaimed a New Star by Musica Jazz magazine in 2005, has made that transition. Although he plays an un-traditional instrument for jazz, the violist is firmly in the tradition as are the others, each citing a long list of influences ranging from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman. Although much of his discography on a Milan-based co-op label involves string trios and quartets – including a soon-to-be released disc featuring the Instabile’s violinist and bassist – it also includes a Mingus-inflected big band session.

Braida, one of the curators of Lodi’s contemporary music festival, feels that while improvised music has been part of the country’s musical fabric for many years only recently have younger players begun working towards creating a distinctive style.

Right now, though, according to Puglisi, explorative musicians in each city have a different modus operandi. “Bassesfere is partly grounded in the jazz avant-garde but is also involved with rock and electronics. The improv scene in Rome is closer to contemporary [classical] music and fragmented beats. In Milano they’re rooted in new jazz and have a special attitude towards composing. In Verona they like to play relaxed grooves and don’t like improvisations that are too weird or unmelodic.”

Adds Braida: “Now that we all collaborate more then before and mix our different musical histories, there’s the chance that a distinctive Italian approach could finally appear,” he declares. “I think that the issue for the improvisers now, not only in Italy but everywhere, is to find a way to keep the language of improvised music ‘open’. It’s easy to stereotype styles and approaches as happens with a language when it starts to have an extensive history.”

Puglisi concurs, adding the caveat that “with all the developments over the past 30 years in teaching music and in technology it’s much different being an improviser in the Internet Era than a Free-Jazz pioneer at the end of the 1960s.”

Especially when the improviser in question is a European, and an Italian?

“I don’t yet think there’s a specific Italian style, he asserts. “Maybe we have a particular attitude towards melody, though. I noticed that when I heard Cecil Taylor’s CD with the Italian Instabile Orchestra. Unlike his other large ensembles, there was a .kind of ‘singing’ thing, with many melodic episodes.

“In Italy one ‘fashion’ is to play popular Italian songs like they were Tin Pan Alley songs. Can you imagine anything more stupid than playing ‘O sole Mio’ that way? That’s Italy; we have and had some of the greatest thinkers and artists but we also do the silliest things. But we never pass by unnoticed.”

The antithesis of changing fashions, Braida’s suggestion for Italian jazzers is to “escape comfort” and keep the language of improvised music “open” by “playing, playing and playing.

“The trio I share with Lisle Ellis and [drummer] Fabrizio Spera is a project in which we dig into our musical memories to experience, rediscover and unearth different musical fragments that we try to metabolize into trio music.”

Creating this energy and an individual identity, while avoiding “comfort” and slavish imitation is something already apparent in the work of these three players. Perhaps ultimately though, that attitude is more international than Italian.

But then again, so is jazz.

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Discography

Paolo Botti

Paolo Botti Viola Trio Caligola 2060

Blast Unit Orchestra Live in Rome C Jam Joint 0005

Emanuele Parrini/ Paolo Botti/Giovanni Maier Hic et Nunc Hoaxhobo J002

Paolo Botti Quintet, Leggende Metrpolitane Caligola 2035-2

Paolo Botti Quintet, Moto Contario Caligola 2040-2

Alberto Braida

Alberto Braida Oued Zrec AB1

Alberto Braida/Lisle Ellis/Fabrizio Spera di terra Nu Bop Records 2

Alberto Braida /Giancarlo Locatelli diciannove calefazioni Takla Records 2

Alberto Braida /Giancarlo Locatelli Due Zrec Glab 1

Kowald/Braida/Locatelli Aria Free Elephant 004

RARA Ensemble Ora! Zrec/Rara 1

Fabrizio Puglisi

Rope, Have You Met Miss Bates El Gallo Rojo 314-3

Atman, Puntolinea Bassferec BS 009

Bosetti/Calcagnile/Puglisi 19/11/2000 Bassferec BS 007

Vincenzo Vasi, Free Lunar Steps Etnagigante EG 012

Henry Taylor, Crooning The Anger El Gallo Rojo 314-8