Gianluigi Trovesi
By Ken Waxman

Throughout his years as one of Italy’s most respected improvisers, alto saxophonist and clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi, 72, has maintained a melodic and folkloric component in his sound whether with his own projects, as soloist with large or small ensembles, or notable stints in pianist Giorgio Gaslini sextet and the Italian Instabile Orchestra. So it’s no surprise that Trovesi is touring North American this month as featured guest with Tel Aviv-based pianist Anat Fort’s trio after playing on the keyboardist’s new ECM release Birdwatching, which has a similar lineage.

“Even though I was born in northern Italy, some of my interests have revolved around the colors of Mediterranean music,” he explains. “For example, in the duo with [accordionist] Gianni Coscia we’ve been using phrases which originate in Israeli/Jewish music for a long time. And maybe this permitted me to create a good feeling with Anat’s music. I met Anat a few years ago when I was invited to the Novara Festival to direct the Luzern big band. Next year the festival director decided to invite us to play in duo. Anat is molto brava. Her manner of playing and composing is full of poetry. If other opportunities arise I will be happy to collaborate with her again.”

That’s heady praise from someone generally acknowledged as a master stylist whether the music is jazz, notated, so-called early music or traditional Italian ballads. Born in Nembro, Lombardy where he still lives, in 1944, early on Trovesi was influenced by rustic guitar/accordion/clarinet dance music popular in the area; opera and light classical music on the radio; plus jazz and swing band music he played at local dances where he jobbed while studying for his conservatory degree. Hearing Eric Dolphy play live with Charles Mingus in 1964 was one defining moment, he recalls. Later winning first prize in a national competition lead to him accepting a permanent job as first alto and first clarinet with the Milan Radio Big Band from 1978-1993. The band backed visiting international jazz stars as well as presenting its own concerts.

Simultaneously Trovesi was exploring improvised music’s limits with Gaslini, Andrea Centazzo’s Mitteleuropa Orchestra and others in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, including collaborations with German bassist Peter Kowald and British saxophonist Evan Parker. Even then his playing was more harmonically oriented than others. “Effectively in the collaborations and projects of the last few years the melodic aspect has been highlighted,” he explains, “although it becomes less important when I collaborate with free musicians.”

Recording as leader since the late ‘70s, first in a trio and later with his highly praised octet, Trovesi became known for mixing jazz improvisation with older orchestral music plus regional melodies from Sardinia and Bergamo. Particularly acclaimed was From G to G (Soul Note) in 1993, with Italian publications naming Trovesi, the octet and LP artist, group and record of the year. His concepts have been amplified over time with CDs and performances centered on classic operas or pre-modern, non-jazz composers. “I think the idea of connecting different components of music is always valid,” he elaborates. “Each of us chooses points of reference which can be from the jazz tradition; a geographic area such as the Mediterranean; a historical period like medieval times, the Renaissance or the baroque period. However, in the end, one must tell a story, and hope that the story is good. In Profumo di Violetta, viaggio nell’ Opera Italiana, for instance, I think I told a good story.”

That reference is to an ECM disc from 2008. On it Trovesi, playing piccolo and alto clarinets plus alto saxophone, directs a traditional North-Italian wind and percussion banda in performing familiar operatic themes by Monteverdi Cazzati, Pergolesi, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Mascagni. Starting in the ‘90s he was also a member of the 18-piece Italian Instabile Orchestra, an all-star assemblage of the country’s top jazz players, directed by trumpeter Pino Minafra.

Today Trovesi spend most of his time a guest soloist with ensembles ranging from the Köln-based WDR big band; L'Arpeggiata, a Paris-based early music group; the German-Turkish Oriental Ensemble FisFüz’s; to other more jazz-oriented projects with groups such as Milan’s Nexus, After a period of years apart, he, pianist Umberto Petrin and singer Tiziana Ghiglioni have put together a project dealing with the music of influential ‘60s Italian singer/songwriter Luigi Tenco. Right now though, the formation in which he plays more often is with accordionist Coscia, with the duo’s ECM CDs dedicated to interpreting the music of Kurt Weil and Jacques Offenbach among others.

Interestingly enough Trovesi has never used a pianist in any project he leads. But explaining his close collaboration with Fort, he notes: “I don’t have any problems collaborating with groups which include a pianist or have a pianist leader like Gaslini or Keith Tippet.” Also, considering his proficiency in playing multiple members of the reed family, why only play alto clarinet on Birdwatching? Timbral color, he clarifies. “The sound of the alto clarinet in E flat comes between the soprano clarinet and the bass clarinet so it has a color, a perfume, a timbre quite different from the other clarinets,” he elaborates. “It’s similar to the way a viola has a different color than the violin or cello.”

This Fort collaboration is also not the only new program about which he’s enthusiastic. Recently FisFüz clarinetist Annette Maye organized a festival reunion of some of the musicians including Trovesi who played on 1980’s Clarinet Summit LP and there are plans to record. Besides a new CD with Coscia scheduled for late 2016, another on ECM formulated with violinist/conductor Stefanio Montanari “gathers a group of musicians who specialize in early music with whom I have revisited the period from Dufay to Purcell,” he notes. Trovesi has also organized a new quartet featuring guitar, bass and drums and with it plans on new interpretations of Mediterranean music and the compositions of Alexander Scriabin.

Trovesi’s Octet’s best-known disc is called From G to G. The way things are going right now, it’s evident that the reed master continues to be immersed in music from A to Z.

Recommended Listening:

Anat Fort Trio/Gianluigi Trovesi – Birdwatching (ECM 2016)

Gianluigi Trovesi/ Gianni Coscia – Frère Jacques – Round About Offenbach (ECM 2011)

Ensemble FisFüz & Gianluigi Trovesi – Papillons (‎HGBS 2012)

Gianluigi Trovesi Octet – Les Hommes Armes ((Soul Note 1996)

Italian Instabile Orchestra – Skies of Europe (ECM 1994)

Gianluigi Trovesi Octet – From G to G (Soul Note 1993)

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2016