Tommaso Moretti: An “Italiano in America”
With World Jazz Day upon us, a new album reminds us just what a global form jazz continues to be. The drummer Tommaso Moretti is an Italian émigré in Chicago, and his new album Inside Out is the most beautiful interweaving of the traditions of his homeland and his adopted home. But beyond that, it’s also a tapestry of styles across the decades, of avant-garde complexity and pop culture immediacy, and for all that, it’s an intimate personal statement too.
Moretti has had plenty of practice joining dots across styles, and the lightness of touch you’ll hear in Inside Out has been developed through some seriously heavy playing. As well as jazz in many forms, he’s played everything from mutant surf pop (with Chicago’s paradoxically named solo project Kevin And Hell) to screaming hardcore punk noise (The Orange Man Theory in Rome).
Inside Out’s combination of accessibility and complexity make it a perfect album to draw the curious down the rabbit hole of 2022 jazz – so we asked Tommaso to dig deep into what led him into it and how it was created. Speaking from his home in Chicago, he didn’t disappoint.
The album pays tribute to your Italian background: can you tell us a bit about Italian jazz? Does it have a particular character and were you aware of it as something distinct when you were learning your craft?
"Jazz”, or however we want to call it, is with no doubt an American creation, specifically a gift that Black American tradition and culture shared with the world. This gift reached so deep in the collective human experience to become a language in itself and a framework to approach music of any kind. In this way, folkloristic music expressions from all over the world used that shared language and framework to develop different expressions of the main tradition. Great jazz from Italy has been played since the early days and is still played all over the world. Italian people are some of the biggest fans of jazz, and iconic Italian jazz festivals have hosted every jazz legend since the beginning. The exposure to this great music idiom triggered the rise of many talents in the Italian jazz music scene that forged their career following the steps of their favourite American heroes. Some of my favourites are: Massimo Urbani, Caterina Valente, Enrico Pieranunzi, Stefano Bollani, and more. Every of those very different artists incorporated in some way what you might call Italian folk music in their work. Inside Out is an honest musical reflection of my life and since I was born in Italy and lived most of my years there, it felt natural to have some Italian music represented as well as some of what I consider Italian folk music elements in it.
How about Chicago? It has such a rich history – at what point did you start creatively and literally gravitating to it?
I officially moved to Chicago in 2013, but my Chicago "calling" happened somewhere around 2009. At that point I had already been there for a US tour in 2008 (with a metal band!) and I had already met a girl who would become my wife in 2012. In September 2009, I was touring Sardinia with my Italian jazz-rock band Tribraco and after years of attempts, we were finally invited to play at the Sant'Anna Arresi jazz festival to open for the Roscoe Mitchell trio. The concept of that specific edition was the Chicago avant-garde and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). So many Chicago jazz masters were part of the bill, including Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, Hamid Drake, etc. Not only I was exposed day after day to those inspiring sounds, but I was also given the opportunity to follow masterclasses for free, including an Ernest Dawkins workshop called “The Binomial Tradition: Chicago and the Avant Garde”; Ernest brought with him many young jazz musicians from Chicago to be part of the workshop and to play and meet local musicians such as my band mates and myself. Between them there was Ben Lamar Gay, since then we have been making music together, playing each other's music and collaborating for many different projects.
One thing about Chicago is that it seems to constantly blur the edges of jazz – with hip hop, post-rock, electronica and so on – right into the 21st century. How much is that a part of its appeal?
I dig that quality of the Chicago sound. I would also add that Chicago has a special distinctive soul and humanity that cuts through many different music scenes. I am so grateful to have been lucky enough to play drums for a few artists that I think are pushing some boundaries of the music style: Ben Lamar Gay, Rob Frye, and Kevin And Hell. Other Chicago artists are not only blurring the edges of jazz but also incorporating interdisciplinary artistic features with the music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago was one of the first bands in the world to blend improvised music with other art forms such as visual arts, poetry, spoken word, acting and dance. I'm so glad to see that the tradition is still healthy and carried on by a new generation of Chicago artists and encouraged by local venues and art spaces.
This record was put together in the lockdown period. How much did its composition and execution reflect the unusual circumstances?
Most of the songs were actually composed before the lockdown. Two songs were conceived right in the middle of it: “Redefine the Purpose” and “A Call for Awareness”. The first one was inspired by a common feeling that was felt by many during the pandemic. A sort of wish that humanity could emerge from the pandemic healing also morally. "A Call For Awareness" came to me once I realized that the culture of denial of our society was nullifying all the lockdown "resolution lists". I decided to give both of those songs also a distinctive sound feature: the xylophone played by myself, like on the first demo recording of those songs that I made on a phone app. All the production processes of the album were a direct consequence of the practical impossibility to get together in the same room to record at the same time. Every musician involved was invited in the recording studio separately to record on top of drum tracks I laid down first, keeping in mind the song's form. 2020's historical reality created the circumstances for an unusual recording setting for a jazz album. The improvisation and interplay was created following a sort of kaleidoscope shape where each layer was born from the previous one and pushed the following one to become wider – literally Inside Out. The album title implies also the necessity and the challenge to camouflage the grid to be able to play outside within the inside.
How do you feel about this record as a complete statement now?
I feel pretty good about it. For the first time in my life I had the chance to work in a studio setting without constricting time limits. I reconnected with my friend Bob Noise of PuddingStone Studio at the right moment, as we were both temporarily out of work due to the pandemic and we decided to dedicate our time producing something with the best of our resources and abilities not stressing particularly for any kind of deadlines. It took a while to release this album but I think it was worth it and both of us grew stronger out of it.
Jazz is going through a period of huge attention from the mainstream, certainly here in the UK. Do you feel like there’s an actual creative renaissance or was it always there and just needed to be found?
I think that jazz always had the prophetic mission to connect and unite people. Sometimes that message has been abused by the music business and the music itself turned into a commodity. A hopeful new kind of vision is taking place thanks also to the help of few of the decent aspects that the internet still has. Smaller independent record labels, often run by musicians, are rising voices that need to be heard. Chicago, London, New York and many other cities have reached a nice and healthy ecosystem. That can reinvigorate creativity, in itself creating a virtuous cycle. Il rinascimento? Speriamo. [“The renaissance? Let’s hope.”]
What have you got coming next in the pipeline?
I can't wait for this album to come out so I can be focusing on playing shows with my project and my friends' creative projects! I'm already kind of visualizing my next work. I feel it should be conceived from the diametrical opposite point of view of this last one. Maybe recording an improvised session with some of my favourite musicians and creating songs out of it in post-production? Who knows, I definitely have the name for it already: Outside In.
Preorder Inside Out here.
Cover Credit: Jeff Humbert
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.