Assolutamente Fantastico! Uncovering the Allure of Italian Jazz
The development of jazz can be credited to Black musicians in New Orleans, Louisiana, who incorporated the harmonies of classical music with the rhythms of African music, resulting in a style that heavily emphasised improvisation.
This meant that with each performer’s interpretation, jazz would continue to evolve, undulating with every beat of the drum and each lilt of the instrument that played it.
However, a lesser-known fact is that Italians also played a part in the early days of jazz – Nick LaRocca, leader of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB), was the son of Sicilian immigrants.
At that time, “jazz” had yet to be finalised as the genre’s name; some people referred to it as “jass”.
In early 1917, ODJB became the first band to ever make a jazz record with “Livery Stable Blues”.
LaRocca, a skilled cornetist and trumpeter, also composed “Tiger Rag”, which to this day, remains as one of the most recorded jazz compositions of all time, having been covered by Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Nicholas Payton and more.
As LaRocca’s valuable contributions made waves in New Orleans, Italian musicians were also making a mark in the history of jazz across the Atlantic.
It’s said that Italians had their first taste of jazz when a group of creole singers performed at the Eden theater in Milan in 1904. Relying on both American musicians touring Europe and Italian musicians returning from the US, jazz gradually took root in the country.
Despite the anti-American cultural policies of the fascist regime in the 1930s, jazz remained popular, and many Italian jazz orchestras and ensembles were formed during this time.
In their early days, Italian jazz ensembles mirrored their performances after their American idols, but as time passed, all these styles, from be-bop to free jazz and fusion, soon had their equivalents in Italy.
By the time the 1960s came around, a more “homegrown” style of jazz was being nurtured.
This generation of musicians were the ones who formed the foundations of Italian jazz, simultaneously respecting the traditions of the genre while adding a distinctly localised flavour through European songs, classical techniques and folk music.
THE GRAND MASTER OF ITALIAN JAZZ
Enrico Rava. Credit: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records
Enrico Rava started on the trombone, but switched to the trumpet after hearing Miles Davis’ music.
Having spent over 60 years in the industry, Rava is regarded as one of the great pioneers of Italian jazz.
“In the 50s, and in the beginning of the 60s, it was almost impossible to make a living from being a musician,” reminisced Rava during an interview with jazz journalist Kijun Lee.
“But a couple of years after I left home, I was playing with Steve (Lacy) in London, and then a year later, we were in Argentina. A couple of years later, Steve brought me to New York. All the doors opened because I was playing with different people.”
The melodic, poetic flair displayed in Rava’s compositions give his music a delicate sound, putting up a stark contrast against the fiercely-paced, free improvisations of American jazz.
In his albums Rava L’Opera Va and Carmen, he pays tribute to the most distinctive music in Italy by putting his own spin on opera classics by Puccini, Pergolesi, and Bizet.
And yet, he never limits himself when it comes to appreciating the music he enjoys.
On multiple occasions, Rava has performed music by American jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, and Miles Davis. As a Michael Jackson fan, he has also been known to play “Smooth Criminal” (one of his favourite tunes) and “Thriller” during his concerts, calling the programme “very energetic and full of life”.
PLAYING IN PARALLEL WITH CLASSICAL TRAINING
Enrico Pieranunzi. Credit: Enrico Pieranunzi
At 72 years old, Enrico Pieranunzi is considered to be the most representative Italian jazz pianist. His father, Alvaro, was also a jazz guitarist.
Pieranunzi studied classical music. He taught for two years before leaving his position as professor of music to play in trios and small ensembles.
Speaking to ArkivMusic about his background, Pieranunzi explains: “I never 'switched' from classical to jazz, simply because I basically started the two musics on the same days, when I was about five and a half years old.
“Then I always carried them both forward in parallel.”
Having collaborated with Chet Baker, Jim Hall, and Lee Konitz, Pieranunzi also displays his mastery of jazz and swing in his 2000 album Infant Eyes, which pays homage to American saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
But what we admire most about Pieranunzi is his freehand technique in his album Don’t Forget The Poet – showcased beautifully as a quintet with bass, drums, saxophone, and trumpet.
In July 2010, he played and recorded live at the Village Vanguard, becoming the only Italian musician to perform at the historical jazz venue.
Pieranunzi has also recorded in dozens of films scored by the late Ennio Morricone, who composed the soundtracks for Cinema Paradiso and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, as well as about 60 other award-winning bodies of work.
Together with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, Pieranunzi put together jazz arrangements for some of Morricone’s most iconic compositions in an album, Play Morricone.
Even Morricone himself applauded the effort, saying, “I am euphoric for the positive performances where the original pieces, rediscovered and respected, have a new physiognomy, and the jazz interpretation of the three great soloists doesn't destroy the pieces but values them.”
DISCOVERING HIS PASSION BY ACCIDENT
Making magic on the saxophone is Stefano Di Battista, who started playing at the age of thirteen in a neighbourhood brass orchestra.
In a small town near Rome, Di Battista came to know about jazz after hearing a compilation album that featured Cannonball Adderley.
“I saw another world when I got to hear that album. I became completely crazy for jazz. Even if I didn't understand anything about it then, it gave the impression that I was Superman, that I was able to fly,” he tells music blog Hyperlocrian.
“This was maybe the most important moment of my life: that I discovered jazz by accident.”
On working with drummer Elvin Jones as a sideman, Di Battista says: “It was amazing. Elvin had the power to let you play better. I don't know how that was possible. If you play with Elvin, you just play better. It's magic, something that never happened with any other musician. He makes you shine.”
He goes on to add that he learned a lot of things from Jones.
“I remember at one point, we were sitting in a plane, and I asked Elvin: ‘Maestro, what is jazz to you?’ He said: ‘Stefano, jazz is easy. Look out of the window. Tell me, what do you see?’ I looked and said: ‘Well, I see clouds.’ He answered: ‘That's jazz.’”
Di Battista further says: “It's a kind of philosophical way to say jazz is everything, a way of life, of picturing everything. Jazz is more than music; I suppose that's what he meant.”
MUSIC IS SOMETHING THAT BELONGS TO EVERYONE
Paolo Fresu. Credit: Roberto Cifarelli
With more than 600 tracks to his name and over 2,500 concerts performed worldwide, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Paolo Fresu is as prolific as he is passionate about his work.
Born in Sardinia, a small island in the Mediterranean, Fresu has been actively organising an annual jazz festival for more than 35 years.
He lovingly talks about the beauty of music with UNESCO: “Music is the language of peace – it is a universal language, an idiom that can travel the world. Through music, I think we can develop relationships between people.
“Music means travelling the world with a sound that belongs to no-one. And what belongs to no-one is something that belongs to everyone.”
Fresu picked up the trumpet at the age of eleven, and played in the band Bernardo De Muro in Berchidda. After graduating in trumpet studies from the Conservatory of Cagliari, he debuted with his first album Ostinato in 1985.
Strongly influenced by Chet Baker and Miles Davis, Fresu’s style is distinctively mellow, but his seamless transition between the trumpet and flugelhorn, combined with electronic effects, makes him one of a kind.
Not one to be bound by the limitations of jazz, Fresu’s diverse collaborations with other musicians proves how much of his life is in music.
Paving the way for young talent, Fresu founded Tǔk Music in 2010, allowing artistes like Alessandro Napolitano, Ermanno Baron and Sade Mangiaracina to shine.
As the new generation of Italian jazz musicians continues to gain international attention, we’ve got our eye on these noteworthy stars: guitarist Federico Casagrande, who once collaborated with Enrico Pieranunzi in a duet album Double Circle, drummer Francesco Ciniglio, who honed his craft in New York, as well as pianist Giovanni Guidi, who comes highly lauded by Enrico Rava himself.
“When I notice the gifts of a young musician, I immediately involve him in my groups. Giovanni Guidi is like Bollani and Petrella: he astounds me every time,” Rava praises.
Take a trip to Italy with your ears: enjoy our curated playlist of Italian Jazz below.
For more on Jazz:
- Top 5 Jazz Releases to Look Forward to in 2023
- 10 Modern Jazz Artistes Reinventing the Scene and Shaping the Genre’s Future
- UPROOTED: A Deep Dive Into the Unsung History of Jazz Dance
Elevate the way you listen to Italian jazz with KEF
Cover: Paolo Fresu. Credit: Roberto Cifarelli
Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.