Italian Jazz: A Raphael with Rhythm

Italians are not known for their Art Tatums and Fats Wallers, but this jazz savant is amplifying his ivory skills throughout the Old Country in unheard forms that measure up to the sounds of a 1950s classic. Grab your boots and light up to lend an ear to Raphael Gualazzi, the Italian lover of one of music’s most romantic genres. Nestled in risk but with no regret, Gualazzi was weaned on Jazz from its birthplace in New Orleans and trailed the structure from its most contemporary fusion styles with electric instruments and sequencers. Put Ragtime, BeBop, Blues and Swing into a blender and drink up these full bodied, bold sounds with simple lyrics – endearing and less intellectual with an emphasis on the voice of the instrument. From a Harlem whisky nightclub to a back porch in Louisiana the Gualazzi quintet resurrects the origins of the Afro-beat in a modern poly-rythmic riff with Tizol’s Caravan and their very own Follio d’Amore.

At 30, an encyclopedia for the music of early Rag- time and of New Orleans circa 1930, a native to the stride piano, Raphael is a polished jazz artisan (as he prefers to artist). He studied at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesano where he began to shape his attraction to the historical forms of jazz while carving up his own style. In 2008, after two years of festival jamming, he ripely won a French audience when he revealed Piano Jazz and his version of Georgia on my Mind at the Louvre. In 2009, after an invite to perform in the USA for the pro- ject “The History & Mystery of Jazz” he met with Caterina Caselli and signed with Sugar, an independent music label. In 2010, he was booked at the notorious Sunside in Paris for a sell-out crowd followed by a hit gig at The Blue Note in Milan, revealing his Madness of Love.

That year he went on to win the San Remo Giovani with Folia d’amore (self-written, produced) – along with the Critics Award and the Press Room Award. Earlier this year, at Che Tempo Fa (Italy), his first single debuted, Reality and Fantasy. After the all-star remix by Gilles Peterson, the single was added to Hotel Costes and Nova Tunes 2.2, topping the charts for worldwide digital sales. Echoing a range of inspirations from Django Reinhard and Ella Fitzgerald to Tom Waits and Dave Matthews, Gualazzi’s new album Reality and Fantasy is rooted in American Ragtime and flirting with Northern European beats. Lingering in a new category one might call RagBop or BeJazz – denoting his personal fusion style – the sweetness of the Italian language in part with his Rainassance origins, both contribute widely to the authenticity of Gualazzi’s musical creativity. Reality and Fantasy has tapped the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg. These bravos are proving to be vanguards of modern jazz reminiscent of the voices of yesterday.

On a smouldering mid-June eve behind a 15th-Century citadel in Alessandria, a province outside of Piedmont, awaiting Raphael’s arrival backstage, b-sharps and b-flats flew over the hills through the still heat. Like a reinstallation of epic jazz by sound and chance, Raphael Gualazzi and his team – Gigi Faggi (trombone), Massimo Valentini (sax), Enrico Benvenuti (sax), Manuele Montanari (bass), Giuseppe Conte (guitar) and Christian Marini (drums) – hit their soundcheck. Amidst the clamor, the pi- ano faded and Raphael arrived wearing a light sweat, a soft grin, and slightly parental attire. Without a white suit + top hat, nor ripped Armani’s + Stevie Wonder tee with fresh bourbon breath he eased next to a Coke Zero and a few rolled cigarettes. Over a cocktail table (sans cocktail) with a backdrop of white tents and archaic bricks, the interview of a thousand questions unraveled in English, but with lenience and no oblivion to Italian.

————– Interview with Raphael Gualazzi, by Angela Gleason ——————

AG: What is it about this period of ragtime, blues, the African beat, jazz and New Orleans that motivates you?

RG: It is basic. Rhythmical, and light. The music is respectable because it is both technical and classical from the origins of African music. Fats Waller would mix style and be personal. Art Tatum would remake classical. Fitz (Ella Fitzgerald) was ironic. Oscar Peterson could mix stride piano and bebop. There were Spanish tinges and Latin rhythms. Traditionally, the African music is less intellectual. From 5pm-midnight in the 50s, jazz and swing would entertain throughout the dinner hour. It began in the swing clubs of Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans – after the dinner hours they would let their hair down and jam until dawn. This was where the potential of instruments grew.

AG: How did you arrive at Reality and Fantasy?

RG: There is this place in New Orleans called Congo Square where the first Africans played live music. It was where the traditions of music began to grow. The traditions of African music are simple. Rhythm and voice. This was the first mu- sic. Rhythm and voice was all they had to bring you from reality to fantasy. The original beat (our song) was used for a commercial here in Italy and the song itself was quickly remixed by Gilles Peterson who did an outstanding job of fixing it. It was difficult to record the xylopohne.

AG: When performing, is there someone in particular in mind?

RG: Laurence Olivier says when you perform, it is for three things: for yourself, the art, and the audience. I keep this in mind when I am on stage.

AG: How do you begin to compose a song?

RG: During soundcheck. While the band prepares their instruments I listen to the sounds and begin to think of a melody arrangement and lyrics. Then I’ll fix it in my phone or call a friend. I might take 2-3 days for writing before fixing the lyrics with the sounds. During a festival in Italy, I remember a sunset on the lake and I had my hand on the piano. I was playing a few notes. Our drummer advised me “please record this!” and we went back to begin recording on a computer.

AG: You’ve been playing the piano since age 9, what sparked your interest?

RG: We always had a piano and I remember hitting a black key over and over and it giving me this sound. I was curious about all these sounds that I could control. I wanted to learn. A little secret (He bends over and speaks softly), I didn’t do so well at piano lessons because my teacher was too beautiful. I returned to the piano later at 19 after some Led Zeppelin.

AG: What is the impact you strive to achieve with your music?

RG: I want to deliver the traditions of music in a modern way. I try to bring together Latin, jazz, hip hop, and reggae. But I do not create busy music. I want to give back the freedom of jazz, not born as intellectual but from voice and melody.

“Rhythm & voice was all they had to bring you from reality to fantasy.”

AG: When you aren’t around music, do you find yourself making music with your environment – honks, bells, street noise?

RG: Always. When I would get into my car and put on my seatbelt, I would always hear the pattern of the strap to buckle. It spurred the beat for “Madness of Love”. It is how some of the best beats are developed.

AG: Did you ever want to give up on trying for a music career?

RG: When I first began to play music in small venues, I would play for little to no money, even for words or exchanges or promises. I didn’t have a TV or a car, and I was fearful about paying rent each month. I only had my music. I realized how happy I could be with music and knew that I would continue.

AG: Much of your music you sing in English, where and why did singing in English come about?

RG: All my inspirations sang in English. So I decided it would be good to learn for my singing. I listen closely to their lyrics and learn words and phrases from the legends.

AG: What is the most challenging about this profession?

RG: The loneliness when the crowd disappears. Or being without a piano. Fortunately I have always had a piano near me most of the time. But after the music stops and the peo- ple go home it is a very lonely feeling. Beethoven says “the music is taken when it stops” and I think about that as it goes, and I let it continue to play after the show.

AG: Tell me about the band, who are these talents and how did you come together?

RG: Friends and professionals. We jammed a lot at the conservatory (Rossini Music Conservatory). The drummer Christian Marini lives across the street from me. He has collaborated on a number of film and TV scores. He collaborated on the original soundtrack for La Vita Bella. I remember when I was younger hearing him practice the songs and not knowing at the time what they were for. The guitarist Giuseppe Conte has worked on mul- tiple soundtracks. The sax player Massimo Valentini was the one who asked me to record something for the first time. We recorded the first music on his computer. He has played for one of Europe’s most important quartets the Atem Quartet as well for the wife of renowned Argentine tango composer Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla. When I was invited to the USA to perform for The History & Mystery of Jazz” it was an opportunity to play professionally with the members I had been playing with all along. I asked them to come along and we have since been together.

AG: When and where did you first hear your song on the radio and what was that like?

RG: I was in France in a Taxi and Re- ality and Fantasy came on the French radio station FIP http:// I told the driver it was me and smiled the entire ride.

AG: What’s it like going back to Urbino now?

RG: Castel- cavallino is my home, a small town outside of Urbino. I have an empty apartment full of awards. A woman cleans it every week. But I am never there. It is as though I am an owner of a museum. It is a strange thought having these empty rooms I call home where I rarely visit.

AG: Any lucky habits, or superstitions?

RG: (unravelling a weathered piece of white paper tucked in his “Big Bag” leather carrier in a small pocket of his wallet, “This is not drugs, don’t worry” he smiles and then carefully opens the folded paper.) There is not anything really. But the girlfriend of one of my best friends from home gave me this four leaf clover before I left to play music a couple of years ago. I al- ways have it with me to remind me of home.

AG: Having played all over, what is your most memorable performance so far?

RG: I had 3 minutes to perform the dur- ing Eurostar Competition. It was the best 3 minutes. There were 120 million viewers and an audience of 37,000. My fa- ther cried for the first time. We were in Jakarta, and it was foreign and far and he realized that I was doing what I love.

AG: If you could collaborate with another musician, who?

RG: Francesco Cafiso. He is one of thte most amazing sax players. He was invited by Obama to play in his honor on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009. It would be a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with him.

AG: You like African music, what is your take on hip-hop today?

RG: I think that it is about substance vs. choreography. Hop hop gives more emphasis to context vs. harmony. There was a time in Italy when there was more meaning to lyrics vs. melody. There would be a 3 tempo beat and used over and over again to different words. Songs about politics and history or relationships. Music is collaboration, something that ties people, it joins people. There is no competition.

AG: What do you want to do next?

RG: Parachute. Improve my English. And learn more languages so I can sing in other languages.

AG: For a musician who strives to bring forth the traditions of jazz and the origins of African music, utilizing the depths and core of instruments, how do you feel about technology and music today with the digital era so infused with music?

RG: Tradition is being renewed by content, by new techni- cal approaches. Jazz is a matrix of modern music. I prefer to propose vs. criticize. I think that proposing gives more to the head (to create). Music can also allow technology to see new potential. ♦

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About Angela Gleason

visual designer | writer | pianist in the basement | painter in the night | fashion critic | lush | Italian savant check me out: