Enrico Rava: Easy Living

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Enrico Rava
By Christopher Porter
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Enrico Rava
By Christopher Porter
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Enrico Rava
By Christopher Porter
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Gianluca Petrella
By Pino Ninfa

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Enrico Rava looks relaxed. He’s surveying the Umbrian countryside from the rooftop of the Hote
l Brufani Palace, the sun setting over the rolling hills as the wind whips his long gray hair across his face. His pink shirt matches Perugia’s vivid sky, and his slight smile is one of quiet satisfaction.

After playing a blistering late-afternoon set with his quintet plus hotshot alto saxophonist Francesco Cafiso at the 18th-century Teatro Morlacchi opera house, Rava was given an award from the Umbria Jazz Festival for his contributions to Italian jazz. The ceremony brought out local and regional dignitaries, and Rava joked that he wished his parents were still alive so they could see that he had made something of himself. He would make a similar joke the next day, in the 13th-century town hall Sala Dei Notari, where Rava, Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner were given honorary doctor of music degrees from Berklee College of Music.

Rava, who never completed high school or studied music, has more than made something of himself.
He’s Italy’s greatest jazz musician.

Rava was born August 20, 1939, in Trieste, Italy, and raised in Turin (Torino). His father was in international transportation and his mother was a pianist with a degree in classical music. But it was his brother’s record collection that turned young Enrico into a jazz kook.

“I lost my time all day listening to those records,” Rava laughs. “My mother was desperate! I was 10 years old, sitting there all day with those fucking records! I was very bad at school because I was always with those records. I was so bad at school that I never got any diploma or anything. So when I decided to go on the road as a trumpet player, they thought that was the end for me.”

While he played trombone for a year at 15, the music Rava obsessed about was that of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong and other trumpeters. “When I was about 18 I bought a trumpet for the first time, and I learned by myself.” He had just seen Davis perform with Lester Young and a French rhythm section, and he was blown away. It was then that Rava knew he wanted to play the horn. “I just learned trying to copy solos. There were a couple of records that I learned the trumpet by playing with them. One is ‘Blue Haze’ by Miles; it’s a very slow B-flat blues. We played easy tunes like ‘Solar.’ I was copying Miles’ phrases from that particular moment of his life, especially in certain tunes because it was very easy to reproduce because it wasn’t too difficult technically; it was in the middle register. And also Chet Baker, the records he did in ’54, ’55. He had a period from ’52 to ’54 where he’s very articulate, very fast, so it was impossible to copy. But then, when he started to sing, he started to be much more melodic in his trumpet solos, so I could copy. It wasn’t easy, but I was learning.”

Jazz trumpet wasn’t the only thing that Rava was learning; he was also learning about the “jazz life,” which worried his parents to no end.

“I was always hanging around Chet in Torino,” Rava says. “His drummer was my best friend, Franco Mondini. So I was always at Franco’s house, and Chet was there. That was in the early 1960s, when Chet came out from jail. So all day I’d be at my friend Franco’s house when Chet was there. I was always trying to think of something intelligent to say, but I was paralyzed. Because it felt like being in front of the sun! I couldn’t even talk. So I was asking him advice sometimes, but he couldn’t tell me because he was totally self-taught. So he could do whatever he could do, but he didn’t know how. He was nice. But at the time the people he was hanging with in Torino—it was Chet with all his stories, with his heroin.

“Then Bobby Jaspar,” Rava says, shaking his head. Jaspar was a Belgian saxophonist who died in 1963 at age 37; the French L’Academie du Jazz named its annual prize for European jazz musician of the year for him. “One time I brought Bobby Jaspar to my parents’ home when they weren’t there. When he left, and I didn’t check out my father’s bathroom, and there was a needle and blood and shit. I was silly not to check. So when my father came back—that’s why he was so down on me hanging around with these people, making it as a musician and all that.”

“For years I was the bad guy in the family, but then when I started to get successful, they started to change about me,” he says. “But in the meantime my father was gone. In fact, it’s terrible: My father died exactly the day the first record with my name came out. Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi; it was on an Italian label [originally on International in 1972, and reissued by Black Saint in 1976]. It was the first album of mine as a leader.

“I was living in New York, and they called me and said my father was sick. So I went to Torino. He was in hospital. And that day I knew that the record was ready, and the label was in Torino, so I went to the label to take the record and went back to the hospital, but my father was already gone. So he didn’t even see it.

“But he came to New York when I was living there, and he came to my place, had dinner, and he saw that I was making a decent living. He thought I wanted to be a musician because I didn’t want to work; that I just wanted to be drunk and get stoned all the time; that I didn’t want to wake up in the morning. That was his idea. Most parents then in Italy, that was their idea of a musician.”

Rava’s graceful melodies and dark, buttery tone are stunningly beautiful. His style is attention grabbing without being overt, and his sound is never harsh. “I really hate the brassy sound on the trumpet,” he says. “If the trumpet was just that, I would never play the trumpet.” His horn comes across almost like a higher-pitched trombone, which is his favorite instrument.

“Trumpet and trombone are exactly the same instrument except one is lower and has a slide,” Rava says. “So when you play certain intervals with trumpet and trombone you get all the overtones; it’s fantastic. When I was playing with Roswell Rudd, Roswell knows about those things. Sometimes he plays the note with my note [and] it sounded like a chord; you hear four or five notes together.”
Rava’s wide-ranging work over the past 45 years, from free jazz to bebop, is estimable and respected among musicians, critics and fans alike. But Rava took his time and many detours before becoming a leader.

After playing briefly with Gato Barbieri and Mal Waldron in the early 1960s, Rava soon met Steve Lacy in Torino. The saxophonist’s quartet was in flux, Rava says, “So Steve went to London to look for someone and after about two weeks he said he found these guys,” bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, both South African exiles. “And he told me to come over, so I went to London. It was the first time I was in a big city like London. That was ’64. It was this strange new land of the Beatles, the miniskirts; in Italy they still had their skirts to the feet. I was freaking out! It was great!”

The quartet played and rehearsed and eventually did a tour of Italy. “But the music was so advanced that nobody liked it,” Rava says. “We created this big tour of Italy, but the first gig was a jazz festival, and everybody was there: Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Ornette Coleman’s trio, Art Blakey with Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Wayne Shorter. It was an amazing festival. And when we start playing, I had my eyes closed and I heard some noise, so I look: It was people fighting in the audience. Because most of them really hated it, so there was a fight. Then three quarters of the audience left. So the next day in all the newspapers was the headlines ‘Total Disaster! Steve Lacy Band Destroys the Festival!’ So we had this tour, but the all organizers read the papers, and they canceled. This was ’65, the Sanremo Festival. It was a big festival that doesn’t exist anymore. So we didn’t know what to do.

“We were hanging around in Rome, around the American Academy,” Rava says. “There were a lot of people with the Living Theatre there, so we were sticking with them. Then Don Cherry and Mal Waldron came to Rome, so we were all there. Since my first wife was Argentinean, she said, ‘Why don’t we try to go to South America?’ So she went to Buenos Aires, and two weeks later she found us a gig in a big theater that wanted us for 15 days. It was good, but we didn’t know where we wanted to go after that, which was our big mistake: We got only one-way tickets. When we were there, the first three days it was a packed house, but then, of course, everybody started hating the music, too. I think the first week we had salary; then we worked for the door. We ended up with no money, no nothing, and we couldn’t leave because we had no tickets and no money.”

The group was stuck in Argentina for about a year, working as much as they could to save money to buy plane tickets out of there.

“On top of it, Johnny and Louis were the only two black guys in Buenos Aires, so everybody was looking at them,” Rava says. “And also because Johnny wore his hair in a mohawk! So you can imagine that in Argentina, where people at the time were very straight, everybody in gray suits, they were seeing Johnny dressed in red and with this mohawk, so there were fights all the time. Johnny was underage, so my father-in-law had to be like a tutor to him to let him into Argentina, and he had to keep going to get him from jail and shit! In a way it was great because me, Johnny and Louis were like brothers. We had a fantastic thing.”

Lacy eventually received some money from his parents, and Rava and his wife got help from friends and the quartet went to New York City. Pianist and fellow South African exile Chris McGregor asked Moholo and Dyani to come back to London, Rava says, “and I stayed in New York. I met everybody, and I start playing with Roswell Rudd’s band, then I make a quartet with John Abercrombie [in 1969]. At that point I decided to stay in the States.”

Rava stayed until 1977 before returning to Italy for good, but it was during his time in New York City that the trumpeter made his mark as a leader, cutting three classic records for ECM: 1975’s The Pilgrim and the Stars, 1976’s The Plot and 1978’s Enrico Rava Quartet. (While all of the albums are out on CD in Europe, only the 1978 disc is available in the U.S., but the other two records can be downloaded from iTunes.)

Like Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi, none of these ECM discs include a keyboardist. Rava’s first three albums feature guitarists (Bruce Johnson on Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi; John Abercrombie on the first two ECMs) and the 1978 quartet album has Rudd on trombone.

“The piano is a fantastic instrument, but it’s a very heavy thing: It decides what the whole thing is going to sound like,” Rava says. “Because piano players, most of them, have this tremendous power, they tend to play much more than they should. Now it’s changed, but up until a few years ago piano players were playing like Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, which means that if you play with the one who sounds like Herbie, with trumpet, it automatically comes out like Miles.

“That’s why I used a lot of guitars before,” including two ax players in his Electric Five band. “Groups with horns and guitars don’t have this big tradition in jazz; it’s not so common. The only groups that are horn with guitar that I can recall, and they had a short life, was Sonny Rollins with Jim Hall, then Art Farmer with Jim Hall, then maybe Jimmy Giuffre with Jim Hall—always with Jim Hall! Of course, because he’s the best; everybody plays with him. But it’s not something that became an example that everybody copied, like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis or McCoy and John Coltrane. With the guitar, the horizon was still out there. That’s why I play so much with guitar.

“But then when I met Stefano [Bollani], then I fell in love again with playing with the piano, because he wasn’t playing like anyone else. He wasn’t playing any of the old licks pianists do when they comp. He was really reactive to what I was doing. I have a great time with him; when we play in duo we have so much fun. We don’t have any friction; we can go anywhere.”

Stefano Bollani was 23 when he started playing with Rava in 1996, and since then he’s become one of the most popular jazz musicians—not to mention stand-up comedians—in Italy. Rava has a knack for identifying and developing talent, such as his quintet’s trombone player, Gianluca Petrella, who just might be the heir to Rava’s throne as the most important jazz musician in Italy. (His new Blue Note CD, Indigo, bears this out.)

While Bollani is no longer a part of Rava’s quintet, due to his own demanding schedule as a bandleader and entertainer, he and his mentor still play together in duo settings and on last year’s Tati (ECM), a ballads CD featuring trumpet, piano and Paul Motian on drums.

Tati is Rava’s second CD since returning to ECM’s fold, after years of recording for a number of labels. While he cut plenty of albums in his time away (“Too many, in fact”) for labels like Philology, Label Bleu, Between the Lines, CamJazz, Egea, Stunt, Via Veneto, Challenge, Soul Note and more, and many of them are good to great, none of these labels has the far-reaching distribution, promotional power or aesthetic focus of Manfred Eicher’s ECM.

“Everybody asks me, ‘How come you went back with ECM?’” Rava says. “No, the real question is how I ever left ECM. I’m so glad I went back.”

Rava didn’t leave ECM because of problems with the label; he just wanted to record a lot more music. “With ECM we were recording maybe one record every year or every year and a half—like we are doing now, actually,” he says. “For me it was not enough.” In fact, Rava’s quintet, now with pianist Andrea Pozza, with whom he made Stormy Weather (Philology) in 2003, already has its next ECM CD in the can, but the label likely won’t release it until 2007.

While ECM’s process might be slower than Rava would like, he’s well aware that ECM is where he belongs as an artist. His greatest recordings have been made for the label, including his 2004 quintet release Easy Living, his first album for ECM since 1986’s Volver. Easy Living is not only one of the best CDs of that year; it’s also one of the finest in the trumpeter’s catalog.

“Being in the studio with Manfred, he knows what he’s doing,” Rava says. “When Manfred is in the studio, the sound I listen to in the earphones will be exactly what I need; the sound on the record will be exactly what I like. Also, if you know what you’re doing, Manfred won’t say a word. Maybe if you ask him, ‘Do you like this version?’ But he doesn’t interfere unless you don’t know what you’re going to do.

“Like when we did this tour and a record with [Argentinean bandoneón player] Dino Saluzzi called Volver, we had a lot of problems. There were a lot of bad vibes going on between the drummer, Bruce Ditmas, and Dino; it was really difficult. It was the most difficult tour I ever made. We had the bassist Furio di Castri, and a guitarist from Vienna named Harry Pepl. Everyone was very good; it just didn’t mesh together.

“When we were in the studio the vibes were so bad that we stayed there for a couple of hours without playing one note. But Manfred really saved the session; I think finally it came out as a pretty good record. Manfred left the control room and came in and said, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ and ‘Why don’t you try that?’ because we were almost paralyzed. On top of it, I was the only one who spoke Spanish and English, so I was always the connection, and it was…” Rava trails off, still bothered by the events. “So if Manfred is needed, he helps you to save a record. So I’m very happy.”

Happy, indeed. With his return to ECM, a joyful marriage to Lidia, his second wife (“She’s much younger than me,” Rava laughs. “She’s very beautiful. We’ve been together for about 18 years”), a house by the sea in Genoa, the longstanding admiration of European jazz fans and a growing legion of American jazz nuts discovering or rediscovering this giant of the trumpet, what’s there to be sad about?

Listening Pleasures

“I’ve been listening so much to Ornette Coleman’s quartet with Don Cherry. Meshell Ndegeocello is incredible. I saw her with Pat Metheny. She really impressed me, though it’s not my kind of thing. But she projected a strong charisma. I’m crazy about the Brazilian singer Rosa Passos. I like Dave Douglas very much. But mainly as a listener I listen to old stuff: Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives; Miles Davis in the Prestige era.”

Gearbox

“I have a Bach 37. For their centennial celebration they made a special model that’s a little bit better than the normal one, so I have two of them. I bought it in New York in 1986 when I was there on tour. I had Marvin Stamm choose the trumpet for me because he really knows. It would take me a month before I decide if I like it or not, so I brought Marvin with me.

“I use a Heim #1 mouthpiece, which Miles used to play. I found it recently. I’ve been looking for it all my life. Now Holton is making them again. Before that I used a Bach mouthpiece. I started with a 1 1/2, but then for many years I played a 7CW, then a 7C, then finally I got this one and I like it a lot. It feels much friendlier. It doesn’t cut me, and it’s almost conic like a French horn’s. So it helps to get the sounds I like, which is a dark sound.”

10 Rava CDs (Not on ECM)

Eveything Rava's recorded for ECM is worthy of a slot in your colletion. But what of his other 40-plus albums? Here's a select list to get you started. A lot of thse CDs won't be easy to come by, but all are worth seeking out. Try downtownmusicgallery.com, cadencebuilding.com, jazzmart.com, theorchard.com and ejazzlines.com, amazon.com (and its foreighn corollaries: amazon. Fr, etc.) as well as the record label Web sites.

Il Giro del Giorno in 80 Mondi (International/Black Saint, 1972)

Rava’s edgy, funky debut. Vic Albani, manager for Gianluca Petrella, Paolo Fresu, Franco D’Andrea and Gianluigi Trovesi—some of the biggest jazz musicians in Italy—chose this as one of the albums that represents the heart of modern Italian jazz.

Flat Fleet (Philology, 2005)

This sprawling, three-track double CD, recorded in 1983, features pianist Franco D’Andrea, bassist Mark Helias, drummer Barry Altschul and alto saxophonist Massimo Urbani, a massive talent who died of an overdose in 1993 at 35. Many people put Urbani on par with Rava as far as talent and influence.

Quatre (Gala/Duck, 1989)

A brilliant supergroup session featuring Rava with pianist Franco D’Andrea, bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Daniel Humair. Winner of Musica Jazz’s 1989 album of the year.

Rava L’Opera Va (Label Bleu, 1993)

Jazz versions of Puccini, Pergolesi and Bizet opera works. Featuring the Insieme Strumentale di Roma string quartet, with accordionist Richard Galliano, guitarist Battista Lena and, reunited from Rava’s first two ECM albums, the fantastic Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. Rava’s manager, Mario Guidi, chose this as his favorite among the non-ECM discs. It was also Musica Jazz’s 1993 album of the year.

Shades of Chet (Via Veneto, 1999)

Rava and fellow Italian trumpet star Paolo Fresu, along with pianist Stefano Bollani, bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and drummer Robert Gatto, crank through classic tunes like “My Funny Valentine,” “Anthropology,” “Doxy” and Gerry Mulligan’s “Line for Lyons.” Musica Jazz’s 1999 CD of the year.

Full of Life (CamJazz, 2003)

Referencing the Ornette Coleman–Don Cherry and Gerry Mulligan–Chet Baker bands, this CD touches on some of Rava’s greatest influences. With saxophonist Javier Girotto, bassist Ares Tavolazzi and drummer Fabrizio Sferra.

Duo en Noir (Between the Lines, 2000)

Montreal Diary/B (Label Bleu, 2004)

Nausicca (Egea, 1993)

Radio Days (Philology, 2003)

Rava often performs and records in piano duos, and these CDs are four fine but very different examples of the trumpeter’s deeply sensitive balladry. The CDs feature, in order, the great pianists Ran Blake, Stefano Bollani, Enrico Pieranunzi and Renato Sellani (the grand gentleman of Italian 88s).

Sideman Success: Gianluca Petrell is on tap to be Italy's next jazz star

To paraphrase Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben: With great popularity comes great responsibility. Enrico Rava says, “My main profession is I’m a jazz fan,” and he uses his fame to encourage and promote younger Italian musicians.

His Under 21 quintet is one such way he gives back, as artists like Francesco Bigoni (sax), Giovanni Guidi (piano), Giulio Corini (bass) and Emanuele Maniscalco (drums) will attest.

The alto-sax bebop wunderkind Franceso Cafiso has also shared the stage with Rava in high-profile gigs at jazz festivals in Montreal and Perugia, Italy. “Francesco is very young, but he’s very old,” Rava says. “He plays like somebody who is 40. People say, ‘Ah, he plays good for being 16.’ No, he plays good even if he was 35. And he’s a very fast and quick learner. He understands everything. He’s really a special guy. It’s such a pleasure for me to listen to Franceso; so fluid.”

But it’s when Rava taps a musician-to-be in his working band that the player knows he’s been anointed. Stefano Bollani, who joined Rava in 1996 at 23, received the certificate of approval; he now leads his own groups to great acclaim, and he’ll make his ECM debut in September with a solo-piano CD.

The latest musician to benefit from Rava’s endorsement is trombonist Gianluca Petrella, a full-time member of the trumpeter’s quintet since 2001. Petrella, 31, made his Blue Note debut recently with Indigo 4, and if enough people hear the CD it should be nominated as one of the best jazz discs of 2006. The album features a wicked drum ‘n’ bass-flavored take on Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle, Tinkle,” complete with a chopped-up sample of the original record, and two radical reworkings of Duke Ellington tunes, “I Got It Bad” and “Mood Indigo.” Meanwhile, Petrella’s original tunes, like “l.s.t.r.” (for Lester Bowie), “Stockholm 64,” “The Middleman,” “A Relaxing Place on Venus,” “Mr. Wolf” and “Sacred Whale,” blend electronics and swing with free playing and extraordinary arrangements.

The son of a trombonist, Petrella was sitting in with his father’s Dixieland band before he was a teenager. But he’s also absorbed the music of today, like electronica and hip-hop, and studied jazz history, from ragtime to avant-garde. As Petrella says in a press release: “Important influences include Ornette Coleman, the Sun Ra visionary world, the trombone played in an unconventional way like with Roswell Rudd, the improvised European music and the more radical and catchy electronics that involve acoustic instruments, too.”

“Gianluca, for me, is the best trombone player today,” Rava says. “I don’t see anyone else except maybe Roswell Rudd. But Gianluca is much younger, so he has a lot of other possibilities in his playing. He’s very bright. He’s the one that gives the certain sound to my band, to make it a little bit different. He’s so incredible; every night he surprises me.”

Originally published in May 2006

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