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Overdue Ovation: Enrico Rava Overcomes Cancer and Puts Out New Music

At 83, the Italian trumpet star puts a hospital stay in his rearview and celebrates a new collaboration with Fred Hersch

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Enrico Rava (photo: Alessandra Freguja)
Enrico Rava (photo: Alessandra Freguja)

When Enrico Rava recorded The Song Is You (ECM), his new album of duets with pianist Fred Hersch, in Lugano, Switzerland, he was just out of the hospital. “I had a very heavy operation. It was a cancer of the lung,” the 83-year-old trumpeter explains from his home in Chiavari, Italy. “Fortunately it was very small, so they took it off and everything is clean. I didn’t have to do any kind of therapy or anything.” Even so, it was a serious procedure, and Italy’s most prominent jazz musician fretted that he might not be up to playing his horn.

“I had already prepared a speech,” he says. “I would say, ‘Okay, [ECM founder and executive] Manfred [Eicher] and Fred, I thought I was ready, but I’m not ready! We’ll do it some other time.’ Then, when we got into this fantastic auditorium in Lugano, the sound was so good, the first note I played was really full, and I felt that there was already some magic going on.”

“He was very inspired, and so was I,” Hersch agrees. “I do a lot of duos, but we both realized quickly that we had come upon something very special.”

“It was lucky,” Rava says. “I’ve been lucky all my life. I met the right people in the right moment.”

It’s not a bad summary of Rava’s 60-plus-year career, during which he has been feted around the world and played with a stunning cast of musicians from Chet Baker to Don Cherry, and from Cecil Taylor to Abdullah Ibrahim. Before all that, he was just a kid growing up in Turin, Italy (although he was born 340 miles away in Trieste), doing badly in school and seemingly condemned to a life working a job he hated at his father’s trucking company.

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“I might have jumped out the window—but through jazz I found what to do with my life.”

The one light in teenage Rava’s life was jazz. He’d fallen in love with it from listening to his older brother’s record collection, and had amassed one of his own (and even tried his hand at playing trombone in a Dixieland band). In 1956, he saw Miles Davis perform in Turin and it changed his life. 

“It was so amazing,” he says. “The sound was fantastic, and his charisma! He had an aura around him. I was 17, and I remember it like it was yesterday.”

He was so enraptured that he bought himself a trumpet despite never having had a lesson. He didn’t start taking them then, either: Instead, he taught himself to play the simpler Davis tunes—“Solar,” “Four”—using those as the building blocks to learn the jazz trumpet language. (Even today, Rava wears his debt to Davis on his sleeve.) He thought it was a hobby, but soon he found himself playing all night at the few clubs in Turin, then reporting to his father’s office in the morning for another disastrous day. Finally, in 1965, he met Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri. “He asked me, ‘Why are you still doing that fucking work with your father? You should play! You have a good sound, a good feel.’ And I started thinking about it.” A month later, when Barbieri called him for a gig in Rome, Rava told his family he was leaving. Outraged, his father cut him off financially and didn’t speak to him for several years. Even so, Rava still thinks it was the right decision. “I was very unhappy,” he says. “I might have jumped out the window—but through jazz I found what to do with my life.”

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He worked in Rome with Barbieri for nine months, then got an offer to join soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s quartet. They went to London, Buenos Aires, and, in 1967, to New York. There Rava met the cream of the New York avant-garde: Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Roswell Rudd. It changed the way he played with Lacy. 

“For a while we were playing Monk tunes all the time, then Steve got into Carla Bley, so we started playing Carla Bley tunes,” Rava says. “But we weren’t improvising on the changes or the form, we were really going free. So one day I called Steve and said, ‘Listen, we are playing all those beautiful heads, but then we are going to someplace completely different when we improvise. So why are we playing the heads? Let’s improvise from the very beginning!’”

They called it “radical improvisation,” and while it was exciting at first, after a few years it became routine—and routine free improvisation, says Rava, is leaps and bounds worse than routine bebop. Deciding to move on, he put together a new quintet in 1973 with pianist Richard Beirach, guitarist Bruce Johnson, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Jimmy Madison. It welcomed melodies and chords (Rava’s own compositions) back into the mix, yet it still left space for the soloists to go as free as they wanted.

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It was difficult to survive in New York for the first few years. But European jazz lovers, who followed the New York scene closely, embraced him, allowing Rava to tour Europe and make enough money to live in the Apple. On one of those tours, he recorded The Pilgrim and the Stars, his first ECM album with guitarist John Abercrombie and a European rhythm section. That album, ironically, broke him in the United States.

Nevertheless, by 1978 he was ready to return to Europe. He would henceforth be based in Italy, moving from Cinque Terre to Rome to Milan, and finally to his current home in Chiavari, near Genoa. He never stopped working with his American friends; he would join Archie Shepp or Rudd on European tours (with Rudd joining him on 1978’s Enrico Rava Quartet, an ECM album that Rava says is probably his favorite), and he would return to the U.S. to play and record with Lacy, Joe Henderson, or a band with Mark Turner and Paul Motian (with whom he recorded New York Days in 2008). At the same time, he would also perform with the most respected European players, from Karl Berger to Palle Danielsson to Jean-Michel Pilc, and with the bumper crop of great Italian musicians that had sprung up in his absence.

Enrico Rava with Fred Hersch (R) (photo: © Luciano Rossetti/ECM Records)
Enrico Rava with Fred Hersch (R) (photo: © Luciano Rossetti/ECM Records)

By 2021, when he was 82, Rava thought he had played with everyone he could possibly want to play with. Then he got a call to meet Fred Hersch. “I did not expect something to happen again so strong, you know?” he says. “It was a big love, big music love. All of a sudden I found somebody that inspired me so much. It was like I was starting all over again!” 

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Though Rava has reduced his performance schedule recently—he doesn’t want to turn into “a circus attraction: ‘Look, next to the woman with two heads, it’s the oldest trumpet player in the world!’”—both he and Hersch hope that their new collaboration will continue for a long time to come. “When you think of European jazz royalty, Enrico’s really high up there,” Hersch says. “He has such a wealth of experience, and both of us feel like when we play together anything can happen. At this point he doesn’t have to do it—he’s doing it because he wants to. So I see this as an ongoing collaboration for as long as he keeps wanting to do it.”

Enrico Rava Recommended Listening 

Gato Barbieri: Two Pictures, Years 1965-1968 (Liuto, 1990)

Enrico Rava: The Pilgrim and the Stars (ECM, 1975)

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Enrico Rava: Enrico Rava Quartet (ECM, 1978)

Enrico Rava: Electric Five (Soul Note, 1994)

Enrico Rava/Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM, 2022)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.