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Francesco Diodati Thinks Beyond His Guitar

All notes work for the Italian guitarist

Francesco Diodati
Francesco Diodati (photo: Andrea Rotili)

Francesco Diodati is not your typical guitar-slinger. That much was clear when the Italian plectrist joined trumpeter Enrico Rava’s high-profile quartet and appeared on Rava’s 2015 ECM album WildDance. Rava has rarely played with a guitarist, but these days at his concerts, people wait for Diodati’s outrageous drop-dead solos.

Although Rava put him on the radar, Diodati also pursues a wide variety of adventurous projects, including his own band Yellow Squeeds and the collectives MAT, Floors, and Oliphantre (with French vocal acrobat Leïla Martial). In every setting he is notably unselfish. Sometimes you wish he would solo more. But Diodati’s overarching priority is the ensemble whole, into which he integrates his many vivid guitar voices.

Evidence of his growing reputation was his residency at the 2020 edition of Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy. He appeared with Yellow Squeeds, Floors, MAT, and as a guest with Paolo Fresu. The color palette of Floors—a liberated chamber-music trio with trombonist Filippo Vignato and bassist Francesco Ponticelli—was rich, from Vignato’s dark gold to Diodati’s flashes of silver and blue, on diverse originals and covers like Carla Bley’s “Jesus Maria.” MAT, another trio with Marcello Allulli on tenor saxophone and Ermanno Baron on drums, generated much higher levels of amplitude and energy; Diodati used electronic effects to place Allulli’s passionate calls within choirs of keening guitars. As a guest with Fresu, free of ensemble responsibilities, Diodati was turned loose for wild solos.

But the project that best reveals the guitarist’s current thinking is his own Yellow Squeeds, a quintet made up of major emerging Italian talents: trumpeter Francesco Lento, pianist Enrico Zanisi, tuba player Glauco Benedetti, and drummer Enrico Morello. They sound like no other band. Sometimes five instruments shift together, kaleidoscopically. Sometimes they sound randomly scattered, but their contrapuntal relationships, as they maneuver in space, make strange new designs. In Orvieto, staccato cacophonies and lurching momentums like “Here and There” became swirling currents of melody like “River.”

In every group in which he performs, Diodati becomes essential to its particular realization of ensemble form. He opens vistas for Rava even as he suggestively shadows the trumpeter’s thoughts. His intriguing compositions and the stark frames of his arrangements set the creative voices of Yellow Squeeds into motion, and his guitar lines, minimal or intricate, are the threads that unify this quintet of strong independent personalities.

“I like the time to move and be free within the structure … when we are improvising and find ourselves back in the form. Every night is different.”

In Orvieto, Diodati, who is articulate in English, said, “I went to Sapienza University in Rome and got a degree in statistics and economics, but I have never worked a day job in my life. I started on guitar when I was 12 and gigged a lot in Rome and around Italy when I was in college. By the time I graduated, I had already chosen a life in music.”

Like so many Italian musicians, he attended the Jazz Workshops in Siena. He also spent six months at the New School in New York, on scholarship. He has been working to establish himself on the European scene for 10 years, and he said that, while the association with Rava has been crucial, “It is not easy to get gigs for my own projects because there are so many musicians now making beautiful music.” But his bands are beginning to show up at important places like the London Jazz Festival and the Bimhuis in Amsterdam.

As to why he needs so many projects, he said, “Actually it helps get gigs because you have something new to offer organizers. But the main thing is to have different bands that need different ideas. I am always writing new stuff and I want to try new things. In the last year I have been focusing more on guitar, getting into it more deeply because I have some sounds in my mind and I need to find them on the guitar.”

But with Diodati, all conversations about music soon arrive back at the supremacy of the ensemble: “With Yellow Squeeds, I like the time to move and be free within the structure. All notes work. It depends on where you put them. I like when we are improvising and find ourselves back in the form. Every night is different. Yesterday we played a slow piece, ‘River,’ and there was a moment when Lento and Zanisi started something at the end and I was thinking what to play and then I realized, ‘It’s so beautiful like that. I don’t need to play now. Let the two of them finish the song.’”

The best ways to discover Diodati are via his two Yellow Squeeds albums on the Italian label Auand, Flow, Home and Never the Same, available at forcedexposure.com.

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.