The most competitive instrument in jazz is piano. It is not easy for new jazz pianists to get on the radar in the United States. If they live in Italy and work mostly in Europe, it is much harder. Therefore make a note of this name: Giovanni Guidi.
He is not exactly new. In 2006, when he was 21, he was artist-in-residence at the Umbria Jazz festival in Perugia, Italy’s biggest annual jazz event. That same year he released his debut recording, Tomorrow Never Knows, on Venus. He already sounded like Giovanni Guidi. The music has his dark left-hand chords and his jagged percussiveness. It has his poetic right-hand single-note lyricism. It has his rarefied harmonic sensibility. Most impressively, it has his control of narrative tension. On the opening track, “Sleep Safe and Warm,” Guidi’s clenched hesitations create one of the most dramatic versions on record of Krzysztof Komeda’s haunting song.
In a conversation in Perugia at the Umbria festival in 2019, he spoke of his beginnings: “Because of my father’s work, music was all around me since I was a child.” His father is Mario Guidi, the most important jazz agent in Italy, who has represented headliners like Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani. Unlike many of the major Italian jazz pianists (Bollani, Enrico Pieranunzi, Danilo Rea), Guidi did not start his musical life in a classical conservatory. “I studied jazz for two years at a college in Bologna but I never finished a degree because I went on the road with Enrico Rava when I was 19. Without Rava my life would be totally different. I have to say that he called me before I was ready. Playing with such a master all over the world, at that age, you have two possibilities: You learn fast or you quit music for the rest of your life.”
That association with Rava continues to the present day, but Guidi also sustains several bands and projects of his own. Four albums on the CAM Jazz label between 2007 and 2011 made his reputation in Europe. Guidi wrote most of the material, but he’s aware that playing your own tunes entails risks: “So many jazz albums today are all original compositions, and five minutes after the record is finished, you can’t remember a single song. I think it’s a problem, maybe especially with American music. Even Vijay Iyer. I love his playing but I can’t sing any of his songs.” On his own records, Guidi almost always includes works by composers other than himself. He is a bold interpreter of Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, and pieces linked to Nat King Cole.
Guidi’s breakout albums are his four ECM titles, released between 2013 and 2019; a European jazz musician’s single best shot at becoming known in the United States is to record for Manfred Eicher’s label. Going into the studio with Eicher did not diminish Guidi’s impulsive spirit, but it turned him inward. He says, “Manfred doesn’t really talk to you about the music. He might talk about places, or stories. But he has … an aura.” Perhaps that aura helped Guidi reach the depths of rapt concentration on “I’m Through with Love” on 2015’s This Is the Day. Perhaps it contributed to the emotional truth of “Tomasz,” the eulogy for trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on 2019’s Avec le Temps.
But the postmodernist experimental lyricism of his ECM albums doesn’t define Guidi. A month after recording Avec le Temps in November of 2017, he recorded Drive! for the edgy Italian label Auand. It is unlike anything in his discography, a wild, noisy, bumpy ride, with Guidi on Fender Rhodes. He has recently brought a second keyboard player into his bands, either David Virelles or John Escreet. (He plans to make a record with Escreet.) A new Rava ensemble, the “Special Edition,” is also a departure because it requires him to share the chording role with a badass guitarist, Francesco Diodati. Based on their Umbria Jazz appearance in 2019, the Special Edition could become Rava’s best band ever.
At that same festival, Guidi played a rare solo concert in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. He improvised for an unbroken hour, but unlike Keith Jarrett, he flowed through known songs. “Over the Rainbow” hushed the crowd, but they erupted when the music was over. Guidi was modest about it: “I don’t know if I’ll ever do a solo recording. I’m not sure we need more solo piano recordings. A live concert is different. A record is there for the rest of your life.”
He should do a solo recording. Someone tell Manfred Eicher.