Magazine article The Spectator

Italian Connection

Magazine article The Spectator

Italian Connection

Article excerpt


Italian connection

You might think the damp and overcast weather of recent weeks would dull Rome's lustre. It doesn't. You just see it in another way. The rainwater pouring down the Spanish Steps and the absence of tourists gazing into the Fontana de Trevi make these picture-postcard sights somehow real. Even so, it is impossible to shake off the feeling that the culture of Italy is too great for even its inhabitants to consume comfortably, never mind the eager tourist. It looms so large - around every street corner, looking down on you from on high - and can overwhelm the senses, making Italy seem a country more about the past than the present.

To entertain the notion that a brash 20th-century art form like jazz can thrive in Italy in the hush of Galena Borghese, with its fantastic array of Bernini statues, can involve, for a moment at least, a leap of faith. But there's a lot more to Italian jazz than meets the eye. Italians were deeply involved in jazz from the music's beginnings.

At the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans had one of the highest concentrations of Italians in the United States, immigrants from provinces such as Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento. Among them was Girolamo LaRocca (born in Salaparuta) and his wife, Vittoria DiNino (born in Trapani). Their son Nick would lead the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group guaranteed its place in jazz history for making the first-ever jazz recording in 1917. The drummer in the band, Tony Sbarbaro, was also Italian.

In fact, Italy is very proud of its contributions to jazz, albeit at one remove, as the trumpet player Enrico Rava was quick to point out to me, citing several early influential Italian musicians. Rava is Italy's most famous jazz musician, and after seeing him perform five encores at Rome's Grande Auditorium Parco della Musica there's little doubt that he's also his country's favourite. The occasion was the premiere of his latest album, Easy Living (ECM 981 2050). And while it's fair to say that there has been no shortage of Rava albums over the past couple of years, this one is something special. For a start, Rava, who is not given to hyperbole, has described it as the best album he has ever made. …

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