Few European musicians have as much adoration and reverence for the American jazz tradition as the Italian pianist Roberto Magris. Enormously curious about American culture and always eager to reinterpret neglected standards, Roberto loves performing with American jazz legends, and he brings a special sensitivity to every song he plays. Roberto's passion for jazz legends and jazz history continues to grow. His forthcoming album, Kansas City Outbound, features legendary bassist Art Davis, who died in July 2007 shortly after the album was recorded.
My favorite Roberto Magris album up to now has been Il Bello Del Jazz, which was recorded in 2003 but wasn't released until 2006. What makes this CD so special is the teaming of Roberto and the legendary alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Recorded in Roberto's home town of Trieste, Italy, everything about this album is fabulous and exciting. In addition to a handful of originals by Roberto and Geller, the album includes terrific standards including Benny Carter's Key Largo and Stephen Sondheim's Pretty Women. These two musicians together sound magical.
Roberto and I struck up a friendship several months ago via email after Roberto sent along his unreleased solo piano recording. Yesterday I e-interviewed Roberto, who's back in Trieste [pictured] after performing at a festival in Bucharest, Romania. He ruminated on why jazz is interpreted differently in various parts of Italy and reflected on one-time bandmates Herb Geller, Kai Winding, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Sal Nistico and Art Davis. He also provided details about his soon-to-be released CD, an impressionistic tribute to Jay McShann and Kansas City jazz:
JazzWax: Is there a distinctly Italian approach to jazz?
Roberto Magris: Yes, I think so. But I am more of a Middle-European jazz musician than a purely Italian one. My musical experience took place not only in Italy but also in Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Czechia and Germany. Before the Iron Curtain came down, there was a unique jazz stream from those countries that I experimented with, and I was one of the few Western musicians to play concerts there and collaborate with local jazz musicians on a regular basis. So I tend to identify with Central and Eastern European musicians, especially saxophonist Tony Lakatos, one of my favorites.
JW: What exactly sets you apart from mainstream Italian jazz musicians?
RM: I think I have a special sense of dancing melodies, a more rhythmic approach and the tendency to be more of a risk-taker in solos within the harmonic frame. Actually, the jazz scene in much of Italy tends to be orientated toward experimental jazz, with some exceptions, of course, like trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Enrico Pierannunzi. So, I don't feel completely connected to the Italian jazz scene. I'm from Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea, and feel I have greater connection to traditional American jazz played in Central and Eastern Europe.
JW: Alto saxophonist Herb Geller played on your 2006 release, Il Bello Del Jazz. He rarely plays in the U.S. now. Why do you think that is?
RM: My impression is that Herb doesn't like to travel too far from Hamburg, Germany, where he lives. He has played in California from time to time over the last few years. But for the most part, he feels very comfortable in his new hometown, where he's highly respected, loved and appreciated. I think Herb would be open to returning to the U.S. to play if a good festival invited him. At this point, he's a grandmaster who simply likes to communicate with his sharp but sweet sound.
JW: Because Herb has been gone from the U.S. scene for some time, he's a bit of mystery to many fans here. What's he like?
RM: He is a gentleman, a very nice guy, full of anecdotes and stories. He still remembers all of his small group and big-band gigs. He remains saddened by the sudden death of his wife, Lorraine [pictured], in 1958, and the passing of close friends like Scott LaFaro and Clifford Jordan. I was especially surprised to see how proficient he was on the computer.
JW: How so?
RM: Herb collects standards and transcribes them into his computer. He has a huge, impressive collection. It's like a massive computerized fake book. He's particularly keen on compositions by Billy Strayhorn and Benny Carter. Herb is always open to new things, provided they are within the jazz tradition. He especially likes melody and rhythm, and doesn't care much for modal jazz. He's really a treasure, and I cannot understand how he can be so renowned yet underrated at the same time. [pictured: Roberto and Herb Geller]
JW: Are there other legends you'd like to play with?
RM: Oh sure. Yusef Lateef, James Moody, Lee Konitz, Charlie Mariano and Jimmy Heath, for starters.
JW: In the early 1980s, you played with Kai Winding, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Sal Nistico—who were nearing the end of their careers. What were they like?
RM: Kai Winding was a real gentleman but he was already ill. Despite being sick, his playing was beautiful and his phrasing was elegant. I believe I played behind him during his last concert. He died just a short period after that in 1983. "Lockjaw" [pictured] was always dressed out of this world. I still remember his funny personal taste for elegant clothes. Nistico had very hard problems with drug addiction, even though his playing was very good. He was on a continuous trip. I remember he was interested only in getting drugs between the concert sets.
JW: When is your new CD coming out?
RM: Kansas City Outbound (Soul Note) will be released in a few months. I recorded the album in two sessions early last year in Kansas City with bassist Art Davis [pictured]. On drums is Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson, who for more than 20 years toured with organist Jimmy Smith. "Junebug" also has performed with McCoy Tyner, George Benson, Christian McBride and Carlos Santana. I also used local Kansas City drummer Zack Albetta for one of the sessions. My agent, Paul Collins, wanted to give him a chance to play and record with Art.
JW: How did the album's concept come about?
RM: In early 2007, we played a concert at the Blue Room near the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. It was a special tribute to pianist Jay McShann, who had passed away in December 2006. My agent is a close friend of the McShanns. So we were able to meet Jay's family, and I got to play McShann's piano in his home, which was so exciting. I also received a few of his original scores as a gift from the McShann family. Art Davis was positive, happy and satisfied with our sound. Sadly, it turned out to be his final recording session.
JW: Why did you choose the Kansas City theme?
RM: I was so impressed with the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City and seeing the jazz district there [pictured] that I didn't want to miss an opportunity to pay tribute to the city and the music that was born there.
JW: What songs are on the CD?
RM: There are two totally improvised pieces, Kansas City Outbound, which has a Coltrane feel, and Kansas City Inbound, which I later found out has touches of pianist Denny Zeitlin. We also recorded I Fall in Love Too Easily; two originals of mine called Rainbow Eyes and Iraqi Blues; Monk's Bemsha Swing; Andrew Hill's Reverend Du Bop; and two more standards: Darn That Dream and Alone Together. I also recorded two solo piano interludes: Billy Strayhorn's A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing and Benny Carter's Lonely Woman.
JW: Speaking of solo piano, you recently recorded a solo album. It hasn't been released yet. How come?
RM: I just need to find a label that wants to release it. Solo piano albums are a harder sell. For me, the solo works are part of my personality and experience.
JW: Do you plan a tour of the U.S. soon?
RM: I plan to play in Los Angeles and San Francisco this year with saxophonists Paul Carr and Tony Lakatos [pictured, left, with Roberto], Marcus Shelby on bass and Idris Muhammad on drums. Then I hope to come to New York to play next year.
JazzWax tracks: Roberto Magris' Il Bello Del Jazz is available here on CD. For more information on the Soul Note label, go here. For more information about Roberto, go here. Il Bello Del Jazz is a very pretty album, with Magris displaying an enormous range as soloist and while accompanying Geller, who gives the date a smart, edgy West Coast feel.