Empathia Jazz 2

A duet that can perform so intuitively with all the necessary nuances need not even be in the same space, may be blindfolded, may be separated. Still that duet will produce elegant and beautiful harmonies in perfect rhythmic respect to one another.

As its name suggests, eMPathia Jazz Duo basically shares one jazzy heart. With a background in Brazilian and Italian jazz, both regions inform their songbook; mix in the addition of African musicians and you have even more dimension. Paul Ricci and Mafalda Minnozzi form eMPathia Jazz Duo; each song is thoughtful, considered, two strands of the same silk intertwined.

This is jazz to fall in love by, the soaring of a songbird in the big blue note-filled sky.

The biggest highlight or challenge in producing “Cool Romantics”?

Each live performance has its own fingerprint so summing a song up in one take is the challenge. The highlight would be when something new and spontaneous surprises me on a song like the improvisation at the end of “Dindi.” We had never done it that way until that take on the CD. Producer Jeff Jones helped us to get into the sonic and spiritual zone so we could get deep into the music.

Your favorite track on it and why?

PR: “Insensatez” because although it’s been done so many times, I’d never heard it like we did it. Mafalda really digs down deep into a lyric when she sings, and this Portuguese lyric is very emotionally intense. She’s the one who asked me to do the first part without the ubiquitous bossa nova beat so the harmony and vocal color could be free of the bar lines. I love it for its depth and unique exploration of Jobim’s melody.

MM:”Dindi” because for me it’s like a vocal “fresco” painting from the walls of an old mansion from Pompeii. 

How long have you been together as a duet?

Over 2 years but we’ve been working together with Mafalda’s solo career for over 20.

Do you often bring guest instrumentalists in?

PR: We take great joy in taking apart songs and rebuilding them with our own language so our show doesn’t lend itself to people sitting in for a “jam session,” although that can happen. Very often the key or groove, harmony or tempo is unusual which I consider part of the charm of our thing. With the duo and Mafalda’s way of interpreting, we sometimes will hit a turnaround and pause there for drama. Anyone playing with us should be tuned into that. It’s not easy, not even for me sometimes, and when it really clicks our name eMPathia becomes self-evident. We like to say that I play her vocal chords and she plays my strings.

We love it when a player hears it, relates to it and embraces it and then adds their thing to it. We recently played a show in the birthplace of samba jazz in Rio De Janeiro with a veteran legendary bass player there (Jamil Joanes) and we did several of our bossa arrangements that came off really inspired.  We were thrilled that he dug it so much and got the concept. We love it when guest vocalists join us too. There’s a great pair of duets on YouTube with Leny Andrade recorded in Rio De Janiero’s Teatro Rival that are really fun.

What are the particular challenges of a duet- where there are only each other to musically depend on?

PR: Great question! The fact that the core is guitar and voice instill in us a call to fill the void left by the absence of drums or bass or sax or what have you. Very often it’s like we are walking with one leg balancing the other which creates a sense of blind trust. The challenge is to use our intuition to keep what’s essential to the arrangement while breathing and listening to what can be added.

The melody and harmony are so closely joined. Who sets the tone; who follows whom; do you take turns?

PR: The guitar is a blessing and a curse in that it’s much more limited in register than the piano. In order to explore a song on guitar it sometimes means reharmonizing every note of the melody to keep things moving and interesting. When a guitarist puts his own thing on a tune with some mystery and surprise there’s no line between harmony and melody. Add to that Mafalda’s incredible sense of color and arranging in her voice that can actually produce harmonics, so when things get cooking I don’t even know who sets the tone. I guess we take turns following the music. I will say that some songs are prepared by me beforehand and in performance she’ll show me new ideas on them while other songs like “Insensatez” are her vision from the start as far as structure, form and groove.

MM: I’d add that there’s a profound devotion on my part to interpret the sense of the lyrics. For this reason, I’ll sometimes break free of the bar line where I use silence as a rhythmic statement. In these cases, I’ll set that tone and Paul will follow.

Mafalda has excellent phrasing and sometimes vocalizes as if she is providing the percussion. Comment on that?

PR: I’m very lucky to be playing with her! Even though we follow an arrangement, the energy and creativity are always inspiring and challenging thanks to her side of the duo. Both of us have worked over 20 years in Brazil so even though we’re not Brazilian there’s something special about her approach to the bossa nova that comes out as percussion in her voice.

Certainly her many duets with the likes of Milton Nascimento, Toquinho, Martinho Da Vila, Leny Andrade and Guinga among others have had an effect on her approach to the Jobim songbook.

MM: For me there’s a great difficulty in explaining the text to someone who doesn’t speak the native language. I feel like the sound of the word, even before it has a meaning, has a musical tonality. I accent this aspect in order to communicate feeling beyond the idiom and the result is often percussive. On a song like “Jogral” there’s no problem since there are no words, just notes and grooves.

There seems to be affection and humor between the two of you when you perform. How do you keep it light and relaxed in front of an audience? Do you always have fun on stage?

PR: I guess I’m the serious one and often have to be when confronted by Mafalda’s joyful approach to her singing. It’s something that takes on a force of its own with the music and the audience and if I don’t reach within, it’s easy to get wrapped up in having too much fun! Holding down the job of harmony and tempo and reacting to the vocal improvisation is a constant challenge but it shouldn’t look like it is. The biggest factor in having fun is having a good sound system. When the sound is right then the table is set.

MM: For me our “fun” doesn’t mean a thing if it isn’t a result of a collective vibe from the audience. I live for that!

Mafalda, how has your training in dance affected/influenced your musical performance?

MM: It has a positive effect of course. My gestures and bodily expression all flow in a very natural form. Honestly, I’ve worked on my diaphragm for 40 years and later when I studied dance I was ready to express myself more and still control my intonation but it was hard work.   

Mafalda, what are the similarities between your Italian roots and Brazilian music and its rhythms?

MM: That’s an interesting question that I often ask myself. The two countries are like brothers and certainly Italian pop and cinematic music have influenced the orchestral aspects of Brazilian Tropicalismo. Artists like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque have blurred the lines between the two cultures but for me the singing style is remarkably different and this has enriched me in my palette of vocal colors. I think the strongest similarity for me is the connection I feel to Elis Regina who sang in a more dramatic manner than the bossa nova singers and to this day after practically every performance of mine in Brazil, someone comes up to tell me that I remind them of Elis. This includes two of her ex-managers!

Paul, what was your experience with the African Blue Note like? How did it compare with the Brazilian music you perform today?

PR: NYC is a constant musical world summit. My passport into Brazilian music was with the drum masters Edison Machado and Dom Um Romao and once I was exposed to the depth of their beat it was easier to find a key into the Latin and African grooves.

I played with Astrud Gilberto and Bobby Sanabria’s band too.  Each culture has a different way of expressing the push and pull of the breathing. It’s a lifetime study but the willingness on the musician’s part to cross over into each other’s thing is beautiful. Jojo Kuo is a great drummer from Cameroon and he began a Monday night thing in the 90’s called the African Blue Note band that I played in for a few years. We would back some recording artists from Africa who came through New York which I think led to me doing a tour with Harry Belafonte.

Ousmane Kouyate is a great guitarist from Salif Keita’s band and it was a ball playing next to him. Coumba Sidibé, Vincent Nguini, and Sekouba Kandia Kouyate were great too. I learned so much with them and invited the singer Abdoulaye Diabate to sing on my album where we mixed Uruguayan Candombe drumming with African sounds and of course… jazz.  I access all that stuff every day in my playing and in the duo.

Paul, what did you perform at Guitar Heroes at NYC’s the Met and why was that a special event for you?

PR: That was very special because it was John Monteleone who invited Mafalda and I to participate. He’s a REAL guitar hero! We focused on music that we considered thematic. The show was about three legendary Italian-American luthiers from Neopolitan (D’Angelico) and Sicilian (Monteleone and D’Aquisto) descent and the connection of the archtop jazz guitar to the violin masters of Cremona, so we dug into our songbook and came out with some classic songs from Naples including a madrigal from the mid 1500’s written around the time of the first Amati violins. It was a thrill playing for Pat Martino at the day-after party. Pat grew up playing those songs with his father so we had a connection beyond the usual repertoire.

Paul, talk about the special model of guitar you are designing with Monteleone and Koll and what will be unique about its sound quality?

PR: I was very lucky to meet John Monteleone as a teenager and got in early on and still have his second archtop jazz guitar from 1981. John pretty much builds each guitar to his customers’ needs and I asked for a couple of uncommon things but the design was all his.

I dreamt up the Ultraglide with Saul Koll about 5 years ago and that one was much more of a meeting of the minds on some special features including an internal acoustic sensor that I can blend in for the slower more acoustic songs like “Dindi.” The result is a fuller frequency response than a typical jazz tone in the hope of getting a more pianistic sound field. It is also special in that it can get a classic jazz tone at a much higher volume before it feeds back.

Koll is a brilliant guitar maker who is constantly innovating. I’m waiting for my second one now. Saul?

Where will you perform for the remainder of 2017?

Italy, Brazil and Portugal.

Current projects?

PR: I did a nice CD with trumpeter Tim Ouimette with the great Jon Burr on bass that I’m hoping will be released soon.

Mafalda and I are still exploring the newer songs on the new CD “Cool Romantics” and have our eyes on a few more for the future. We are also producing a show in December in Italy with some great Italian jazz musicians.

MM: In parallel to the duo, Paul is producing a CD dedicated to the great songs from Naples that feature jazz arrangements with jazz musicians around the world. We’ve already tracked with Gene Bertoncini and Brazilian piano wizard Andre Mehmari. This guy is incredible!

Talk about playing Birdland in January – why do you like this venue?

PR: It’s more than a jazz club; it’s a jazz theater with a stage and a heritage that inspires us. Mafalda’s origins in Italian and French song work perfectly with the ambience of the room. Maybe even more so, to have the blessing of Gianni Valenti to be back there for a third time is something that solidifies our faith that this project is not only different, but worthy of a good listen.

MM: It’s like a dream to play there. I feel a sense of pride there that I’m able to show the great Italian songbook to the jazz community in this “jazz temple” because when something is beautiful…it’s beautiful in any form.  La grande bellezza emoziona sempre!

Your upcoming performance with pianist Art Hirahara at Mezzrow in NYC – what does he bring melodically and stylistically to the duet?

PR: We met Art totally by chance and instantly connected on a personal level.  He’s as easy to hang with as he is to play with. We got lucky because Art embodies everything about people joining in on the duo. He hears the concept, the changes, the dynamics and adds his own thing. He has a lot of experience with African music too, so when I lay into a vamp he comes out with ideas that are a natural extension of what I’m hearing. His intro on Ennio Morricone’s “Metti Una Sera A Cena” is a case in point. It hasn’t been recorded yet but we’ll be posting a take from a gig on YouTube soon. He also brings a deep understanding of Jobim from his long-time association with Stacey Kent and a great compositional sense as demonstrated by his quartet recordings.

How would you like to grow your music in 2018?

PR: Before the duo project, the world of guitar and voice wasn’t something I was focused on so much and since it’s taken off I’ve become a much more complete guitarist and musician. I’d like to keep that happening and growing. As far as repertoire, our focus has been on a lot of classic composers so I’d like to throw some more modern songs in the mix if they work for both of us. There are also a lot of great Italian songs that haven’t been explored in jazz like they deserve.

MM: I’ve never approached our classic song repertoire as if the songs were old standards. Each performance represents a new look at a song that’s not “dated.” I feel like our three CDs sum up a trilogy that has established a language we can carry into some new songs in 2018. 

Other comments?

PR: Thanks for the great questions!  Based on the great audience reactions we’ve gotten in New York, I’d like to find ways to branch out to a broader audience here so please check us out!

MM: I love to dialog with the public via social networks that unite so many cultures and so many curious people in search of something new. Each person that may cross our path like you with your questions are an affirmation that our that our music is being heard and has the power to unite. Grazie.

For more information, visit www.empathiajazz.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artists; top one (c) Andrea Rotili and bottom one (c) Bianca Tatamiya.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017