Drummer Aldo Bagnoni addresses the isolation of social distancing with a beautiful answer: human connection, which, musically, translates easily with his new album, “The Connection.”
Smooth and gradual like a pinkening sunrise, “Glide” has the subtlety of breathing life in; becoming the strength of a positive affirmation. In “Lipompo’s Just Arrived,” short bursts and harmonies talk to one another, giving off an energy like running through your to-do list and deciding to wing it. The sax stops and changes direction, the percussion is brilliantly complex and the keys travel to all corners of thought. Drum roll please: as “Oral Culture” begins, other voices enter, flutter, sit and stay for only moments; then a theme emerges and is played in the tightest unison (sax/bass), all while drums create a fizzy, airy feeling. For lyricism and radiating deep emotion, “Clarabella” has no parallel.
You draw musical ideas from many types of jazz. Why do you feel as an artist it’s important to spread your wings like this and not confine your music to one sound?
First of all, thank you for your interest in this work! You’re right, I think an artist’s main interest should be trying not to have boundaries in his production, especially if we talk about an open music like jazz. It’s a matter of flying away from conventions and schemes…after all, jazz musicians did this in every historic phase of this music and got their best results. For me, being Italian, maybe this is easier to conceive. I come from a tradition of listening to and playing a considerable amount of different styles, over several decades, from Dixieland to improvised radical music, through bebop, modern and electric jazz.
I feel free to insert different influences and flavors in my music, all of which I consider jazz. I respect musicians from everywhere who want to follow the jazz tradition (we have a lot of very skilled bebop players in Italy, for example), and I don’t define jazz in only one way.
I have my personal path, so I try to tell my story: we play what we are.
How long has “The Connection” been floating around as an idea? Why did you finally decide to make this album?
The Connection was a concept I thought about when I found a link between some of my compositions in nearly twenty years of work. I started composing late; it was for me a slow, natural non-academic process, being a self-taught musician, but I dived in this experience with immense pleasure.
I always loved to arrange repertoires in a lot of existing music, and this current CD was at last the opportunity to express fully my inner world. So this project took two to three months of rehearsals, as my music is not conventional in its structure. Sometimes I use more than two thematic sections (it’s not usual to find an AABA in my work), different choruses for improvising, or uneven number of bars, not to mention time signatures. I love some little imbalance here and there, but I try not to force the situation.
I decided very late to publish as a leader, being very critical about music, mainly about mine, and I always thought it’s important to listen to others’ music, as there are tons and tons of recordings in one century of jazz.
Anyway it was my wife’s strong belief in my ideas, and she encouraged to go on. In some way this was the cathartic process that led me to this recording. So, we can say the realization was very short and very long at the same time.
How did you find these musicians and how did they help you make this a successful project?
Thank you for your kind opinion! You know, when you’re a leader, the best thing you could do is to choose the right musicians to interpret and enrich your music.
The worst situation I experienced in my professional life as a sideman was to be forced from “the boss” to play in a way which wasn’t my natural and peculiar expression. How can you pretend to get the best result from a musician if you are asking him not to be himself? Why didn’t you call another one, if he doesn’t fit to your artistic idea? This is obvious, in my opinion, if we are talking about artistic contests: but a different approach could be requested if you are in a conventional professional situation, if you ask a guy to play a mambo or a shuffle time, for example, you should immediately get the correct result without explanation.
Sometimes people don’t know what they want from their partners (I’m talking about music at the moment).
Let me tell you a little story. In a John Coltrane tribute band, it was July 1987, twenty years after his death, the bass player asked me roughly not to play so loud: “Can’t you play in a more subtle way? Don’t you know drummers like Jack DeJohnette!?” So the saxophone player, the leader of the band, asked him: “Hey, man, did you ever listen to DeJohnette live?” “No, but I heard him a lot of times on records!” “Okay, shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about! Let’s go on!” This means you need to identify precisely what your music needs, so I tried to first choose who would better serve my scores, and I need them to do it their way, to have all the concentration, the energy, the poetry the situation calls for. I call this the “Tom Sawyer method” – you know, where Tom gets other children to do the work for him when painting the fence, convincing them it’s fun, and they pay him for permission to do it, under his supervision! In some way, I try to do this, to motivate the other musicians with my ideas, to be as creative as possible while having fun and satisfaction in playing my music.
Please name the musicians and what each one plays.
First of all, I have to mention Emanuele Coluccia, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist (he was born to music as a piano player, which is his main activity till today) as well as a composer, arranger and conductor with different ensembles, from brass band to symphonic orchestras. He has a wide musical language from jazz to ethnic Balkan and Mediterranean music. I know him since 2013, from Lecce, Apulia, in the south of Italy, when he was returning from NYC, where he studied and played for some years. I was introduced to him by the pianist and keyboardist Mauro Tre, an open-minded musician, lyrical and unpredictable, with whom I played sometimes before. I was struck by their playing, but there weren’t opportunities to play together. When I looked back on some of my music, years later, I immediately remembered Emanuele. I talked with him about this idea, sent him some of my songs and he was soon agreeable and happy to play them. We tried to set up a band but the logistics didn’t work out.
At last, at the end of 2018, I came back on the idea, Emanuele introduced me to Giampaolo Laurentaci, a bass player of great experience in different contexts. Although he was the younger guy in the band he had an old-style full and warm sound, and agile timing and also was a melodic soloist.
Calling Mauro was natural, then, as the three of them lived in the same area, Salento, while I live near Bari, not so far from them. So the band was complete, with the sound I was thinking of, mainly acoustic but with electric implications (using the Rhodes piano to get more thrust, and the synthesizer to simulate a two-horn front line for my themes).
Their softer approach to music was the added value I was looking for, and finally I got it! We had a rehearsal in the first part of 2019, and at the end of June we finished our work.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from production?
Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to check this music live. As a sort of twist of fate, our first concert was only ten days after we recorded at the Roccella Jonica Jazz Festival. Anyway, we had a real interplay during recording, as if the band was together for a while. This makes me realize it’s fundamental to focus your work and your attention on metabolizing the material you’re playing.
The music was a little difficult as there were some technical passages to play, but this, paradoxically, made them concentrate more than if the music consisted of standards or well-known originals from the jazz masters.
My music, of course, isn’t totally new and not so strange, but different enough to force them to be constantly attentive. I have to thank them again for understanding what I wanted from them and most of all from my music. They helped me with their singular skills. Emanuele helped me find the right sound in the harmonies, often so angular in my conception (please, don’t forget I’m a drummer). So we recorded the music in a couple of days, with two or maximum three takes for every track. That’s all.
Do you feel jazz is especially important today, even with the restrictions in performing live, in making CONNECTIONS with one another?
Jazz is a natural music. From always, and always will be. And jazz, more than any other kind of music, is about connecting.
This particular moment, so tragic, so fearful, in which every one of us feels so lonely, so distant from other people, is also a symbolic moment, in a world so distant and fearful as well, where the other means a potential danger for our life, because for us he could be a carrier of the virus. But sometimes a different vision or a different culture could seem a social virus, which scares us and puts us in danger, forces us to discuss who we are today and how we are living in connection with the rest of the world.
That’s not so comfortable, but I think that today it’s time, to quote Max Roach: we have to do this reflection and give a human answer. So the intrinsic need for jazz to be the connection between people, to play the best we can, should be an ethical lesson for all us. The connection serves to aggregate, and not to break up.
Which track was the hardest to compose or arrange or play?
For me, “Eternal Returns” was the one which I worked on more, setting up the relationship between the melodic parts (there’s a part that a certain point I decided suddenly to split, in a sort of little canon, to get more movement in the end of the track) and to try a different harmonic solution. I also didn’t think of this song with improvised solos in the first phase of its composition: it was a quite long executive design to get the final result. About the arrangements, quite all the music was arranged by myself, but when playing “This is My Place” Emanuele suggested to cut away another theme which was part of his tenor solo because it seemed too long; then Mauro proposed having a piano solo on the chords that are under the first part of the theme.
I liked their suggestions (you know, the Tom Sawyer matter I told you before…), and so the piece is now that way.
As I told you, a leader has to accept good ideas from his mates.
About playing the pieces, one of the most articulate is obviously “Oral culture,” the track I dedicated to jazz (with scents of free jazz in that atonal pointillistic intro, as well as old jazz, with that hexatonal development).
Another one is “Cappello eolico,” which continuously switches from 4 to 5, and has the last part of the last improv chorus harmonically different from the rest of the solo structure so you have to be attentive. Every piece has its little pitfalls: anyway, nothing like in Frank Zappa’s music, and so we were lucky enough.
Who is “Lipompo” and why is he included in this album?
“Lipompo” is a fictitious Italianized version of “l’pèmp,” a Lucanian dialect word which means werewolf. This lipompo, in a legend from Matera – a famous archaic city in South Italy in which I usually play – inhabits the “gravina,” a canyon in the center of the old town. I used a Lucanian folk song, “Mò so vinut e mò sond’arrivàt” (I just arrived) which I arranged in 7/4, and in which I used a “So What/Impressions” harmonic scheme for the soloists. The title of my song takes us to a joke, a little story I imagined to happen in the gravina, a full moon night, when the lipompo has a very bad encounter with someone scarier than him.
To understand who this character could be, you’ll notice that I also used the same “Thriller” bass groove and so I am pretty sure that the lipompo would be scared to encounter Michael Jackson dressed like in that video, with all his friends!
What have you gained from going through the entire process, and how does it feel to “birth” your album?
In fact, I have no sons, and in some way a disc could be like a son. But when you raise a son, I think you shouldn’t force him to be what you want him to be, while your artistic product has to be absolutely as you planned it. It’s not a little difference. Of course, while you’re realizing a work, like in your child’s growth, there are positive and negative events that intervene to change the path you planned.
The things that my friends changed or added have been a pleasant surprise.
How did your first post-lockdown concert go?
Strange feeling, going on stage again after this period, facing the music and the public, a little surreal but also joyful, because music always needs the stage, that’s its real place, and jazz most of all. It’s difficult, but with a little sacrifice we’ll make it. Fewer people in the club and theatres means more playing from the musicians, but after all we love to play, don’t we? So ok, we’ll play more sets, even getting the same money, it’s not really important, in this moment. Music is the most important thing.
The lockdown forced us to think about our existences, both human and artistic, in a different perspective, and – here it is again – to keep the connection with other people. And we did this in different ways than the physical, and with mixed feelings like sorrow, nostalgia, rage and then resignation, hope, fantasy and expectation. Even the music was online, composed, arranged, rehearsed and then performed. But not for me: for me, jazz has to live in real time, the interplay, the emotion, the empathy you need to get a really human music can’t be planned before, and composed piece by piece like a puzzle, especially if you are improvising.
This period for me served as a time to reflect, to imagine, to keep my contacts, and I was lucky enough to have my CD out in this period. Creative solutions, yes, but on the stage, when music could finally find its flesh and blood.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/bagnoniconnection/.
Yes. I found your questions absolutely stimulating, so I really thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer to them. Let’s keep the connection!
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Aldo Bagnoni.
(c) Debbie Burke 2020