Francesco Turrisi: In Pursuit of Ecstasy
It has often been said that composer/harpsichordist/violinist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the first jazz musician. His contrapuntal techniques and ideas on harmony, rhythm and form have influenced countless jazz musicians. Numerous are the jazz musicians who have also studied classical music, usually prior to shifting to jazz. Few, however, are those who have taken a Master's degree in jazz and then opted to study early music, a term that refers to European classical music dating roughly from the Medieval era, through the Renaissance and until the end of the Baroque period, marked by the death of Bach.
Italian pianist Francesco Turrisi is one such rare case. His impressive debut as leader, Si Dolce e il Tormento (Diatribe Recordings, 2009) intertwined the threads of jazz improvisation, Italian folk melodies and baroque roots to stunning effect, and garnered highly positive reviews in the press, with the Irish Times describing it as "exquisite." It may be the first jazz recording to feature the theorboa long-necked lute more typical of the late 16th and 17th centuriesalongside clarinet and a jazz rhythm section. Not many would have imagined such juxtaposition, but for Turrisi, part of the joy of music is searching for interesting sounds that complement each other. That recording announced the arrival of an individual voice on the jazz scene, something which they've known in Ireland since Turrisi made Dublin his home in 2006.
The pianist/accordionist/harpsichordist/percussionist is what you might call an all- rounder, playing in at least half a dozen different contexts where he is able to explore his passion for jazz, early music, and the music of Africa, Brazil, the Balkans, southern Italy and the greater Mediterranean area, and of course, his adopted Ireland. Turrisi's second CD as a leader, Fotografia (Diatribe Recordings, 2011) is another distillation of the pianist's southern Italian roots, baroque rhythms and a jazz trio aesthetic. Gone is the theorbo, and in are more jagged, brooding, improvised pieces, with lyrical folk numbers strewn throughout, like pools of calm amongst the turbulence.
Turrisi is not afraid to throw a little caution to the wind, and this CD is further proof of an important musician in the making. Fotografia exhibits a certain fearlessness, though as Turrisi intimates, it's perhaps easier to create the music than it is to release it: "It's always very difficult to let it go, if you know what I meanto let it leave your home and send it out into the world." Initial responses to Fotografia have been uniformly positive, with Ray Comiskey of the Irish Times noting the "gripping trio mood pieces" and describing Turrisi's piano playing as "beautifully articulated." Turrisi is, naturally, pleased at the response: "People seem to like it, which is great, but I've listened to it so many times that it's very hard to listen to it with fresh ears."
Making up the trio on Fotografia are Danish bassist Claus Kaarsgaard and Portuguese drummer João Lobo. Turrisi met both while studying jazz piano at the Conservatory in The Hague. They played together occasionally, and the bassist and drummer lent their support for Turrisi's final exam. It was, however, complete happenstance that they should regroup several years later to record the trio pieces on Fotografia. "They don't live in Ireland," explains Turrisi. "Just by complete chance, an Irish singer, Emilie Conway, organized a tour with the two of them and me. We played together on a few gigs and did one piano trio gig at the end of this tour. I said, 'Why don't we just go for a day in the studio?' So we did. Everything was completely improvised, and we didn't really have a plan for what was going to happen."
Seven trio improvisations from that day in the studio form the backbone of Fotografia, but at the time Turrisi felt they were insufficient to warrant a CD. A year passed by, and Turrisi decided to venture back into the studio to see if some additional solo pieces might provide the missing parts of the picture. "It was a challenge to combine all the sounds and see if it made sense from beginning to end," says Turrisi. "The main idea at the end is that we have the alternation between melodic songssome of which are my own songs, and traditional Italian tunes which I always playand highly improvised sketches." The improvised trio pieces, called pensierini (Italian for little thoughts), are a nod to the Italian childhood tradition of writing short essays on a given theme. The baroque bass line, ciaccona, provides the form around which these improvisations take place, and in this regard reflects a similar approach taken on Si Dolce e il Tormento. For Turrisi, however, the similarities between his first CD and this one are superficial: "Si Dolce e il Tormento was much more preconceived and something that I had worked on for a few years. This one was just a snapshot of what happened after one and a half days in the studio."
The titles of the improvised pensierini, translate from the Italian as: "I Am the Shadow Man," "Remorse," "In a Thousand Pieces," "Towards the Depths," "Ants," and "The Ghost Lake," and they reflect the impressionistic, somber tone of these pieces. "We were just messing with the [baroque] bass line ciaccona," explains Turrisi. "The bass line is very open; we started messing with it and Claus [Kaarsgaard] came out with some crazy stuff. I thought, 'Jesus Christ! This is really spooky.' I hadn't said anything about what it should sound like; we just played. My only instruction was to try and keep the pieces short. Later on when I listened to them and imagined what they could be, I gave them really spooky titles."
Interspersed among these trio improvisations are melodic folk tunes from Turrisi's native Italy, a beautiful interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luiza," and several Turrisi originals notable for their lyrical depth. The contrast between the completely improvised and the more melodic, form-based tunes in a way defines Turrisi's approach to the piano trio: "I'm very interested in two main aspects of music: one is music which has a lot of energy, and the other is beautysomething which has a beautiful melody but which is quite simple. I like the juxtaposition between the two," says Turrisi. "I'm not sure if it's always a conscious thing, but I observe that this is the pattern that very often the music follows in a lot of my themes."
Bassist Kaarsgaard and drummer Lobo excel on the trio pieces, bringing inventiveness and an energy that clearly inspired the leader. Turrisi is enthusiastic in his praise of his trio colleagues: "They are good at finding stuff without me telling them what to do, and they make me sound different. Claus [Kaarsgaard] is very quick and has incredible ears. He gives you a lot as well. A lot of bass players are waiting for you- -especially if you're a pianist, they try to follow youbut you give Claus one second of freedom, and he blows you somewhere else. It was very interesting playing with Claus, who is a very active bassist compared to bassists in Ireland, and maybe it had the reaction of making me feel like playing less. I am very attracted, from a conceptual and aesthetic point of view, to music that has a lot less than what I do; I'd like to be able to do less. I listen to a lot of ECM-type music, and I always feel jealous of people who can say a lot with just a couple of notes. I don't think I can do it because I don't think it's in my personality. I have to make a big effort to try and play less, and in a way I'm trying to go more and more in that direction."
Drummer Lobo also made a big impression on Turrisi: "João [Lobo] is an incredible colorist. I had to get up sometimes and see what he was doing because I couldn't believe the sounds and colors he was getting out of his drums. Not every drummer is capable of that, of not necessarily playing with you, but sometimes against you. If I'm playing a certain rhythm, he'll come up with something that is really out. He uses the drums as a melodic instrument as much as everybody else." Playing live with Kaarsgaard and Lobo with singer Emilie Conway was an experience, as Turrisi recalls, laughing: "It was quite challenging, and I was a bit scared at the beginning when we were doing some gigs because it was pretty straight-ahead stuff, and we were all over the place. The singer was going, 'Guys, can you please play straight-ahead chords and cues?' It's like a roller coaster for me playing with them. You never know what's going to happen next, and that's the fun part."
Three traditional Italian pieces mark the midpoint and bookend the pieces on Fotografia. "Alla Carpinese" is an episodic piece which highlights Turrisi's lightness of touch, whereas "Attaccati li Tricci I" and "Attaccati li Tricci II" feature lovely, tumbling Arabesque lines. These traditional pieces are inspired by Italian singer Pino di Vittorio's interpretations: "He's a bit of a legendary character from the Neapolitan area," says Turrisi of di Vittorio. "He was one of the first to approach traditional music using the original instruments, taking these songs and refining them. I have always felt a great connection with the way he sings but also with the repertoire he sings. If you hear a field recording of 'Attaccati li Tricci,' it's hardly recognizable as a melody, but he refined it. The songs that he sings become very much his songs."
Turrisi first came across di Vittorio through L'Arpeggiata, the renowned early-music ensemble led by Cristina Pluhar, with which Turrisi has played and recorded for a number of years. Pino di Vittorio had collaborated with L'Arpeggiata prior to Turrisi joining the ensemble, though his songs remained in its repertoire: "Even though the singers changed, I played those tunes a lot, and they are tunes I know very well. Both 'Alla Carpinese' and 'Attaccati li Tricci' are tunes that I really like, and I always play them in different contexts." "Attaccati li Tricci II" ends after six minutes, followed by three minutes of silence, suddenly shattered by Turrisi's rather hectic piano, which returns with a vengeance. It's an unusual coda to say the least: "It wasn't a mistake," says Turrisi, laughing. "It's a kind of a ghost track. I don't know exactly what I wanted to say with that. It was something from another pensierini, almost like a little afterthought."
Recorded in just a day and a half, Fotografia has a resulting free spirit to its playing, though composition and improvisation appear to be almost one and the same thing: "People often ask me if I compose, and I don't dare to say that I do because I don't write a lot of notes, especially in a trio format," Turrisi states. "My compositions are just an excuse for improvising. I feel that at the end of the day, I am more an improviser than a composer. Most of the tunes I have written are simple melodic stuff, and I never really write drum parts or bass parts."
Turrisi's love of improvisation and melody means that rhythm plays a less overtly structured role on it than in most jazz trios, but it is nevertheless an important component in his music: "It's true that I'm attracted to melodic stuff, but I love rhythm as well; it just so happens I always end up playing things that are vaguely rubato. I studied percussion, and really love rhythm. Sometimes I wish I could do more, but the things I end up doing best are non-rhythmical stuff."
As on Si Dolce e il Tormento, a lot of the music on Fotografia has a baroque feel to it, but the music of the 17th century came to Turrisi late in life: "I discovered it entirely when I was in Holland, where I studied in the Royal Conservatory. They have a very big early music departmentone of the biggest in the world, actually. I think the first time I got involved was when a singer who was working on 17th-century repertoire, like Monteverdi, asked for some help with the language," says Turrisi. "I've always been interested in the poetry that music has. Most of the time it refers to the old Italian language of [Renaissance poet/humanist, Francesco] Petrarca, so 14th- and 15th-century stuff. I was fascinated by the poetry first and then by the beauty of the music, because there's some incredibly beautiful music. In Italy, though, it's not really that popular. Early music is more popular in France, Holland, Germany and northern European countries. In Italy, classical music is much more popular, and everybody's into the romantic stuff, and that's a paradox because most of the music comes from that period."
From there, Turrisi gravitated to the harpsichord: "It sounds really modern to our ears, going from modal Renaissance to early tonality," he says. "There's a lot of interesting harmonic stuff going on and really amazing, beautiful melodies and complex harmonies. I suppose melody is really what attracted me to that music. The track 'Si Dolce e il Tormento' is really like a pop song and could have been written ten years ago; the way the melody and the harmony moves, it's like a pop song." Turrisi was sufficiently smitten by early music to decide to do further studies besides his Masters degree in jazz piano: "I did a bit of research into 17th-century Italian keyboard improvisation. I was very attracted to it because the music was clearly improvised at the time in a very similar way jazz is. The musical language is very different, but the mentality is very similar."
While still at the Conservatory at The Hague, Turrisi was invited to join Christina Pluhar's L'Arpeggiata. Pluhar was teaching in The Hague at the time, and her attention was soon drawn to Turrisi: "I was running a bit of an early music jam session at the time," Turrisi says, laughing at the thought, "getting all the early music people together once a week to improvise on these bass lines, like they did back in the day. So one of Christina's students came to the class, we met, and she asked me to join the group."
Turrisi's baptism of fire came immediately upon graduating from the Hague: "It was a bit crazy," he recalls, "because the first gig I did with them was in Paris for the launch of the CD All'Improvviso (Alpha Productions. 2004). It's a jazz/early music collaboration with the great Italian clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi. I was playing harpsichord in a theater in Paris with Gianluigi Trovesi, and I thought, 'How did I get here?'" Turrisi laughs at the memory, but he has no doubt as to the importance of his involvement with L'Arpeggiata: "For me, that group has been huge. I think a lot of my musical concept comes unconsciously out of that experience. Christina [Pluhar] has a very strong musical concept in the way she programs the music, and she has a very strong ear for sound, which is something I think that a lot of jazz musicians don't have at allthe taste for sound. That's something that I've learned from 17th-century musicputting certain musical instruments together and experimenting with combinations of sound."
Clearly, Turrisi has absorbed these lessons, as evidenced on Si Dolce e il Tormento where he partnered Richard Sweeney on theorbo with Brendan Doyle's clarinet to great effect, alongside the rhythm section of bassist Dan Bodwell and drummer Sean Carpio . The theorbo has a beautiful, rich sound that elevates "Passacaglia" and "Lamento di Paulo e Francesca." Turrisi is enamored with the instrument's sound and obviously desires to further explore its possibilities in a modern context: "It's an incredible instrument. I'm still waiting to find a jazz guitarist who wants to embrace some of those early instruments and play some amazing music. I imagine [guitarist] Ralph Towner playing those instruments. I think it would be incredible. Those instruments are so rich and warm."
L'Arpeggiata has not only introduced Turrisi to a new way of thinking about music, but it has also given him the opportunity to tour the world and play with a host of musicians from various genres of music, including flamenco guitarist Pepe el Habichuela, who recorded Los Impossibiles (Naïve, 2009) with L'Arpeggiatta. It was a memorable experience on a number of different levels, as Turrisi recalls: "It was great because he's a legendary character. There are so many anecdotes from that session because he came with his son Josemi Carmona, another great flamenco guitarist as interpreter, linguistically and musically. We were recording in this church, and he wanted to smoke and drink while recording. There was no way of convincing him that he couldn't smoke or drink in the church," laughs Turrisi, "and there was a lot of that kind of stuff."
"You can imaginethese guys come from a very strong musical tradition. Flamenco musicians are incredibly skilled, but they can only do their thing, really. Christina [Pluhar] would say, 'You have to play three bars, and then you play four and a half bars,' and Pepe was like, 'Bars? What?'" remembers Turrisi, laughing. "It's very hard to convince them to do something else, so it was bit hard to communicate, but it was great to be exposed to the way they make music, which is incredible. It was a great experience, and he was actually a very sweet guy."
Turrisi's tenure in L'Arpeggiata has taken him the length and breadth of Europe and beyond. There are over a hundred early-music festivals spread throughout Europe, and in China and North and South America as well, though as Turrisi points out, the revival of early music is essentially a European development: "It was a movement which started in Holland, I believe. It was a kind of a hippie thing; it was an anti-classical music/establishment thing. A lot of people were tired of the elite classical music and really just tried to go back to older instruments."
There are plenty of challenges for Turrisi in L'Arpeggiata besides those presented by collaborating with musicians from diverse genres of music: "Christina [Pluhar] is from Austria but lives in Paris, and literally there weren't two people in L'Arpeggiata from the same place, so the traveling was insane. There were 15 people all living in a different country, so there was also linguistic mayhem. Christina speaks six languages, and while rehearsing she likes to speak to the musician in their own language, so there was linguistic chaos all the time. But that's the beauty of it as well; you have to learn new languages and meet new people. It's very international."
Turrisi is an international citizen himself, and moved to Ireland in 2006. There, he has embraced the challenge of making music in a country with such a small population, and, as he explains, it isn't always easy: "There are pros and cons. The cons are the fact that it's a small scene. There aren't many venues, and there aren't that many people doing things that I'm interested in, which is always the biggest frustration for me. It's very hard to find people who play the theorbo or the early music I like, or Iranian music. I'd love to do something with oud, but there is no oud player in Ireland." More surprisingly perhaps, given Ireland's world-wide renown as a country which produces and exports so much music, there aren't many pianos available, according to Turrisi: "It's one of the main issues with the country. It's very hard to find good venues with pianos."
Nevertheless, Turrisi recognizes that he was fortunate with the timing of his arrival in Dublin: "Because it's a small country and there aren't that many people doing that kind of work, I somehow managed to get a lot of financial support. Si Dolce... was entirely funded by the Arts Council. I also got support from the Italian Cultural Institute, which had money at the time and helped invite a lot of musicians to Dublin to play. There were a lot of opportunities for me." The current financial crisis, however, has left Ireland well and truly screwed. "There's less work for everybody. When I first moved here, there were so many corporate gigs that paid loads of money. There were people literally living on that, but that kind of stuff has basically gone."
Turrisi has managed to hold his head above water, and is grateful for all the support he has received. "Although there's not so much money now with the financial crisis, people know who I am in the funding bodies, and even last year I got different awards for various projects, so I feel like I'm very supported in Ireland, considering that I'm not even Irish. In jazz in general, there isn't really any money to be made, so I do a lot of other types of gigs and I'm teaching quite a bit. I always end up being in some strange projects playing frame drums in some group, but so far I've been lucky, and I can't complain."
One of these so-called strange groups in which Turrisi plays frame drum as well as harmonium and accordionis Tarab, a fascinating quintet which defies easy categorization: "My original concept was to do something like Mediterranean music, even though I hate the termbut something like Arabic music, Turkish music and southern Italian music," explains Turrisi. "When I first moved to Ireland I was trying to find some Arabic musicians, but I couldn't find anybody. I was getting quite frustrated trying different things that didn't work, and then all of a sudden I had a kind of an epiphany in a Joycean way; I was watching this documentary by Bob Quinn called the Atlantean Trilogy, which speculated on the possible connection between North Africa and the west of Ireland, between the traditional singing, and with the Mediterranean between the bodhran [Irish frame drum] and the Arabic frame drum. I thought it sounded plausible," says Turrisi.
"I remember the first time I heard sean-nós [traditional Irish] singing," he expands. "It really reminded me of different ways of singing which you find around the Mediterranean. I thought, why don't I try to do something with this type of music and Irish trad? There are so many conceptual similarities in terms of instrumentation, and it's all about the melodies and the ornamentation," says Turrisi. "I thought I'd experiment with it." However, as Turrisi knew, the Irish trad world can be very closed as to what one can and cannot do, and he knew he'd have to find just the right combination of musicians to make it work.
At the time, Turrisi played on occasion with a Lebanese drummera darbuka (Arabic goblet drum) player named Fadi Hatoumand they performed together at a percussion festival organized by fellow percussionist Robbie Harris. Turrisi mentioned his idea to Harris, who recommended flautist Emer Maycock as the perfect musician for such a project, for his open-mindedness. Once again, Turrisi managed to get some funding for a one-off project: "It was with the people who are in the group now plus a guest: a kanun [zither-like, stringed instrument] player from Syria, [named Abdullah Chadeh], and a sean-nós singer [named Roisin El Safty]. We tried it as a one-off thing, and we thought there was some interesting material so we decided to keep going. We did it for a while as a quartet but got a bit stuck and didn't know where to go next."
Tarab: from left:Francesco Turrisi, Kate Ellis, Emer Maycock, Robbie Harris, Nick Roth
Turrisi didn't have to look to far from home to find the missing ingredient: "I played in a piano, saxophone and cello trio with Nick Roth and Kate Ellis. We did a gig with Tarab and asked Kate to join Tarab for a few pieces. We thought, 'Oh, my God! This is what we need.' That was the next step, and since then we've just been developing our sound, trying to merge what each of us brings to the group. Robbie [Harris] and Emer [Maycock] are trad musicians, but they've done all kinds of interesting things. Nick [Roth] is a jazz saxophonist, but he has a Jewish background and plays a lot of klezmer and Balkan music. Kate [Ellis] is a contemporary classical cellist, but she does a lot of contemporary stuff like improvisation, and specializes in 20th-century music. She's also played with a lot of great trad musicians and singer-songwriters, so she has a vast range of experience. Then there's myself. Nowadays, Tarab is a combination of all of us, with all of these elements."
Tarab is an Arabic word which means something akin to a state of ecstasy, the deepest emotional transformation brought about by music. While Tarab's debut recording, Tarab (Taquin Records, 2011), doesn't quite induce a state of ecstasy, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted recording and has already been perceived in some quarters as one of the most significant reorientations of Irish traditional music in decades. True to the original idea behind the formation of the band, Tarab played a series of mouthwatering collaborative concerts in 2010, as part of a program run by the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray, just outside Dublin. With additional support from the Improvised Music Company, the concept was to do four tours of Ireland with four different guests. The four guests were Greek singer Savina Yannatou, kaval player Theodossil Spassov, Palestinian oud player Haitham Safiya and Iranian tombak player Pedram Khavar-Zaminiall outstanding musicians of world renown.
"It was a great opportunity playing with such wonderful musicians," enthuses Turrisi. "We played the Triskel Arts Center in Cork; we played in Belfast, Kildare, Galway; we played in Derry at the jazz festival; and we did a festival in Mayo, a smaller Arts festival in Navan; and we always finished at the Mermaid Arts Center in Bray. So it was a bit of the Arts Center circuit of Ireland."
Clips on YouTube suggest that the musical collaborations were nothing short of spellbinding. This raises the question of whether the Mermaid Arts Center might be keen to repeat the experience. "Well, understandably they want to do something different every year," says Turrisi. "This year they have a residency with a Congolese guitarist, a great guy called Niwel Tsumbu, who lives in Dublin as well. His music is a mix of all the African guitar stuff, Jimi Hendrix and jazz. It's really great. His music is really strange. I've played a few gigs with him, on accordion. Rhythmically, he's very complex, not complex in the way we play in 7 or 15, but he plays in a different meter and he doesn't write the music, so he teaches you by ear," laughs Turrisi. "He's a very interesting guy."
The same could be said of Francesco Turrisi. He plays Balkan music in Nick Roth's Yurodny, early music with Irish ensemble EX, jazz trio music with Dan Bodwell and Sean Carpio, solo piano, accordion in the Brazilian/Bulgarian-flavored Gato Azul, Arabic-influenced music in Zahr, and more besides. The prospect of Turrisi one day bringing all these elements together under the roof of a single Duke Ellington-like large ensemble is an exciting one: "I've thought about it for a while and always talk about it with different people," Turrisi admits. "One of the groups that I've been listening to a lot lately is the Magnetic North Orchestra. Jon Balke is the pianist and he's always had a really interesting sound and concept. I couldn't believe it when Siwan (ECM, 2009) came out," says Turrisi, laughing. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is me!' There is a Moroccan singer, an Algerian fiddle player, a baroque orchestra and an ECM, spacey jazz groove. I thought, 'This is all the stuff that I'm into. Someone did it before me,'" he says, laughing.
"I always say next year I'm going to do a big band project. I like the idea of a big band, but I really prefer the intimacy of the three-piece band. It's really hard to coordinate large groups, and you never have the money to pay your musicians. A quintet is a really big band for me. Tarab is a big band for me," laughs Turrisi.
The problem, should Turrisi ever decide to take the big-band plunge, might just be finding the time to fit it in around all his ongoing projects. "I'm not short of ideas," states Turrisi. "The problem is always the opposite; I have too many ideas, at times." Turrisi is certainly busy; the CD release of Zahr (Taquin Records, 2011), with Italian traditional singer Lucilla Galeazzi, Iraqi oud player Khayam Allami, Italian percussionist Andrea Piccioni and Turrisi on piano, is to be supported by a tour of Ireland. Then there are a series of concerts running from November through March 2012, where Turrisi will play solo piano for the first half, and will then be joined by a guest musician for the second half: "There'll be a sean-nós singer, a Renaissance cornetto player, a jazz singer and all kinds of crazy stuff," says Turrisi. "So, it'll be interesting and challenging, for sure." And of course, there'll be a push to support both Fotografia and Tarab.
As if all this wasn't enough, there's a new addition to the household: "I've also just become a father, which is a big shock to the system," says Turrisi, laughing, "so I'll have to learn to deal with that as well." So far, Turrisi seems to be taking it all in stride. The breadth and ambition of his musical imagination is impressive, though in some ways, the multi-talented Turrisi has only just begun what promises to be a prolific, fascinatingly varied and exciting career.
Francesco Turrisi, Fotografia (Diatribe Recordings, 2011) Tarab, Tarab (Taquin records, 2011) Zahr, Zahr (Taquin Records, 2011) L'Arpeggiata & Cristina Pluhar, Via Crucis (Virgin Classics, 2010) Yurodny, Even Set (Diatribe 2009) Francesco Turrisi, Si Dolce e il Tormento (Diatribe Recordings, 2009) L'Arpeggiatta & Cristina Pluhar, MonteverdiTeatro D'Amore (EMI Classics, 2009) L'Arpeggiata & Cristina Pluhar, Los Impossibles (Naïve, 2009) Yurodny, Odd Set (Diatribe 2008)
Page 1: Marco Borggreve Pages 2, 7: Courtesy of Francesco Turrisi Page 4: Courtesy of Yurodny ensemble Page 5, Francesco Turrisi: Stephen Barnes
Page 5, Frame Drum: Emma Haugh Page 6: Courtesy of Tarab