Photo by Roberto Masotti
“I’m a very transgressive person.” Fear not: Enrico Rava looks rather like a wolf, but gobbling tykes is not his bag. In fact, when that richly pigmented smoke floats out of his trumpet, you’ll wave him into your brick edifice and offer him your bed. While you won’t be sorry you opened the door, you won’t be receiving an ordinary houseguest. Counterbalancing his unexpected note choices and bursts of counterrhythm, Rava’s warm sound — a little bit lonely, a little bit weary — is the kind of device every born transgressor needs in order to steal a welcome amid a world of convention.
“I never accepted anything,” Rava chuckles, speaking English with the same slow inevitability he uses for his native Italian. “I was bad in school — I stopped going when I was 16, because I was such a disaster. Also, with the trumpet, I just learned my way, I learned by myself. I could never stand regular instruction.”
With jazz, he says, he felt an instant connection, ever since he first heard the Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins records in his older brother’s collection. “I understood the mechanism, I understood immediately how it worked — improvisation, harmonization — which is something that 90 percent of the audience still doesn’t understand.”
When Rava talks of his teen years working for his father in the shipping business — “trucks and shit . . . I was so depressed” — you can still hear the misery in his voice. He swears jazz saved his life. And on this night, he’s just rejoined one of his first fellow travelers on the road to salvation.
Rava is speaking from Italy, having settled down after a concert he did with Gato Barbieri. The Argentine saxist and the Torino valve squeezer have been acquainted since the ’60s; their careers have run on parallel and intersecting tracks — it was Barbieri who told the kid he played pretty good horn, who encouraged him to keep at it, and who later took him into his band in Rome, whence Rava jumped to New York and took on the whole planet. Both admired early Miles Davis, both plunged into the avant-garde, and both have come to express universal turmoil in the language of personal calm.
Free jazz, after all, couldn’t hold Rava forever. The man loves to break rules, and that music didn’t have any. Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron, Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry — Rava played with the best of the American avant. The soil and the musicians of Europe, though, have provided the ground in which he has flourished; he took home Denmark’s ultraprestigious Jazzpar Prize as worldwide musician of the year in 2002.
The new Enrico Rava album is called Easy Living. Yeah, that says it. Recorded in Udine — near Genoa, where Rava now resides — it feels like a bunch of friends stretching out by the fire in somebody’s living room. (Since this quintet has been together a few years, the relaxed vibe is axiomatic.) Rosario Bonaccorso’s bass sound is a feast: Listen to the tastes he spreads out in his considered introduction to “Traveling Night.” And when he walks, he’s in no hurry — must be those Italian loafers. Drummer Roberto Gatto holds the sound together with the invisible, elastic tension of fine hosiery. Young Gianluca Petrella’s trombone can act as an extension of Rava’s trumpet, filling out the lower register like the left hand of a pianist. Speaking of which, Stefano Bollani plays an especially valuable role in Rava’s aesthetic; his piano chords gently cradle the restive trumpet solos, while his own improvisations supply tart touches of fancy and atonality — just one properly placed note can get the effect.
You could put on Easy Living as gradual wake-up music — that’s the way it’s paced. Early on, Ellingtonian textures nudge you: “Cromosomi” (so named, says Rava, because of its descending chromatic structure) drips the romantic melancholy of a Billy Strayhorn arrangement; the spare desert roll through “Sand” carries a whiff of Duke’s “Caravan.” Rava has taken his wife’s reliable advice by starting his live sets with the punnishly titled “Algir Dalbughi,” which gets your feet moving with an aggressive bughi-woogie swing, and sets your mind perking with ever-twisting changes. “Hornette and the Drums Thing” rushes like a mountain freshet. “Rain,” windy yet sheltered, closes the album as you gaze out the window at the rest of your life.
Easy Living is Rava’s first work for ECM since 1986, when he made a fusionistic folk-rooted album with bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi. That stirringly lovely effort was called Volver (Come Back), and only now has the titular plea been fulfilled; Rava and ECM boss Manfred Eicher parted ways back then, unable to agree on a release schedule. Maybe the Jazzpar award facilitated matters a bit — whatever, the alliance is a blessed one, and ECM’s strong distribution system is getting Rava a higher level of U.S. notice.
If any good has come of the U.S. jazz market’s collapse, it has to be a demolition of borders. Every generation includes fans who define jazz via their own thin dictionaries; many are now realizing that it’s all about improvisation, and that you can improvise in any rhythm, on any base — regional folk forms, classical themes, movie music or industrial noise. Enrico Rava will be around to exemplify that.
Let’s not chain him exclusively to music, either. Please meet Rava the author, who has concurrently published a book, Note Necessarie, which he says is selling. Those who read Italian will get a load of his self-taught connoisseurship of art, share his passion for books, and glean his insights on people, travel and life (not on his women, he takes pains to mention). Naturally, they’ll also find out which musicians he likes — Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Chet Baker and Freddie Hubbard are some of the hornmen — and which ones he doesn’t, though at this moment he doesn’t want to get into that.
“I like almost everybody when they are honest, when they are a true player. I respect anyone who gets to have perfect control on his instrument, whatever his instrument is — can be driving a cab or playing trumpet or being a plumber or whatever. When I was a kid, there were a lot of people around me that worked well. Whatever they did, they loved their work, they were proud of being good at their jobs. While now, I see mostly people not doing their jobs well. For instance, I had some work done in my house, and I had to have different people coming to fix what the other people destroyed. When I see somebody who does the job, whatever it is, with love and with perfection, I’m absolutely in total admiration.”