Exclusive Interview with Acclaimed Jazz Musician Giovanni Tommaso

Giovanni Tommaso. Photo Courtesy of G. Tommaso

Giovanni Tommaso. Photo Courtesy of G. Tommaso

In the past weeks, Giovanni Tommaso (Lucca, January 21, 1941) has been successfully performing at the prestigious 39th Annual Watts Towers Simon Rodia Jazz Festival, as well as at the Italian Cultural Institute in L.A. Different formations - respectively a quintet and a trio – but both of them featuring the distinctive bass sound by Giovanni, and the unique voice by his daughter, Jasmine. What’s certain is: there is plenty of jazz musical talent in Tommaso’s blood line.
 
Please, share with us your first memories, approaching the bass. What makes this instrument special for you?
I was a young boy, when my brother Vito - three and a half years older than me - and I took piano lessons. Later on, Vito joined some friends in a quintet. However, the bassist, who was also a good singer, accepted an offer to perform in a long tour in Japan and left the group.
As a pianist I was always attracted to play the lower register with the left hand. I remember how I was able to play a fast boogie-boogie and, probably because of that, I didn’t hesitate when I was asked to learn how to play the bass and join my brother’s band.
It didn’t take long for me to learn by myself the basic elements of that new instrument and, shortly after that, I, Vito and the other friends formed Il Quintetto di Lucca (which is my hometown). Since then, we successfully performed together for the following six years.
 
Let’s go back together over your encounters with musical legend, the likes of Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Charles Mingus and Chet Baker. Were they mentors for you and - if yes - in what way?
Growing up, I was always a big fan of Chet Baker, both as a singer and as a trumpet player. The first time I played with him, in 1958, I was only seventeen years old and I remember I felt so excited and terrified, at the same time.
In the summer of 1959, we had the chance to go on a long tour with him. That same year, in December, I left, together with my brother and fellow musicians of Quintetto di Lucca, to perform for six months in a cruise ship, sailing from New York City to the Caribbean islands.
At the end of each cruise, I had two days off in New York City, where I had the privilege to hear the best jazz musicians, the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristano, Max Roach and many others.
Years later, I even played and recorded a live album with Roach. I was very inhibited, as I first approached a lot of those giants. Listening to them and watching their performances, as well as talking to them was for me like going to college. As a matter of fact, when I came back to Italy, I became the “first-called” bassist by American musicians, during their European tours.
 
I remember how only Paul Chambers didn’t say a single word to me. All I got as an answer to my first three questions was: “aha, aha, aha”, and that was the end of our conversation. That’s unfortunate, since he had been one of my heroes up to that episode.
I was so lucky to play with many legendary masters of jazz and I learned a lot from them, especially from Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Gil Evans, John Lewis, Elvin Jones and many others. 
 
When, in the 70’s, you and other four musicians formed a quintet, called “Perigeo”, you certainly brought a breath of fresh air, especially in the Italian/European musical “landscape”. Describe us the main features of your “fusion” jazz-rock style.
In 1972, I needed a change, both musically and existentially, so I formed the quintet, Perigeo. Miles Davis’ album, Bitches Brew, was a profound stimulation for me. Before starting our new formation, I told Franco D’Andrea, great pianist, and the other members, that jazz-rock was a new style but very risky for established jazz musicians.
They accepted the challenge and it was worth it! Soon, we made a name for ourselves, by recording five studio albums and some live.
 
Months ago - 38 years after our band broke apart - Sony published a music box with all our albums, a DVD and a booklet. It’s almost a miracle how during all these years we have still been selling records. If I had to describe the “secret” of our success, I would say we made a very unique combination of sounds, grooves, jazz improvisation and themes.
 
What’s your biggest satisfaction/accomplishment, so far?
I have the greatest family, I do what I love doing, I’m still making plans for new projects so…I live a great life!
 
Tell us about your new formation, called Apogeo. What do you think have changed the most, over the years, between people’s musical tastes and your own tastes?
Actually Apogeo is not my present band, although, occasionally, we make reunions. Since 2 years, I’ve been part of a quartet, called Consonanti, made of very young, outstanding musicians. We performed this year at the JazzFest in San Juan de Puerto Rico and it was a great success. Enough to say that we received a standing ovation. That certainly doesn’t happen often in a jazz concert.
 
In jazz music, different styles are affected by historical cycles and that is probably the reason why jazz remains so creative. In my bands, I mostly perform my original compositions. I feel so gratified, every time that both the audience and the critics affirm that my music is very contemporary, but it still has classical jazz elements. This is for me one of the most appreciated comments. Every time I perform, I enjoy the audience’s appreciation of my music, but I do not play to be appreciated by the audience.
 
Tell us about your last performance at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles.
The auditorium was lovely and ideal for a voice, guitar and bass trio. Performing with my daughter, Jasmine, is a gift. She’s a great singer with a special voice and can sing melodies in a way that moves me deeply. Lately, she has improved so much as a scat vocalist, as well.
The audience was great, and I even had the chance to meet some Perigeo’s fans. The evening had a perfect ending with a good dinner with Valeria Rumori, the talented and nice director of the IIC.
 
In conclusion, tell us about your relation with L.A. and its people. 
From 2001 to 2006, I’ve been living with my family in Dana Point, despite I was commuting to Italy, every other month. I really love California, its people and the weather here.
Who knows, in the future, we might move back in the L.A. area.

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