While music fans and, yes, members of the Fourth Estate tend to label the sounds they hear in order to make things more manageable, many artists just get on with the business of developing their craft. Riccardo Del Fra certainly takes that approach to his art.
The 63-year-old Italian, longtime Paris-resident, double-bass player and longtime collaborator with peerless American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, is one of the stars of the forthcoming Jazz Globus Festival, which is due to take place in Jerusalem for the fifteenth time, from March 24-29, in collaboration with the Absorption Authority of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Center for Absorption of Immigrant Artists and Returning Residents of the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration.
All told, some 40 musicians will grace the six-dayer, under the aegis of artistic director Slava Ganelin and producer Vladimir Mak. Artists on the festival roster will jet in from Italy, Estonia, Germany and Russia, and will be joined by leading members of the local jazz community, in what promises to be a highly varied and high-class program.
Del Fra, who will perform on March 25, is, to put a neat alliterative ring to it, a musician’s musician. He has been mixing it with some of the art form’s greats for over 40 years, and increasingly, leading his own acts and putting out a diverse range of records in the process.
In his formative years, his evolving musical consciousness fed off a broad sonic palette, which continues to inform his work and appreciation of music to this day.
“Of course I love jazz. That is the music I play, even if I’m not crazy about definitions,” Del Fra notes. “I can say I love [music] from [‘60s American singer-songwriter] David Crosby to Gustav Mahler, and from [20th-century Japanese composer] Toru Takemitsu to [keyboardist-founder of American ‘70s rock band Steely Dan] Donald Fagen. My taste is very large – maybe too large,” he laughs.
He is also keen to pass on the wisdom of adopting an eclectic approach. “When I speak to my younger students, I like to tell them that jazz has always been nourished by other influences, and other worlds. It is syncretic.”
There are, he posits, advantages to be gained from cross-pollination. “I think of people like [iconic jazz arranger and composer] Gil Evans and Miles Davis, who were listening to Stravinsky and Prokofiev.” As far as Del Fra is concerned, that still stands. “Today, now, we must also listen to contemporary classical music and folk music and other kinds of music, and be inspired by art in general.”
The Italian bassist puts his money where his experienced mouth is. As head of the Department of Jazz and Improvised Music of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP), he says he strives “to remove divisions and to widen the field of action and interaction... to open windows, forge links and encourage exchanges between the many worlds of jazz and the many worlds of classic and contemporary music, as well as collaborations with other disciplines of the CNSMDP, such as dance, by books and theater.”
It is, he says, a matter of being open to creative forces regardless of the direction from whence they arrived. “At this point of my life, I think it is sometimes dangerous to put boundaries. We sometimes need definitions in order to focus, but that can also bring limits.”
Over the years, Del Fra has played with quite a few members of the jazz pantheon, legends such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Art Blakey, saxophonist Sonny Stitt and pianist Tommy Flanagan. “When I look back on my life I realize I have often been lucky, to be at the right place at the right time,” he reflects. In fact, Lady Luck had less to do with that than making the right decisions at the right time.
FORTY YEARS ago, Del Fra encountered Baker. That was to change the course of his professional and personal life. “The move that I did – and now I realize that it was kind of courageous – at the age of 23 I left everything, Rome, my family, my fiancée, the orchestra. I was almost becoming a regular player with the orchestra, with a good salary. I left everything to follow Chet Baker.”
It might have been something to leap into the unknown, but it proved to be a judicious move, which has continued to pay dividends on several fronts, logistical challenges notwithstanding.
“In the first two years, I met my first wife in Paris. When I was not playing with Chet I was here in Paris, and I had to learn a new language, to get into a new milieu.” But Del Fra soon found some musical bedfellows, including American-born drummer Al Levitt.
“He would call me with gigs, and we had a trio with Alain Jean-Marie, a fantastic piano player from Antilles, and we’d play with all the cats that came into town. We were like a kind of local rhythm section.” It was a rewarding experience, both in a musical learning-curve and bread-winning sense. “In those days you had gigs for 15 days at a club. Can you imagine, me playing with Sonny Stitt or [trumpeter] Art Farmer or [trombonist] Kai Winding for 15 days? For me that was kind of school.”
But Del Fra’s primary mentor was Baker. “We played together for about eight years, and I got so much from him. I loved him very much, and he inspired me so much – with his melody, silence, space – he left me with so much [musical] poetry. Chet was not like Thelonious Monk or a composer-arranger like Gil Evans or Bob Brookmeyer, he was just an interpreter, like [diva] Billie Holiday – people who take on tune and it becomes their tune like [jazz standard] ‘My Funny Valentine.’” The latter became one of Baker’s signature numbers.
That comes across clearly in Del Fra’s own work. He is a highly lyrical bassist, which is amply demonstrated in his orchestral tribute album to Baker, My Chet My Song, which came out in 2014, and in his most recent release, Moving People. The last track on My Chet My Song is “My Funny Valentine,” delivered in singular fashion.
“It’s just strings and bass,” say Del Fra of the closing number. “I changed some harmonies a little bit, and I added some colorful major chords to give a kind of hope and joy and serenity.”
Del Fra would like us all to take a breather, and to take stock of where we’re at it. “Moving People is also about the moving side of everyone. Sometimes we are sometimes in the speed that we don’t look to our neighbor, the people next to us. We are first afraid, and protecting ourselves, Like that, we miss possible learning, possible growing.”
The bassist believes that getting into jazz might help in that regard. After all, as an improvisational art form, when performing in a band setting, each musician has to be attentive to what the others are doing. It demands interaction and consideration. And you don’t have to be steeped in the music to get that.
“You don’t need to know bebop or the standards, or to be able to play through [chord] changes. It is just improvising and trying to be without the music standard. Even if you make noise, you just look for another approach to the instrument and playing together. Jazz is universal. It speaks to everybody.” Del Fra will, no doubt, appeal to all his audience in Jerusalem.
And there is plenty more to be savored on the Jazz Globus roster: Ganelin; saxophonist Yuval Cohen; electronic-acoustic twosome Ice Hokku, with Julia Garnitz on vocals and electronics and Anton Dmitriev on guitar and synthesizers; leading Israeli free jazz saxophonist Albert Beger; Russian trombone and ethnic wind instrument player Vitaly Vladimirov; and the quaintly named Yiddish song outfit Gefilte Drive.For tickets and more information: 02-621-1777, 052-263-4444 and jazzglobus.com.
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