Chicago fun by way of Italy

Italian multi-instrumentalist Mauro Porro and the Chicago Stompers perform as part of the Hot Jazz series.

MAURO PORRO and the Chicago Stompers (photo credit: STEFANO BARATTINI)
MAURO PORRO and the Chicago Stompers
(photo credit: STEFANO BARATTINI)
There are all kinds of jazz. The art form has been ebbing, flowing, swelling and meandering for a century, and rightly so. But the discipline has morphed so broadly, especially over the past half century or so, that it is much easier these days to say what jazz isn’t than what it strictly is.
The title of peerless pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington’s 1931 number “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” may have set out something of a benchmark stall back then, but since the advent of modern jazz in the 1940s, things have spread out into far more generous sonic and stylistic climes.
Then again, there are some who just want to get back to the soulful, joyful place where it all began, more or less. One such is Mauro Porro, a 34-year-old Italian multi-instrumentalist, who co-founded the Chicago Stompers together with now-37-year-old banjo player-guitarist Dario Lavizzari back in 2002.
Both will be front and center when six members of the combo come over here for a string of shows up and down the country as part of this year’s Hot Jazz series, October 26-November 2.
If Porro plays on stage anything like he waxes eloquently about his beloved craft, audiences here are in for a rip-roaring time of it. The man simply bubbles over with undisguised enthusiasm and joie de vivre, and is deeply, really deeply, immersed in the history of jazz.
He and his fellow Stompers blare out music that many Americans in the titular Windy City, and elsewhere around the States, would have been jumping and jiving to back in the 1920s and 1930s.
SO, WHAT makes a thirtysomething Italian get into music from the other side of the world, and which was all the rage over half a century before he was a twinkle in anybody’s eye?
“I have been playing this stuff since I was 12 or 13,” he says. “My piano teacher, then, decided to introduce to me to ragtime, just by chance, for fun.”
That was quite a sharp turn for the young lad, considering he was being versed in the intricacies of the classical side of the piano tracks. There was no going back. “From that moment on I was very happy to concentrate, not only on classical music but also on jazz music.”
Porro is fully cognizant of the insouciant qualities inherent in the rhythmic, definitively upbeat genre, and how that carries over to one and all within hearing range. I put it to him that the kind of sounds he and his pals belt out could offer us some kind of solace, or escapism, in these uncertain times.
“Yes, I think music is therapy for everything,” he posits, adding that he has firsthand experience of the remedial qualities therein. “I have felt that since I was a child. I remember when I was at school one of my professors came up to me after a concert I did in my school and, with tears in her eyes, she said to me: ‘Mauro, it was sensational; because I am having such problems in my family these days, but you give me the possibility, with your music, not to think about that for a while. Your happy sounds brought some joy into my situation now.’ I have had this moment in my mind all my life, since then. From that moment I knew music is important.”
Porro is principally the pianist, writer and arranger for the band, but there is so much more to the man. He is adept on an incredible spread of instruments, taking in a range of saxophones, clarinet, trumpet, cornet and percussion. He has also amassed a hefty collection of 78s and sheet music, and is also the proud owner of an impressive lineup of vintage instruments, including an August Förster piano made in 1899, a saxophone from 1910, a 1920 drum set and a tenor banjo from 1926.
The man is clearly serious about reproducing the sounds of yesteryear, along with the emotional sensibilities of the times. “I was inspired by some great masters who played this music in the Czech Republic in the 1970s, and especially Pavel Klikar. He is the inventor of the new method of playing original 1920s music with original instruments.”
The latter is fundamental to the way Porro goes about his business. “If you love this kind of music, you have to play it properly, in the right manner. In order to obtain the most authentic vintage sound you can, the main thing is to have original antique instruments.”
Porro feels strongly that there are no shortcuts here. You have to go the whole hog and not just get a handle on the scores and playing techniques, you have to have the right means to hand. “The main thing is to obtain the sound which is ‘the real thing,’ as the Americans say. If you play jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s with modern instruments, you don’t get the right sound.”
There are intrinsic reasons for this. “For example, a saxophone today is made of a different kind of material. The brass is easier today, in the modern way of constructing the instrument. It is the same for the trumpet and trombone. The bore of the instrument was also narrower back then. So the combination of the geometric shape of the instrument and the bore, the quality of the materials, combined with the use of vintage mouthpieces, which is very important, allows you to have the right sound, the proper sound, so the music can be played as it was in the 1920s.”
Porro and his colleagues in music intent might be very serious about their craft, but the bottom line is an undiluted joyous blast from the past. Just what the doctor ordered.
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and