Interview: Pianist-Composer Vito Tommaso on Quintetto di Lucca (1959), Mood Food And… (1975), Stati d’animo (2008), and Musica per commenti sonori (1969/2013) with Stefano Torossi
Pianist-composer Vito Tommaso began his music career in his hometown of Lucca, Italy when he joined younger brother bassist-composer Giovanni Tommaso, drummer Giampiero Giusti, guitarist Gaetano Mariani, and vibraphonist Antonello Vannucchi to found Quintetto di Lucca in 1957. Within two years the quintet had released an EP on RCA, Quintetto di Lucca. In 1959, Quintetto di Lucca was chosen to support Chet Baker on his second tour of Italy before playing together in the United States. After Mariani departed in 1961, Quartteto di Lucca was born, releasing their debut album Quartetto for RCA in 1961. The foursome stayed together through 1967, including radio and TV appearances with jazz heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Toots Thielemans. After the group disbanded, Vito Tommaso has gone on to compose and perform music for numerous film and television productions in addition to releasing albums as a solo artist for RCA, Fly, Jubal, and Rai Trade, and one with Stefano Torossi for Constanza Records in 1969 that was reissued as a digital download by Deneb Records in 2013. Tommaso was also the conductor of the RAI National Symphony through the mid-1990s.
6D: Whose idea was it to form Quintetto di Lucca? What can you share from this pivotal period in the development of jazz in Italy?
VT: At that time jazz music in Italy was considered “outside the law,” to the point that students practicing this kind of music were threatened with expulsion from the Conservatory. Since the beginning of my approach to music, I was already a great admirer of the music of George Gershwin, but after discovering Charlie Parker, whom I consider the Mozart of Jazz, I could not help but oppose this way of thinking.
I was lucky enough to know Mo Carlo Ardissone, a professor of piano at the Conservatory who came from Turin. He was a musician who played classical music yet did not disdain Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, so I relied on him to teach me through individual lessons.
This aversion to conservative musical institutions was shared by Giampiero Giusti, Antonello Vannucchi (who played the vibraphone with us and risked being expelled from the Conservatory–while I could play the piano because I studied privately), Gaetano Mariani, and other dear friends like Mario Cappetta and Carlo Cioni, who went on to become a university teacher. As I soon discovered many other like-minded musicians in Lucca, open to this new direction, I was determined to found a proper jazz club in Lucca.
Imagine a team of students getting together to do the clearing, cleaning and setting up for a venue, all with the desire to do something for us and only us! The location was a fabulous cellar where every night we had a chance to perform our beloved jazz.
As renting the club was not free, we often had small parties in which a ticket and entry fee were required. With the proceeds, we managed to bring to Lucca soloists such as Lee Konitz. On these occasions, there sometimes was a bit of artistic compromise when compared to our normal approach and training. Part of the repertoire was from the likes of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra and some concessions were made for American hits of the moment.
I vividly recall doing one song after another, experimenting with different arrangements across many nights at the club. Perhaps, what I wrote and Antonello Vannucchi wrote was extra challenging for us because we were basically self-taught jazz men who had learned mostly from listening to records. In 1957, I wrote my first song titled “Hot Club 57,” and with that we struck the first blow in the search for originality.
6D: Any favorite memories from cutting your first record for RCA in 1959?
VT: Our first recording was made at the Cinefonico studio. We traveled from from Lucca to Rome, and in those days, it was not a walk. On that occasion we recorded “Summer 58,” a small suite that was my first composition to appear in vinyl.
I remember when our first record was released in Lucca, I did a crazy bike ride to the store but the seller did not want to give it to me ’cause it was the first and the only one and he wanted to keep in the window! After a long struggle, I finally managed to get it, and, yes, I had to pay for it!
6D: The same year you also supported Chet Baker on his second tour of Italy as well as playing with him in the United States. Does anything stick out from this eventful period?
The memories of touring with the great Chet Baker are not so pleasant, to be honest. At the beginning of the tour, when we moved around by bus, Baker’s girlfriend at the time had a baby with her that always seemed to be crying… Baker often showed up late, we were never sure when he would arrive.
6D: Did you already have a sense music was your calling?
Through my third year of university studies in the field of engineering, music remained a hobby. Slowly, the passion subsumed me, however, and by the fifth year, engineering was cast aside … but I am happy that this has been my destiny.
6D: Do you recall any details about the writing or inspiration for compositions like “Quartetto” and “Estate ’61”?
VT: For the song “Quartetto,” I remember being quite busy. I was able to introduce a piece using 5/4 time, I think a first in jazz composition. Of course, [Dave] Brubeck did much better than me later on. “Estate ’58” and “Estate ’61” are my two short compositions written in the years indicated.
A selection of tracks from Quartetto di Lucca’s Quartetto album including “Night In Tunesia,” “Like Someone In Love,” “Lullaby Of Birdland,” and “Estate ’61,” plus “Lo Svanito” from the 1970 RCA album Ballabili 1 by Vito Tommaso and Quartetto di Lucca, are on YouTube. Unfortunately, Vito Tommaso’s composition, “Estate ’61” is not viewable in all regions.
In 1969, Vito Tommaso and Stefano Torossi made their Musica per commenti sonori LP for Italy’s Constanza Records. Ten of the tracks on that initial album by Tommaso and Torossi have been reissued again, first in 1998 on Musica per commenti sonori: The Seventies, a CD release by Costanza Records that also added tracks from the Sandro Brugnolini and Stefano Torossi Musica per commenti sonori LP also released in 1969.In 2013, the same album was reissued as a download by Flippermusic’s Deneb Records under the title Vintage Jazz, Pop & Rock: 1960s – 1970s – Easy Listening, retaining the original running order of the 24 tracks but changing half of the titles.
6D: How did you meet Stefano Torossi? And new projects coming up?
VT: Stefano Torossi is a dear friend who I met through my brother Giovanni.
I have not done any other musical projects with Stefano [other than recording their 1969 Musica per commenti sonori LP for Costanza Records] and, at the moment, I have no plans in sight.An article on Vito Tommaso and Stefano Torossi’s 1969 Musica per commenti sonori album, which includes all available tracks currently found online, is HERE.
6D: Do you know if there is any chance your Vito Tommaso LP released by RCA in 1970 will ever get a proper reissue?
VT: I believe plans to reprint the LP are under discussion. With regard to the song “Youth of Today” from that album, if I remember correctly, it came from Lee Konitz during a recording session for RCA Italian in 1968.
Three tracks from the Vito Tommaso self-titled album released by RCA in 1967 are currently available online, including “Pochi sorrisi,” “Viaggio a Detroit,” and “I Giovanni d’oggi” (see below). In addition, an audio file of almost seven minutes of excerpts from the album was recently posted online in conjunction with a record auction.
The same year, Vito Tommaso also wrote the soundtrack for the film Lacrime d’amore and the drama Dello sceneggiato I racconti di Padre Brown.
In 1972, Tommaso and Renato Rascel composed the soundtrack for the animated film Un burattino di nome Pinocchio di Giuliano Cenc, and two years later RCA released the single “Sabato sera dalle 9 alle 10” / “Il giorno del karate” featuring Tommaso compositions from the soundtrack for an RAI television program broadcast in Italy.
An audio file for Vito Tommaso’s “Il giorno del karate” is on SoundCloud:
Alternatively, both sides of the 1974 single were shared online this week as part of an auction of the rare 45. A quick search will yield the downloadable files.
Besides soundtracks, Tommaso has also done some classic library albums including Mood Food And… for Jubal, released under the name Green Guitar Group sometime in 1975. The album contains “music specially recorded for film, radio, and television.”
“Black Is Beaty” by Vito Tommaso’s Green Guitar Group, a tune that continues to be one of this correspondent’s favorites since first discovering it at the excellent Starving Daughters Vinyl Impressions website (their original post is HERE), is on YouTube:
6D: What is the story behind the Green Guitar Group? Is this all your creation?
VT: I used Tony Sidney, the guitarist with my brother Giovanni in Perigeo. But the rest, for the most part, was me playing keyboards without any other musicians.
In the early to mid 1970s, Vito Tommaso made Primo Appuntamento for Italy’s Fly Records.
In 2014, the album was reissued in digital format under the title A Day in Rome – Romantic Music for a Love Date.
Vito Tommaso’s title track, “Primo appuntamento” was uploaded to the Internet in early 2015:
6D: Where did your interest in composing music for cartoons come from?
VT: Renato Rascel, the artistic producer, and I had a productive relationship in those years, doing soundtracks for productions like “Padre Brown” and “Pinocchio.”
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Vito Tommaso was responsible for composing music for a number of popular cartoon themes including Gackeen Magnetico Robot, Jet Robot, George of the Jungle, Kum Kum, Peline Story, Ken Falco, Grand Prix, and many more. Tommaso often wrote the music and performed with the Superobots and I Mini Robots.
A film clip using Vito Tommaso’s “Ken Falco,” performed by The Superobots, is on YouTube:
6D: Did any of your own children or relatives participate in the choirs of young singers?
VT: My children, together with those of many of my colleagues, participated in the chorus. I also played keyboards on the theme songs of a number of cartoons.
6D: How did the Stati d’animo album for Rai Trade happen?
VT: This record is particularly close to the heart. It was made with the help of the then director of RAI Trade, Dino Piretti, an excellent professional and a good friend.
I tried to capture particular aspects of the human striving, to delve deep into the “Stati d’animo” (or “Moods” in English) like the title says. There are songs, I believe, that fully reflect the state of mind that I intended to express.
6D: What have you been working on lately?
VT: Gino Landi and I wrote a musical work that is modern take on West Side Story that also draws inspiration from composer Giacomo Puccini. We would like to see a major, full scale production but until now we have been able to only stage it locally in Lucca. Fortunately, we have a fantastic cast of enthusiastic and passionate players, so it is our great desire is to be able to fully realize this vision as intended before it’s too late.
6D: Are there any live performance plans for 2015?
VT: Along with Stefano Vacca and the same Gino Landi, I am working on a musical
entitled “It’s All Your Fault.” We hope to bring it to the stage soon.
An online video album for Vito Tommaso’s eponymous 1967 RCA album is here:
Many of the more than one hundred LPs, CDs, and now digital albums of Vito Tommaso performing, composing, arranging, and conducting music can be found at Discogs among other sites specializing in jazz, library, and soundtrack music. One of Tommaso’s most famous compositions was used for the theme of a well-known American TV series “The Love Boat.”
In 1968, Mario Monicelli directed La ragazza con la pistola (Girl with a Pistol), starring the lovely Monica Vitti.
Shake balera,” a composition by Peppino De Luca from the original soundtrack for La ragazza con la pistola, directed by Vito Tommaso, is on YouTube:
And finally something very special, Vito Tommaso’s live performance of “Jet Robot” at Lucca Comics 2009, featuring a large cast of musicians and singers: