Interview: Bassist-Band Leader Giovanni Tommasso On His First Trip To New York, Hanging Out With Chet Baker, and Making Bluegrass Music With Stefano Torossi on Echoing America (1970)
Posted by Formosa Coweater
Jazz bass player, composer, arranger, and band leader Giovanni Tommaso recently discussed some of the highlights of his performing and recording career, including making Echoing America with Stefano Torossi in 1970. Besides working with players like Chet Baker, Kenny Clarke, Franco D’Andrea, Kenny Drew, Gil Evans, Art Farmer, Claudio Fasoli, Dexter Gordon, John Lewis, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins, Tommaso is currently co-director of the Berklee Summer School at Umbria Jazz Clinics in Italy. Tommaso was recently awarded a Berklee College of Music honorary doctor of music degree.
6D: When did you and Stefano Torossi first work together?
GT: We met in the early ’70 and worked together for the production of some recordings made especially for soundtrack music.
6D: Did you ever cross paths in your time as a student? [Giovanni Tommaso, like Stefano Torossi, studied double bass in the 1950s.]
GT: My academic background was very short. I started going to the Conservatory of Florence in September 1959, but I quit in December after making a deal playing in a cruise ship sailing from New York to the Caribbean. It was the historic Homeric, the boat of the Italian immigrants to America. Since I was a kid I always wanted to go to New York, so it didn’t take me much hesitation to give up my studies. In fact, being exposed to the the best modern jazz time in history and learning from the heroes of the era made me grow more than any other school I could have gone to.
6D: Who were some of your greatest influences growing up?
GT: Many! Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Chet Baker and of course some of my bassist heroes like Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, and Scott La Faro. Very few American musicians would come touring in Italy but I was so lucky to go to the center of jazz universe: NEW YORK!
6D: Who did you see live in New York City in 1959 and 1960? And which performers influenced you the most musically, if anyone, from that time period?
GT: The Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane at the Apollo Theatre, Art Blakey and the Messengers at the Jazz Gallery, with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, Lenny Tristano at the Five Spot, with Lee Konitz and Warn March, Cannonball Adderly at the Half Note, and many others. I stole something from all of them.
In 1967, Giovanni Tommaso recorded Blues For Miles Davis with Enzo Restuccia on drums, Tommasi on piano, and Tommaso on bass, an album that was finally released more than four decades later, issued on CD and LP by Cinedelic in 2009.
6D: How did you first meet Amedeo Tommasi? Was it at the time the trio formed in the early 1960s?
GT: I met Amedeo in the late ’50 in Bologna, I was part of the Quintetto di Lucca, my home town and we played with Chet Baker’s first tour in Italy in 1959. After Chet got out of jail in Lucca, (he was there for about 2 years) in 1961, he asked our Trio with Amedeo to go on tour for 6 months, together with Antonello Vannucchi who was also part of the Quintetto di Lucca.
Quartetto di Lucca, their 1962 RCA album, was reissued by Schema in 2014 in vinyl and CD, featuring Giampiero Giusti on drums, Vito Tommaso on piano, Antonello Vannucchi on vibes, and Giovanni Tommaso on bass.
6D: What else do you recall about your time together with Chet Baker, making music and his adjustment as an American thrust into life in your country in the early 60s?
GT: As I said, touring with him for six months in 1961 was for me an amazing experience. Chet was in a splendid shape, to my knowledge like never before and maybe never after. He was clean and strong and also was able to speak Italian very good. We were hanging out all day, everyday, talking, playing poker, bowling, and all things “normal” people do, until…..he started again.
6D: You also played together in the mid-1970s, including a concert at the Music Inn in Rome in 1976 (see below). What was that like? Was this one of the last times you were on stage together?
GT: At the time of the Music Inn sessions Chet was not in good shape, but nothing compared with the future years when he really started feeling bad. My last time with Chet was years after that, I’ll never forget it. Before the show Joe Henderson came backstage. It was in Torino, we opened the first set with Enrico Rava, Franco D’Andrea, me, and Roberto Gatto. Chet came for the second set. During the intermission we asked about the repertoire and he mentioned a few standards. Franco had never played with Chet before and he was a bit nervous because he knew the reputation about Chet being very severe with pianists. The first couple of tunes went very well until he called “My Foolish Heart.”
He counted off the slowest tempo I have ever played and right from the start something was wrong. It was our fault, probably mine more than the others. I was wrong assuming that the count-off meant a double tempo, so the whole rhythm session was all over the place and it became a nightmare! Chet gave us a very bad look but not even one word. At dinner after the concert, he sat next to me. Nobody sad a word for minutes (it felt like eternity) until he looked at me and said: “Giovanni, you should know by now how much I love you.” That was the last concert of Chet in Italy. He died not too long after that.
In 1988, the Giovanni Tommaso Quintet released To Chet, an album featuring Flavio Boltro and Paolo Fresu on trumpet, Danilo Rea on piano, drums, Roberto Gatto on drums, and Tommaso on bass. AllMusic.com comments “Baker’s spirit hovers nearby, as the unassuming, immaculately performed pieces recall Baker’s ability to understate without loss of focus.”
6D: As all seven compositions on To Chet are credited to you, was the album your idea? How did this all-star lineup come together?
GT: In the early 1980s, those musicians were not exactly stars, also because they were very young. I formed the Giovanni Tommaso Quintet with the musicians appearing on the To Chet album, but instead of Flavio Boltro I had Massimo Urbani on alto sax, an Italian legend. I replaced him with Boltro thinking I could get an original sound. The idea of recording a tribute to Chet came right away.
“Novembre” featuring Flavio Boltro on trumpet, Roberto Gatto on drums, Danilo Rea on piano, and Tommaso on bass, is here:
6D: How did your relationship with the Berklee College of Music begin? Did you study and/or teach in the Boston area for any period of time?
GT: In 1986, Carlo Pagnotta, the founder of the Umbria jazz Festival, invited me to direct the Umbria Jazz Clinics. We went to Boston for a meeting with Lee Berk and Gary Burton to discuss the possibility for a one year collaboration, and so we did. Forty-nine years are gone by and we are still working together! I told you earlier about my poor academic training, but curiously I have been a Conservatorio teacher for 4 years teaching jazz music.
From 1971 to 1977, Giovanni Tommaso joined Bruno Biriaco on drums, Franco D’Andrea on keyboards, Claudio Fasoli on saxophone, and Tony Sidney on guitar to form the jazz rock group Perigeo. The quintet recorded eight albums.
A live 1973 performance of Perigeo’s “Azimut” is on YouTube:
6D: How much do you stay in touch and follow the work of your former band members? Do you still find time to jam together?
GT: I formed Perigeo in 1972 and broke up the band in 1977. It was an amazing experience, not only musically speaking. In these 35 years we had two reunions, one in 1973, for the Umbria Jazz 20th anniversary and in 2008 for my 50th year of playing. With Franco we had other collaborations. One with Enrico Rava that lasted a couple of years (one ECM record) and one with a Trio with Roberto Gatto and my self, recording two albums. I’m very proud that after all these years all of us, part of Perigeo, are still very good friends. Our records never stopped selling and in fact, very soon Sony will be releasing a package with our five “official” albums plus three unreleased albums, a DVD, and a booklet.
A video of New Perigeo performing “Aschimilero” live in 1981 featuring David Eagle on drums, Maurizo Giammarco on saxophone, Carlo Pennisi on guitar, Danilo Rea on keyboards, and Tommaso on bass and vocals is here:
In 1979, Tommaso and Luis Bacalov recorded Sincretic 1, an album released in Italy and one year later in France.
6D: How did your project with Luis Bacalov come about? Are there any memories or details you can share about the experience?
GT: I met Luis Bacalov in 1967, when I was working daily as a session bass player, most of all at the RCA studios in Rome. He was a successful arranger in pop music, but always had a passion for other kinds of music. He proposed to record that album and after that experience he formed a Trio with myself on bass and Luis Agudo (also from Argentina) on percussion. We recorded an album and played concerts for many years. Time after that Luis added a band and we recorded the soundtrack of the film Il Postino. Bacalov won the Oscar which obviously helped a great deal to find more gigs. We are still playing together and he sounds better than ever.
“Tangosain,” the opening track on Luis Bacalov and Giovanni Tommaso’s Sincretic 1 (1979) was recorded live in 2001 with Ulisses Passarella on bandoneon, Bacalov on piano, and director Emilio Scogna and Orchestra ProArte Marche:
6D: Echoing America covers so much musical ground: funk, hard rock, jazz, bluegrass, and much more. What do you remember about co-composing and performing on the album with Stefano Torossi? How long did it take to make the album?
GT: The bluegrass tunes happen to be for a coincidence. I was walking in Rome and heard two young American guys playing on the street. They sounded very good to me, so I asked them if they were interested in taking part in a recording. They came to the studio and did the recording in two to three hours. The whole album just took a day.6D: Are they any other details you recall about making Echoing America?
GT: Not much but I remember the bluegrass stuff sounded nice, also because it very difficult to reproduce that kind of music if you are not American.
6D: Have you worked on any projects with Stefano Torossi since that album?
GT: Several. The two I remember more than others are : 1) Artigianato, some inspired composition I wrote during a very difficult time of my life and 2) my first recording of soundtrack music. It didn’t have a specific title because it was part of a series of different records that had the same cover with just a different color. I remember I made a stupid decision not to play the bass and just to be the conductor, “errore di gioventù”, we say, I just wanted to know how it feels to stand in the middle of a studio with the big music stand pretending I was a real conductor. I remember it was not a bad record, it also had some jazzy stuff.
6D: I’ve listened to your Vivere A: Tokio citta del paradiso original cast album several times and wonder if you could comment on that project? Did the Japanese cultural element intrigue you as an artist?
GT: I remember I was very impressed when I saw the documentary. Some of those scenes were kind of shocking, like those small beds in that wired hotel, the swimming pool with hundreds of people that could only stand up one against each other, and last but not least, the “intersex” machine, very advanced, but to me it looked like something for sick people.
“Square Dance In Tokyo” and “Green Kimono,” two tracks from Vivere A: Tokio citta del paradiso, are found on a Giovanni Tommaso sampler on SoundCloud:
6D: Are there any current or upcoming projects that you can discuss?
GT: I’m almost done writing material for my next album. It will be recorded live at the beautiful Auditorium di Roma on May the 19th with my new Quartet CONSONANTI. I formed the band last year and in fact our debut was in the same theatre.
6D: This year another Tommaso released their debut album, Listening Party by Jasmine Tommaso. Any comments about your daughter’s decision to follow you and your brother Vito into the music field?
GT: Jasmine started singing jazz when she was very little. She showed talent right away. Lately she seems to be more determined to grow artistically in the jazz area and I can tell she’s getting better and better every day. When she sings melodies she hits my heart. To me that’s all there is.
In 2009, Giovanni Tommaso and his daughter Jasmine appeared on stage as part of Apogeo with Vito Favara at Parco Archeologico Selinunte. Jasmine’s rendition of the jazz standard “Lullaby Of Birdland” features Giovanni Tommaso on double bass, Anton Pinciotti on drums, Vito Favara on piano, Bebo Ferra on guitar, and Jasmine Tommaso on vocals:
And here’s a special treat on SoundCloud, a downloadable MP3 of Giovanni Tommaso on bass, Claudio Fasoli on saxophone, Antonio Faraò on piano, and Massimo Manzi on guitar from a 30 April 2014 live performance on International Jazz Day Roma at the Auditorium Antonianum:
More Music From Giovanni Tommaso
A 24-minute concert at Rome’s Music Inn from 1976 featuring Chet Baker on trumpet, Bruno Biriaco on drums, Jacques Pelzer on flute, Amedeo Tommasi on piano, and Giovanni Tommaso on bass has been uploaded to the Internet:
Posted in Interview
Tags: "Green Kimono", "Sixth Dimension", "Square Dance In Tokyo", "Tangosain", "Underground Number Seven", Cometa Edizioni Musicali, Consonanti jazz group, Echoing America (1970) LP, Giovanni Tommaso, Jasmine Tommaso, Listening Party 2013 album, Luis Bacalov, Perigeo, Sermi, Stefano Torossi, Vivere A: Tokio citta del paradiso (1970) LP