The following interview with Italian soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa was conducted several months ago. During this very telling conversation he enlightens us with insights learned from private lessons with Steve Lacy, playing jazz in Bologna, and of course, the fascinating story behind his compelling solo saxophone CD, Immaculate Breakfast.
From his liner notes for his solo saxophone recording
In recent times after
many years of intense activity, I felt the need to retire from music for a
while, having lost interest due to the general lack of ideas and creativity on
the scene. Not being able to find any pleasure in the practice of music, I
considered the eventuality to quit altogether. So, with the exception of few
isolated appearances, I decided to limit my playing to single weekly sessions
just to keep physical contact with the saxophone. All this took place in a very
special space: the chapel of the former mental institution Roncati in Bologna.
There, nestled in a sort of retreat, the ancient hall halo became an instrument
itself, in the form of reverberating waves produced by the same horn that had
lost any appeal to me. The rise of vibrant, unearthly sound returned to me the
original meaning of music I experienced many years ago. This time committed to
such a lonely search showed me a direction that brought my style to maturity
and a certain formal completion and these recordings are the outcome of two
years hard work.
Before we address what you wrote in your liner notes, I’d like to catch my
readers up to speed on who you are what you’ve been up to these last several
years. So when did you decide to make the soprano saxophone your main
started playing the clarinet when I was about twenty and attended the faculty
of psychology. I was self-taught and only later on I enrolled and graduated at
the conservatory, but then I was already a formed musician. I've always played
music along with my profession as psychologist, with dedication and commitment.
In addition, this passion has converged in further activities as art and music
played in many projects and combos: mostly acoustic and small sized, with the
exception of a couple big bands. The projects range from mainstream jazz to
traditional inspired ensembles, from free improvisation to early sacred music,
not to mention some classical music. Another part of my output is into film
music, television and contemporary theater. The element that remains constant
in all these different types is a component of improvisation.
soprano sax impressed me at first for its tense and modern sound. I thought it
was representative of our time. Its liquid quality makes one think of molten
metal. The horn design itself has an appeal: the intricacy and the sparkles,
the mysterious keywork. So by the mid 90's I decided to add it to the clarinet,
which I was playing thinking of a tenor sax. At some point I began to perceive
the clarinet sound as limited and outdated, so I gradually switched to soprano
until the transition was definitive.
I did the same route of Sidney Bechet. Today, I think of the soprano like a
trumpet and that's funny because I always played one instrument thinking of
another. But I think it’s necessary. If
you play the same instrument for so long you need to invent something to get
the rid of boredom!
SN: Were there any players that influenced your decision to play the soprano? Or
were you solely influenced by your own connection to the instrument?
SS: In my
case it was an individual choice, determined by the tendency to seek perfection
in one single discipline. The instrument just happened to be the means to this
vocation. Before that, I've been involved in extreme sports like BMX, rock
climbing and scuba diving. All my life I've been deeply involved in some
particular activity that tests
my limits. And then when I touched it or felt the need for a change, I
moved away to something new, another adventure
Regarding the soprano,
there were also external influences. I came in contact with the horn when I saw
some experienced colleagues in their concerts: the soprano had such an incisive
sound, at the same time was close to the human voice. The speed of execution
and the chromatic phrasing were among other elements that struck me. But it was
when I heard Coltrane on My Favorite Things that I experienced a real
epiphany! That was the decisive moment in which I resolved to take on soprano.
I must have heard that song a thousand times?
Then I discovered
the music of
Lacy. He came often to Italy so it was easy to see and hear him play.
I realized Trane made
wonderful use of soprano, but
Lacy’s uses of the soprano were infinite!
I think Lacy exploited the
fact of being limited by the instrument to liberate his imagination. But it was
only when I had the opportunity to study with him that I really understood the
logic behind his language. One day he played in front of me an unaccompanied
chorus of Let's Call This
to show how you can solo on
it. In that moment, I
realized his concept and all that I had heard before up to that day! It's
amazing how decisive a single encounter can be
was also obsessed by sound. But on that subject I wasn't unprepared, since my
first teacher, Oreste Sabadin, had instilled in me
the same care for the sound. And he's definitely
my first and fundamental reference point. Thank you, Oreste!
SN: You said that Lacy visited Italy a lot and you had
numerous opportunities to hear him play. Was there any particular concert that
stood out? Also, did you get a chance to sit down with him and talk about music
and the soprano?
SS: I heard
Steve live for the first time in 1994, in Padua, where he was studying. The
trio with Irene Aebi and Frederic Rzewki on piano, presented Packet
program of songs built around the poems of Judith Malina. A that time I had
heard only Lacy's classics like Soprano Sax
wasn't not yet mature enough for that kind of music, but some fragments
impression. But some years later I happened to get Packet
CD and really
enjoyed the music. Both lyrics and music are beautiful, the contribution of
Rzewsi helps to project jazz language into a chamber music setting without
forcing. I consider Packet
Irene Aebi's best work, since her vocal
qualities find their natural place. To this day it remains one of my favorite
Steve's albums. The saxophone opening projected into the piano chassis has such
a profound and evocative power that breaks the acoustic limits of the
'98 I came to know that Steve was coming to Bologna for a masterclass. It was a
wonderful opportunity to meet him, so I couldn't miss the chance. Steve nice
and english demaneored, he really made me felt at ease. In the class many
exercises consisted in the collective delivering of themes or group
improvisations. There must have been at least a dozen saxophonists, and more
than a half were soprano players. I placed a small analog tape recorder next to
me, but when I went home and I listened back to the tapes I realized the sound
was saturated and distorted. It was almost impossible to tell a single
instrument out of the crowd, with one exception: Steve's sound was always there,
distinct and clear, with the same features that you can listen to all his
records! It was the biggest lesson that I received on sound, and without a
word! I realized that Steve had probably found a way to take advantage of some
particular frequencies different than those of all the others, and that these
allowed him to emerge. Its uniqueness was thus revealed. The following day
Steve explained to me and Gianni Mimmo how to deliver harmonics. I remember the
three of us having troubles to play the fourth harmonic out of the middle C
sharp. What a joy when I was the first to succeed. Steve congratulated me and
he signed a nice dedication on a photo: "Good luck with the horn"
SN: Is there much of a jazz scene in Bologna? There seems to be a lot of wonderful jazz musicians coming out of Italy.
city of Bologna and Italy in general, have always been a major landing point
for the world of jazz,
and the best musicians are regularly invited. By doing so, Italy itself has
produced first class musicians. Today, however, the prevailing logic is that of
small groups who care only for their interests rather than being supportive one
to each others. In Bologna,
only a few
venues survive and it's very difficult to play. A few festivals are accessible
only to the big names.
same is true for the theaters and the media that are controlled by institutions
with strong political connotations. The result is a general lack of creativity
and stagnation. The remaining chance for the independents is to take the burden
of organization the financial risk. Personally, I’ve produced many events, like
the Eaunaturelle Festival
. Even doing so the institutions run by
politicians tend to ignore the private to stop him in the long run.
Italy the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is necessary that artists
collectively exceed their personal limits and work together to overcome
system. In these days I see a lot
of musicians, even professionals, who are returning to play in the street to
make ends meet. Who knows? Maybe this will do good to them and their music!
SN: Can you talk a bit more about the Eaunaturelle
SS: I decided to organize a festival of avant-garde music (
regardless of genres ) in 2006 and 2007, with many spinoffs during the year.
It's hard to be part of small circles of musicians so I decided to do a
festival of my own. Back from a trip from Berlin I had so much energy I felt
confident enough I could do whatever I wanted for at least two years, and so it
was. The festival was an independent success, I invited several guests from
abroad and let them play with local artists. On that occasion I invited Joe
Giardullo with whom I also made an soprano duet. My goal was to create a bridge
between musicians and hopefully let them understand that joining they could be
stronger and realize their projects. Unfortunately I failed this goal: at the
end of the festival everyone returned home and resumed their individualistic
attitude, with a few exceptions. I realized that most of the musicians have
this kind of mentality and I could not do nothing except become a full-time
organizer and fund them. Anyway, I became aware that I was able to create and
manage a festival in all its aspects, from the programming of websites to fund
raising and logistic. Everything went smoothly and there were no major issues.
I do not exclude to repeat similar experiences in the future.
SN: Can elaborate on what you mean when you said that
politicians in Italy run cultural institutions?
SS: I remained
vague on this point not assume a polemical tone. But since you ask me I will
explain. In Italy, if you have the chance to finance and organize your own
events you can go forward on your own and overcome many bureaucratic obstacles.
If you succeed then you eventually present your works to institutions but
probably be ignored. Cultural institutions are controlled by politicians and
prefer to finance associations led by militants of political parties. In this
way public funding, which should be donated to the citizens, they become a mean
of exchange to get votes. In this system the independents do not have space and
oxygen, they can rely just on themselves and in long period they loose stamina.
For example: Although the Eaunaturelle
festival was an international event
articulated in three cities the some press ignored it because I had no
political support. Currently in Italy if a citizen writes a letter to a
councilor to present a project in many cases does not even get a response. The
distance between citizens and institutions is enormous. The only way to go is
to be associated to politically deployed groups or be independent and
self-finance, but you know well how difficult it is for musicians to assume
that responsibility. SN: In your liner notes you said that you “felt a need to retire.” Was there any
one particular thing that happened, or was it just that overall desire to play
music had disappeared?
SS: It was
a personal matter, but the story of an individual is also set in a general
context which is what I just described above. The personal aspect relates to a
declining interest in music and the instrument itself. For most of my life,
music has been the inner spring of creative energies. As result of a period of
professional activity, the wells were drained and the inspiration dried up. The
sound of saxophone left me cold and the horn itself, turned upside down, looked
like an Art-deco flower pot. I was saturated.
thrill was gone and the music that was once a source of regeneration was now a
hollow room. I decided to take a long break. A colleague advised me to have fun
and do things other than music but encouraged me to keep a physical contact
with the instrument, just by touching it from time to time. So I took his
afraid to say I felt good without music, but I was aware it would have been a
waste to throw it all away. I made up my mind to play once a week in the chapel
of what once was the former mental asylum. I got into the habit of recording
weekly sessions, and over time I realized they had a poetic beauty of their
own. I found motivation and decided to set up a program to produce my first
SN: Is it safe to say that Immaculate Breakfast was not just about making
music, it was also a form of therapy.
place that gave birth to Immaculate Breakfast
had a life of his own. The
chapel reverberation mirrored the sounds back to me like an orchestra. In the
hall that was once a church I could recollect my musical origins. I was
surprised they were the same simple ideas I had in the theater days, so I just
included in more advanced structures.
was truly a form of self-therapy and regeneration.
end I was so happy that I decided to issue it with my label Contains Beauty.
The last piece, the title track Immaculate Breakfast
is the core of my musical
concept packed in a few minutes. Incidentally this piece was the first to be
recorded as a casual improvisation to test a new horn. In a way I consider it
my poetic synthesis.
is also an idea, a container functional for different type of
performances, like theater. In a way it's a method to take care and feed
yourself with the purest elements to survive artistically. When I work as an
art or music therapist, I aim toward specific therapeutic goals. Similarly when
I play music I need to do things I acknowledge as true.
era of technology Immaculate Breakfast
is also a way to present the
human being in front of an audience: naked, armed only with an old instrument
and few ideas. Even if it may seem obvious we have to confront the real
challenge - which is even more urgent in music. Is still the real human being
to prefer over tech devices?
SN: How did you become interested in improvised music and more importantly, playing
became involved in improvised music for simple reasons. As everyone else I was
deeply impressed by certain recordings, then I had friends who were playing
jazz and that was certainly an influence. Improvisation is a softer and more
funny approach than academic music. In improvised music the individual has room
to express his personality. As you improve you soon realize that excellence is
no less demanding than in classical music. The artist evolution is a process:
you add some elements and take away others, then eventually come out with your
unique mix. After all the search for the artistic self and your own voice is
not very much different than life, where you have to find your place.
solo performance I think that in the end we play solo for most part of our
life. So the difference is when you decide to do it in public. When you're
young a narcissistic component is a necessary part of the game, but later on
when you are mature, it's substituted by need to pass your experience over to
others as a form of altruism. It's the alchemical process of an individual who
proceed form a starting point of egotism - the need to take - which is what
permits the baby to survive - to a position of extroversion - the desire to
give the best part of you . Which is a form of love.
course playing soprano solo it may also result out of the desire to confront
yourself with a tradition ( Braxton, Lacy, etc. ). Sometimes it happens simply
because you can't find the right partners to express a certain ideas. It's
clear soprano today has a consistent solo tradition and it's common practice
for dedicated soprano players do at least one solo recording. Sometimes I think
that soprano could become the contemporary violin among winds.
SS: I’m familiar with your CD, Immaculate Breakfast, obviously, but are there other
solo recordings that you’ve done that you would recommend?
is my latest and only solo record so far. Before that I produced
very different type of albums because I do not like repeat myself, but I play
exclusively soprano saxophone on all those records. Albums focus on different
my favorite is Rebirth Of Divine
, a trio with Arabian oud and cello. The
project is based on early sacred music and Gregorian chants. Early European
music is a founding value to me, more or less like Afro-Americans would
instinctively recognize the blues and spirituals. I also played some solo in
that record, something I perfected later.
is the reduction of the traditional Italian band to a quartet
including accordeon. The repertoire is made up of folk songs and original
compositions. Another project issued under the title Eaunaturelle
the outcome of the collaboration with american cellist Tristan Honsinger -
possibly the father of improvised cello. The music is organized into open
structures and intuitive music strategies. An important stage of my life,
Tristan taught me that there's no difference between life and music as the
latter reflects the other. It was the most extreme form of musical freedom I
experienced, but not easy to practice as someone would think.
sideman there are also some straightahead jazz recordings, some of which were
reviewed positively in the States. That was a unexpected surprise!’’
SN: Are there links where we can buy Rebirth Of
Divine and Caffè Luce?
SS: My distributor is Cdbaby. My records are also
available on iTunes.
SN: What do you find to be the most intriguing thing about playing solo? And feel free
to expound on any challenges that you have faced, too.
SS: For me,
today the challenge is to tell a story structured in different episodes – eg.
the tunes - and set it into a musical frame as a theatrical metaphor. In order
to have a certain authority you must already have developed your own unique
sound. You can use that sonic blueprint to glue different genres of music.
That's something you would not normally do in a quartet, where the repertoire
is more singlely oriented. But playing solo allows you some kind of freedom.
way, you also need to add variety. You balance space and density, silence and
sound, use different colors and dynamics, choose between several moods and
tempos. You distribute all these elements to characterize each tune
differently. In the end this is what do in any kind of successful performance.
All you have is a certain amount of time and you fill it with selected actions.
Some are repetitive and necessary, others are at your discretion. The same is
true of life, you can expand reality drawing from your imagination, you can
create something that didn't exist before. For the aspiring artist it's a form
of intellectual honesty at least to try and not just keep repeating what others
already did. That's what art is all about.
way, being an Italian, I believe the feature that most distinguishes us from
others is melody, if you think, for instance, of the opera. So I choose selected
melodies or melodic modules and use them in my performances as narrative
going to change the topic slightly and talk shop. What kind of set-up do you
soprano, slight changes are radical. Yet after many years it surprises me how my
sound stay more or less the same with any kind setup. So, if I wish to alter
the color it's mostly about nuances and inflections. That has a lot to do with
the throat position.
a silver plated Selmer MK6. I always had a preference for silver horns over
lacquered. I think silver have a deeper sound and better projection. With time
the sound center grows bigger and darker, at least in my case. For the
mouthpiece, after many years of rubber, I passed to wood because I feel it
combines the qualities of ebonite and metal with a plus: it's a living
material. I'm currently using a superb Sopranolanet 8* wood mouthpiece that Joe
Giardullo custom made for me. I play different reeds depending on the music or
the acoustic: Vandoren Traditional # 2 for classical, Alxander DC #3 and Marca
Traditional #3 for other genres. I use a Winslow ligature for a wide dark sound
and Oleg for a more brilliant one.
One of the features I like most is that breath sound, that ffft
that sometimes occurs shortly before the attack of the note. Most times is
random, an unwanted noise. On the contrary I try to include it as much as
possible in my playing. For this reason I was once banished - I must admit
correctly - by the director of a contemporary music ensemble. Today I'd
certainly make the director happy with the proper attack, but at that time it
was more important to protect that forming ffft
... rather than playing a
classical setup and stay in the orchestra!
I believe the reed is the most important element above all others. Sometimes we
discard a mouthpiece or we say the acoustic is bad. But actually it's the reed
that is unfitting. I made this discovery some years ago and I'll never forget
it. I was tired of my piece and I casually happened to try a new brand of reed,
the sound doubled and the effort halved! Isn't it for this that the instruments
we play are named reeds?
SN: Being someone who focuses on the soprano, do you find that you think or play
differently than when you’re playing one of the other saxes?
SS: I do not come from other saxophones like many do, I consider
myself a pure sopranoist. I seldom play other horns, it's something I do when I
need a really different color, just like a painter would do. On the other hand
you can treat your instrument as something different. That may prove necessary
if you have an exclusive relationship with soprano, the tyrant par excellence.
I find that alto and tenor are generally easier to play and
articulate but I have to adjust the air column, the air speed is slower and I
can easily find myself playing overtones! I can make a correct comparison with
the clarinet. The clarinet has a more imaginative phrasing for the upper
register is a twelfth apart and you got more notes in the bottom. It's
something I miss on soprano but the clarinet sound has a stronger connotation
and I think on sop you have more choice to develop a personal sound. I will
When I was at the conservatory I made up to discuss my
graduation playing solely soprano, a risky choice! As part of the discussion I
wanted to give evidence that the limitations of the soprano were mistaken. I
prepared to play all three the horn solos of Flamenco Sketches
with the original recording, in the same texture of the original instruments
and trying to imitate their peculiar sound. With the exception of a few note of
the alto and some scale runs of the tenor I accomplished that goal and I'm very
proud of that! Someday I will put online the adapted charts for soprano geeks.
The horn gas certain restrictions but contains other elements
you can master. Let's extend this idea to the musical transposition of life:
you can easily imitate a flute, a crying baby or a lonely dog barking at the
moon. But how would you represent a shooting star? That's has more to do with
poetic skills and that is what I'm about!
SN: Are there any future recordings or projects that we can look forward to from
SS: My the
next record will be Domani
. I'd like to play the material with different
combos and sounds. There are original contemporary compositions, traditionals
and some very ancient music dating back to the fourth century B.C.! I will also
include some solo version of the baroque repertoire never recorded on soprano.
I'll release Satori At Fall
, a collections of jazz tunes played in a
very free way by a piano less trio. When available the album can be downloaded
for free at the website www.containsbeauty.com
for promotional purpose.
There are other things I'd like to do.
of a small contemporary sacred music ensemble, an evolution of Rebirth Of
. While Immaculate Breakfast
, has already became a theater
play commissioned by the Winds & Bits
festival in Rieti. A solo
performance in which I play the role of the narrator and musician, inspired by
the figure of the early bards, the wandering storytellers of Greece who sang
their epics, accompained only by their instrument.
I consider theater the most complete and
elder art form , since it includes all others artistic disciplines including
music. Life itself is the most direct source of theatrical representation.
SN: Thanks for your time. And thanks for your insightful thoughts.