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Antonio Ciacca: A Jazzman of Heart

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As jazz forges ahead into the 21st Century, the music so deeply rooted in AfroAmerican culture has successfully spread its branches all over the world, giving the art form a truly international character. While hundreds jazz musicians from the United States regularly perform throughout Europe,

Asia, South America and Australia, disseminating the music’s message, many more young acolytes travel to New York City to hear jazz in its natural habitat and study with its masters. Anthony Ciacca truly embodies the modern day spirit of jazz. Born in Wuppertal, Germany (14 March 1969) to Italian parents, Ciacca was raised in Italy where he studied European classical music. At the age of twenty, after hearing Wynton Marsalis in concert, he made the decision to become a jazz musician.
Ciacca graduated from the “G.B. Martini” Conservatory of Bologna with a degree in Contemporary Music and went on to earn a Masters in African American Music in Siena, but his true education in jazz came on the bandstand and back stage with American born musicians living in or traveling through Europe, beginning with tenor saxophonist Steve Grossman in Bologna. Throughout the nineties the pianist created performing opportunities for himself that put him in the company of some of the music’s greatest improvisers, including Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Johnny Griffin, Dave Liebman, James Moody and eventually Steve Lacy (in whose band he spent seven years before the soprano saxophonist’s death) and Benny Golson (with whom he has toured extensively).

Eventually, Ciacca encouraged by Grossman, made the inevitable trip to the US, fatefully first landing in Detroit, where he benefited greatly from the experience and wisdom of elder statesmen Larry Smith, Marcus Belgrave and the late Roy Brooks, as well as up and comers James Carter, Rodney Whitaker and Dwight Adams. The young Italian also further delved into his love of AfroAmerican spiritual music with the Detroit Gospel Singers, as pianist, arranger and producer. Following his return to Italy he began making yearly excursions to New York, checking out the lively local club scene and studying privately with Jaki Byard, Kenny Barron and Barry Harris.

It was during these annual expeditions that the pianist made his auspicious debut at the Village Vanguard with saxophonist Wes Anderson’s quartet and special guest Wynton Marsalis and recorded his first albums leading groups with American sidemen - Autumn In New York (featuring Joe Magnarelli and Don Braden) and Ugly Beauty (with Dennis Irwin and Ali Jackson), in addition to appearing on recordings by former Bill Evans drummer Elliot Zigmund and Lionel Hampton saxophonist Craig Bailey. In September of 2007 Ciacca finally made the move to New York, setting up housekeeping with his wife and family in upper Manhattan and assuming the post of Director of Concert and Programming Administration of Jazz at Lincoln Center by day, while leading his own bands at Small’s, Smoke and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at night.

Rush Life is Ciacca’s first outing since settling in the center of the jazz universe and it appropriately reflects his continuing development as a pianist, composer and leader. Fronting a band of first call New York players – trumpeter Joe Magnarelli (the sole returnee from the Autumn In New York quintet), saxophonist Stacy Dillard (the toughest new tenor in town), bassist Kengo Nakamura (Antonio’s rhythm section mate from Anderson’s group) and drummer Rodney Greene (wisely chosen for his extensive experience in tandem with Nakamura) – the pianist proves that he is more than up to the task of making music in the city that has been known to test the mettle of some of the world’s best instrumentalists trying to make their mark in an environment fraught with masters.

The leader’s opening original, The Great Squazini - a dedication to Wynton Marsalis, named for one of the trumpeter’s numerous sobriquets - is an unmistakable testament to Ciacca’s individuality, as well as his deep roots in the jazz tradition. Harmonically rich and melodically compelling, the tune points to the powerful influence of Horace Silver on Ciacca’s writing, just as the composer’s percussive comping and adroit use of dynamics testifies to Silver’s effect on his piano playing, both within the context of a uniquely personal style that is clearly Antonio’s own.

Chippewa, Ciacca’s cleverly titled take on the chords to Cherokee, is an excellent example of his penchant for creating new original work within the framework of a well known piece of popular music. The episodic introduction and its surprising modulations reflect Antonio’s early classical studies, prefacing his initial reading of the melody (played at an unusually relaxed tempo) in which he mines it for its too often overlooked inherent beauty, before digging in and utilizing the changes for their now more common role as a boppish blueprint for high velocity improvisation.

Ciacca pays homage to Benny Golson with a moving rendition his mentor’s unforgettable masterpiece I Remember Clifford. A feature for the pianist and Magnarelli, the purity of their performance of the classic line and the beauty of the pair’s individual solos is a tribute to the timelessness of one of jazz’s most exquisite evergreens.

Flat 5 Flat 9 was written by Ciacca for his friend Steve Grossman, noting that “it’s the kind of modal thing he likes to play on.” The piece is introduced by Nakamura’s big toned bass, prefacing the quintet’s presentation of the melody, which commences in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman before veering off on a hard bopping path that recalls the fiery sound of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with incendiary solos by all of the group’s members.

Ciacca’s arrangement of Green Dolphin Street once again, with its opening vamp and uncommon use of block chords, demonstrates his ability to fashion something new and original from material that has unfortunately become stale and clichéd in the hands of lesser artists.

The date’s title track, Rush Life, is in the composer’s words, “about my life right now, here in New York.” Ironically, the music is not only not rushed, but also not, as one might expect from its title, based on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life; instead the piece finds its inspiration in the beautiful ballad Body and Soul and hence, appropriately serves as a vehicle for Dillard’s Coleman Hawkins influenced tenor saxophone.

Riverdale is another original by the leader, this one named for veteran jazz record producer Todd Barkan’s upper Bronx neighborhood. The hard bopping anthem again demonstrates Ciacca’s indebtedness to the sound of Horace Silver, while offering an opportunity for each of the band’s members to stretch out and show off his stuff.

Ciacca’s Prince Of Newark is his tribute to saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, another one of his important influences. The unusual two horn sans rhythm section introduction and dreamlike melody display a deep understanding of Shorter’s music and Antonio’s own exceptional abilities as composer.

The concluding Without A Song is one of those well worn standards that is commonly performed at the end of the night in jam sessions in New York, an uncomplicated medium for straight ahead swinging on which players can take their time and express themselves, just as Ciacca, Magnarelli, Dillard, Nakamura and Greene each do here.

On the 14th of March, not long after this date was recorded, Antonio Ciacca celebrated his birthday at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, playing the late night show with his quartet featuring Stacy Dillard plus special guest Joe Magnarelli. The band treated the appreciative house full of family, friends and colleagues to a superb set of music - most of which was culled from this album – and received the kind of ovation New York audiences only bestow on the most deserving of artists. The look on the bandleader’s face, full of pride and humility, betrayed the look of understanding that his life was indeed very good. And that when life is good - just as with his song - there’s no reason to rush life.

Antonio Ciacca: A Jazzman of Heart
"At the heart of any true jazzman is the ability to tell his own musical stories in his own way, and hopefully touch a few hearts along the way. Down in his heart, there's a song he can feel, something that no one can steal. It's his own tune, all and in part. Pianist Antonio Ciacca dances to the unique songs in his heart. – Todd Barkan

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