Two for Tokyo

Max Ionata and Dado Moroni Honor the Duke

13 AUGUST 2014,
Max Ionata @ Roberto Panucci
Max Ionata @ Roberto Panucci

“In my solitude
You taunt me
With memories
That never die”

-“In My Solitude” by Duke Ellington

The first encounter at the reception hall of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Tokyo last June instantly resonated a stirring impact—two towering Kings, arriving in their royal statures to honor the Duke. One of the first questions I asked was, “Are you going to play ‘Lotus Blossoms’?” Dado, with no hesitance, sparkled with a “Yes, of course,” while Max smiled radiantly from behind. And, that definitive answer fed the perfect juice for an exciting evening with Max Ionata, one of Italy’s most successful saxophonists, and Dado Moroni, the ultimately versatile pianist, bassist, singer, and more, as they swooned Tokyo with their elegant renditions from perhaps, the world’s greatest swing jazz man, Duke Ellington.

Entering the stage with “Come Sunday,” in that stylish groove and charisma of the Duke’s swing jazz sounds, Max swung his saxophone with that personal touch, keeping the notes flowing in the air, in just the right calibre of depth and smooth rhythm. Dado and his grand piano were a fun combo to watch, so much so that the vibrant frolic of his fingers on the keys made one linger on what surprising chords would come out next. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes making the piano jerk, or sometimes plucking the hammer strings, Dado with his magical improvisations, and Max’s cool saxophone interpretation created the perfect music partnership for paying homage to the unforgettable Duke Ellington and some of his delightful tunes, “All Day Long,” “Just Squeeze Me,” “All Too Soon,” “The Intimacy of the Blues,” “Heaven,” “In My Solitude,” “Lotus Blossoms,” and fabulous encore numbers, “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Take the A Train,” and “What Am I Here For,” and more.

Max and Dado relate the nostalgia of their musical discovery, and how the universe of jazz quickly captured their hearts.

Max: I started playing the sax as a child when my hometown was forming a band. Initially, I wanted to play the drums in the band, but my family told me that it would be a poor choice because I could never play a melody with it. I spoke with a friend who introduced me to this strange instrument called the saxophone. I immediately told my teacher that I wanted to play it, and then he came over to me with a soprano saxophone! I was not really happy with that, but I became so curious that I agreed to blow into it immediately. But, playing the soprano sax did not last long for me because when I started playing with the band, my friend exchanged the soprano sax with a tenor, and since then, I have been playing the tenor sax. I always played as a hobby at first, and never thought of music as a profession until I joined a competition for soloists for fun, around 2000, which was called the "Massimo Urbani Award” contest. The result of that competition surprised everyone, and even myself, because I garnered first place! From that moment on, I believed that I could transform what for me had always been a passion into a job, and that’s how it came to be. Jazz came to me when I was about 16 years old, my school friends and I played a repertoire from the fusion of Mike Stern, Bob Berg, and Michael Brecker in a dusty basement. I tried to learn all the melodies, which were then, all in vinyl records! But, my true love for jazz hit me a little later when I discovered Dexter Gordon. I learned all his records, and since then, I was stuck with jazz.

Dado: In my case, I grew up surrounded by music. My father was a singer and my mother played the accordion and the piano, and they were both big jazz fans. They had bought a piano for my older sister so, I found myself playing piano from as early as I can remember. I would sit on my mother's knees, and she would show me the basics of harmony: major, minor and diminished chords. I fell in love with the sounds coming from the record player when my parents were listening to Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, and also blues and boogie woogie recordings. Something about those sounds spoke to my heart and made my feet move, so it was an easy step for me. When I was two years old, I went with my father to a Benny Goodman concert and that played a very important role for me, just hearing a big band live! I remember experiencing a kind of “fun scare” with all those fascinating trumpet and drum sounds. Then, when I was 7 years old, I had the chance to hear Earl Hines in a concert, and shortly after that, Randy Weston, and so on. I soon started imitating those sounds and learning to play some melodies, and before I knew it, I was already playing some standards and blues songs by ear... so there you go! Also, in Genoa, my hometown, there was a place called Louisiana Jazz Club where every week some of the best Italian and foreign musicians came to perform. When I turned 11, I started going there nearly every week, listening to great people, like Chet Baker, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Enrico Rava, John Lewis, Johnny Griffin etc. In that club I also met Flavio Crivelli, a pianist from Genoa, who had been Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's best pupil, but later, became interested in jazz harmony and improvisation, and became one of the first modern jazz pianists in Italy. He heard me play when I was 11, and he took me under his wing, introducing me to more advanced styles and players, like Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, just to name a few, and that's when I started to be aware of the possibility of playing for a living. Playing music not only means to have fun with my instrument, but also to be able to communicate with others, expressing myself and reaching out to other people...it feels good!

The phenomenon called jazz is universally regarded as a channel of boundless freedom and intimate expression for musicians. Both Max and Dado could not escape from the thrill this genre exudes to the world.

Max: Jazz is a very diverse form of music that gives you the chance to express your feelings with different sounds, and allows you to create music without having to follow rules by force. That says a lot to me because I am aware of the fact that in the next year, I could be completely different from today, and the saxophone is my tool that allows me to express all of these.

Dado: Jazz to me is a combination of sounds that touch me constantly, that makes people who play it always have a good time. It gives me the possible freedom that I could feel, listen to and play at the same time. In the beginning, it was more like an unconscious attraction...like it's not really possible to explain why one falls in love. It just happens for reasons out of our control! The piano had always been in the house, and when I was about 13, studying with Mr. Crivelli, I realized that I was having trouble reading the bass clef so he suggested I get a bass so we could play together the Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown transcriptions. I learned the bass clef, and the very first time I went up on stage, I was actually a bassist! But at that time, if you didn't have a driver's licence and a car, or you couldn't take the bass on board the taxis and buses, which were always too crowded, or in trains, which required an extra ticket for the bass, it was very hard to get around with this instrument! So, that's when I started concentrating more on the piano. It was simply great to have all those sounds under my fingers.

Italian musicians have truly sharpened their faculties for composition, arrangement, instrumentation and stage performance over the years, both domestically and internationally. Max and Dado have been direct participants of this crucial musical evolution, which can be felt by all ages across the globe.

Max: Certainly, in the past twenty years there have been many changes in the Italian jazz scene, especially in recent years, I've noticed that younger musicians are increasingly attracted by American jazz and what happens in New York. I confess that I myself am very attracted to what happens in the Big Apple because I go very often to New York just to look around and find out what American musicians are developing. The public is becoming more knowledgeable and careful. I always meet a lot of people in my concerts who ask me about what I've played, and this is definitely a good sign that the audience is really interested in our music. Jazz is constantly evolving making it too difficult to talk about a trend, because there are too many different types of music. The fact that there are many young people who come to listen to jazz is certainly positive, because they have the enthusiasm to push beyond the boundaries of jazz music alone. I consider myself a simple man who tries to transfer emotions to others through a tube with holes. If being a "traditional" jazzman means a jazz musician who likes true jazz, then I say yes, I could be called a “traditionalist,” but I am rather simply a musician who does not care too much about what sounds are made, but HOW they are played.

Dado: The 1950s and 1960s were definitely great times for Italy. There was an economic boom then, and Italians became curious about other cultures, thanks to the radio, TV, and the movies, so there was a lot of positive and creative energy. Culture was very important then, and Italians did the best things during those years. But, in the last twenty years, due to incapable and often corrupted governments, culture slowly has become less and less crucial and important. Funding has become smaller, or in some cases has stopped altogether, and many areas of culture have been dramatically affected. Jazz has also suffered greatly. Many clubs have closed down, and now, Italy, compared to other countries in Europe like Belgium, France, and Netherlands has very few of them left. Too many taxes also have made people afraid to make any sort of investments. But ironically, a great number of young jazz musicians have stepped in and are spread all around the planet, playing in New York, Tokyo, Paris, Australia and South America. Even the rise of technology can be seen as positive if it is mediated by human intelligence. But, the human mind, heart and ears have to be the filter. I am a man of the present; I keep myself in touch with what happens around me at all times, but I'm proud of my past, and I take advice from the past in order to go forward. I love so many different types of music, styles, moods, and rhythms that I want to have the freedom to travel from era to era, from sound to sound, and if I have that freedom to express myself the audience will feel that I'm free and happy! :

Two For Duke, released in 2012, is Max Ionata’s and Dado Moroni’s exemplary tribute to the perennial magic of Duke Ellington. America’s most celebrated jazz band leader, Duke possessed brilliant skills in collecting powerful musicians from all threads of music to join his orchestra, from Johnny Hedges, Sonny Greer, to Louie Armstrong, encapsulating a career that produced over a thousand compositions spanning over fifty years. Many say that the Duke would not have cultivated his ingenuity without the loyal aid of Billy Strayhorn, pianist, lyricist, arranger, and composer, who shaped most of Duke’s orchestral direction. Duke and Billy were like peas in a pod, which gives the Max and Dado duo an almost equal resemblance.

Dado: Duke Ellington has always been a source of inspiration for Max and me. His music has been a part of my life since I was a little kid. On top of that, I had the honor of being hired by one of the most important bassists of the Duke Ellington orchestra, the great Jimmy Woode, who played in Duke’s band from the mid-50's till the early 60's. I stayed in his trio for about ten years, accompanying many soloists, from Johnny Griffin, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody to Freddie Hubbard etc. During these years, Jimmy opened many doors for me into the world of Duke, and when the opportunity came to record with Max, a fantastic talent I had met about fourteen years ago, and who has a very distinctive sound and respect for tradition, together with our producer Giandomenico Ciaramella of Jandomusic, we decided that the wonderful music of Duke Ellington would be the right way to start this collaboration. Max impressed me very much because of his genuine love for music and his great skills as a tenor saxophonist. Now, he has grown into an accomplished and very creative musician, and most importantly, he swings like crazy! What was also challenging was that most of Duke's music was written for the orchestra, but the melodies and the harmonies are so clear and powerful that even as a duo we had no particular difficulties in bringing out the essence of the songs. Working with Max is as enjoyable on stage as it is in everyday life away from music. He is a very funny guy and leaves you with a smile all the time!

Transporting this awesome collaboration to Asian soil has added more exotic flavor to Max’s and Dado’s musical inspiration, this time, blended with Japan’s rich cultural tradition and deep sensitivity to sounds and rhythms.

Max: The first time I came to Japan was in 2009. I just released my first album with Alboré Jazz "Inspiration." I was very happy with the response to this album. I remember playing in many jazz clubs in Tokyo, like in the beautiful Jazz Livehouse NARU—a memory that has stayed in my heart forever. In fact, I listened to the music there this last trip in Tokyo. The first impression I had of the Japanese people and their culture is the same as I have now. I really love the Japanese way of life, and I love being in the company of the Japanese people, so I hope to have another opportunity to come back to Japan more often. I also hope to be able to learn a little bit of the wonderful language.

Dado: My first time in Japan was in 1995 for the Concord Fuji Jazz Festival. I will never forget the experience of sharing the same bus and dressing room with the Modern Jazz Quartet—Ray Brown, Bud Shank, and more. Just being in Japan was simply great. I had always been fascinated with Japanese culture, history and food, so the first time was like being in paradise. The Japanese people and audience are always kind, supportive and competent. I always feel at home, so much so that when I got married to my beautiful wife Ada, we spent our honeymoon between Tokyo and Kawaguchiko! I love the co-existence of the old and new elements. Even among the tallest and most modern buildings, you might find a small, quiet garden where you can meditate and think about your past to keep a firm grasp on what happened before. I hope to come back soon also because there are so many great Japanese talents that I would love to meet and listen to.

How would Max and Dado spend one single day in Japan?

Dado: Well, I would start with a walk in the Imperial Palace garden to meditate, and then I would probably try every Japanese dish. Finally, I would finish the day in a cozy jazz club, meeting friends and talking about music and life.

Max: As for me, probably, I would eat Japanese soba… and then we'll see...

"Music is everything...the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘Esperanto’ of the world." ¬Duke Ellington

Special Thanks to Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Tokyo, New Age Productions/SUONI ITALIANI, Satoshi Toyoda, Alboré Jazz, and Ada Touré.