A New Tokyo Journey
Francesco Lomagistro and Berardi Jazz Connection Japan Debut
“We open our minds, stretch forth, take chances, and venture out musically to arrive at something new and different.” - Horace Silver
“I think I have fallen in love with this city,” was Francesco Lomagistro’s first statement of admiration for bustling Tokyo, having visited the chaotic city for the first time last July with his awesome quintet, Berardi Jazz Connection. “The people are positive and so wonderful. We had our first dinner at one of the most fantastic places I have ever been to (in Ginza).” Embracing a humid morning, with a stifling jet lag, fresh from beautiful Puglia, Italy, where white-washed trullo houses and olive orchards are as abundant as jazz musicians, Francesco and his enthusiastic band members, Michele Campobasso (piano/keyboard), Camillo Pace (double bass), Andrea Sabatino (trumpet), and Vincenzo Presta (saxophone), were all set to hit Tokyo streets and capture all the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture often kept undiscovered. But first…a pre-coffee chat.
Did you have any impressions of Japan, the culture, and the people before you arrived?
I always have good impressions of Japan. I’m always thankful to the Japanese people because our international success began here in Japan, with the release of our first CD, The Way I Like, in 2005. With all our four albums, first we release them in Japan, then in Italy. With this latest one, A New Journey, we released it in Japan December last year, and then in March, this year, in Italy. Yet, we never came to Japan to promote it, except now!
And, how was the Japanese response to your albums?
The response to the first album was very good, despite the crisis in music sales all over the world, due to the Internet, downloading…it has really become a big problem for musicians. But, it is important to keep producing CDs, to have something you can touch and keep. We have grown artistically from the first to the fourth albums, with some changes maybe, but we keep the same sound, so the audience will know it is our music when they listen to our songs. Ettore Carucci was my first piano player, who started this adventure with me. Now, it is Michele Campobasso. In A New Journey, I had Francesco Lento as my trumpet player, but this time, Andrea Sabatino joined me in this tour. Still, the audience knows it is our sound.
I know you’ve posted in your website about how you picked the name Berardi, but it is still a good story to tell.
Yes, it is. Berardi is the name of the street, Via Berardi, in Taranto, region of Puglia, where I am from. Everything started from that place. I had a rehearsal room in my old apartment on that street, and everything started from there. That’s where I started to play the drums. My first step in jazz and drums started in Via Berardi. And the name is important because Puglia is greatly known as the heart of jazz musicians.
And, as a child, did you always want to play the drums?
When I was a child, I started playing the piano, then I moved to drums. My parents didn't buy me a piano, and so I sort of forgot the idea of piano playing (laughs), and switched to drums. I was about 16 when I actually started real drum playing. When I was about 8, I would pick up the sticks and just strike anything with them, making rhythms. I just somehow developed the passion for the drums.
What is the drum to you?
The drum is my life forever. It has always been the first thing in my life. When I fell in love with this instrument, I never let go of it. I can express myself best with this instrument. I play other percussion instruments because I have a background in classic percussion from the Conservatory of Music, but the drum is my first love. I first studied drums in my home with some of the best maestros, and was guided by a few American music masters. I had a private maestro for three months in Rome. I would travel back and forth from Taranto to Rome by train. In Taranto, my first maestro was Salvatore Costantino. He taught me the way I should handle the sticks. My study of classic percussion at the conservatory came after this foundation stage.
How did you discover jazz?
Well, I often listened to old drummer idols—Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and other American drummers, because drums were born in the U.S. Jazz was born there as well. I listened to their old records and tried to be inspired by them. That’s how I learned from them. But, I also listen to contemporary drummers like Brian Blade, Jeff Watts, Jeff Ballard, and others. We also have a lot of good Italian drummers, and in the past as well, but, I was mostly influenced by American drummers.
So, America must have played a large influence in your life, as a person and as a musician.
I think so. My first trip to the U.S. was about 2006, after the release of my first album. I must have gone about four times, and each time, playing with musicians over there, in New York, and around. When I go to New York, I see drummers and watch them perform right in front of me. That is how I learn and grow, it’s the best lesson. New York is always a great experience for me, so I try to go there when I can. Also, when my mother was young, she lived in New York for about ten months. Her uncle lived there. She first went there on holiday, then started to work there. In fact, she wanted to live there and didn't want to go back to Italy. I often wondered what would have happened if she married an American (laughs). Maybe, this is why my heart is in New York.
In your new album, A New Journey, you have two American artists as guests—Demetrius MacKay or The Surgeon who is a rap artist, and Madame Pat Tandy. How did you start the collaboration with them?
Yes, I met them both in New York. Demetrius is a known rap musician and he did some African beat in the album. I met Madame Pat Tandy in Newark. I sent her a track of Pink Floyd’s Money. I thought she could play a jazz interpretation and she was interested to join the album. She was really happy about it. She recorded the song in New York. Most of the other compositions are mine and Michele’s. We usually work together. But, we also have the other cover song, Such a Shame, from the 8Os, band Talk Talk, and Fred by Allan Holdsworth, that we dedicated to Tony Williams, because he was the drummer in the original track.
You never thought of living in New York yourself?
Living in New York? Oh, I think it is very hard to live in New York for a musician, or foreign musician like me. I find it is better to visit there, then come back to my country with the experiences I have acquired there. There are also many Italian jazz musicians based in New York, and they are surrounded by good and positive competition.
Do you think there is such a thing as Italian jazz?
Italian jazz, American jazz…I think jazz is one. Jazz may have been born in the U.S., but today, we have many influences in music, and music is developed in every part of the world. People put their experiences in music wherever they are.
Does Berardi Jazz Connection have a notable character for someone to identify it as BJC sound?
Having your own style today is very difficult, but every musician has his own. For BJC, we have our distinct style and sound that you can recognize when you listen to each of the four albums. It' s a mixture of hard bop, funk, groove and melody. We like to focus on melody in our music. You see, Italian music is based on melody, because that is how it began with opera, etc. I believe it is important to play what and who you are and what you know. We are Italians, and so we try to have a mix of melody with the jazz beat and to create simplicity in the theme. Jazz music comes from standard music and standards are songs, like in Broadway. In the 8Os, there was jazz fusion, and it referred to fusion with rock or electronic music. Now, jazz fusion is a mix of cultures: Africa, India, South America - and, I think it is right to do it this way. It is important to put everything that you experience into music that you create.When I first listened to jazz, the first jazz fusion record I had was by Billy Cobham. Then I listened to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and others. I've never stopped listening.
Any musicians in the family?
None, just me! (laughs) I just discovered music on my own, by passion. When I was small, about 10-16 years old, I kept playing with things around me, and loved to listen to music even before learning to play the drums. I would buy vinyl records and cassette tapes.
Have you collaborated with any Japanese musicians?
Yes, I played with the jazz pianist, Chihiro Yamanaka in Italy. She is based in New York, but I played with her in Italy on a tour. When I go to New York, I collaborate with many musicians there. I am hoping I can do the same in Japan.
You teach music, too, yes? What is the most important thing about music that you teach to your students?
Yes, I teach drums and percussion in a high school in Taranto. I teach my students to respect music, to train, and play to grow, and to develop that respect to learn to study, to master the melodies, and not to lose yourself. As you know, there is just so much information on the Internet and that is a great risk to lose one’s originality. When I was young, I have to go out there to search for the artist, the music, but now, everything is just one click. We should go and find our inspiration by ourselves. I tell these to my students. The best thing is to go to live concerts. Sometimes, that is even better than taking lessons. I think there is hope for the young generation.
How do you think you have grown over the years, as a person and as a musician?
Surely, I have become more matured now, and I have consolidated my choices in music and music artists. I think I am more open now to changes in styles, because I discover new things, new styles, even in drums. While traveling, I always experience new things and meet new people. My mission in Japan, for example, was to play the best we could for us to come back, and of course, to stay longer.
And, finally, you played at last for the Japanese audience at the Bulgari Hotels & Resorts Tokyo Restaurants! Tell me how you felt about the concert.
Fantastic! First, we had a lineup that included twelve tracks, including many taken from the new album, and some of the most significant ones from the old CDs, such as Offside, Mr. Rhodes, and Walking in the Village. In addition, we paid homage to one of the greatest composers and jazz musicians of all time who died recently, the great Horace Silver, by performing one of his most respected compositions, The Jody Grind. I would say the sound of the band appeared compact and overwhelming, capturing the attention of the audience, and although it was composed, it was attentive and received warm applause at the end of every single individual piece. The atmosphere of the venue was truly perfect for our exhibition, and created the right habitat for us to best express ourselves as jazz musicians, who often like to have the audience very close physically. The organization of the concert was impeccable. It was great for us to finally play for an audience that always follows us and buys our records. It was a short but memorable experience, which personally has made me already fall in love with your country, and I hope to be back as soon as possible!
Let me also tell you what Camillo (Pace) commented about the concert.
The concert was beautiful, with pure emotion, and above all, received a lot of attention from the audience. Jazz is very sensitive, and I think we left a good sign to the audience who applauded after every single piece we played, that made our enthusiasm rise to the stars! I think it was one of the concerts that excited me so much! Such a beautiful living experience, that now, we surely have to return to Japan with greatest pleasure!
And, finally, what is the New Journey for Francesco Lomagistro and Berardi Jazz Connection?
For me and my band, it is the "new journey" to an exploration of new territories, a trip through new harmonic and rhythmic solutions. For a musician, a journey is always a new stimulus to know new lands and to acquire experiences that he absorbs into his own life.
And, with that, we attacked the flurry of the scrambled crossing in Shibuya, hunted for Berardi Jazz Connection’s four albums at a record store, browsed through electronic gadgets, picked up crazy T-shirts with Japanese writings on them, snapped pictures of summer yukata-dressed mannequins, and huge and elongated roving music promotion vans (with those appalling superstar idols’ faces), until we landed finally to the climax of the day—to the old Italian style—a nice, quiet, cozy, smooth sip of espresso, while dreaming of Berardi Jazz Connection’s new journey.
Special Gratitude to New Age Productions/Suoni Italiani.