Improvisation is the core of jazz composition.

Listening for the first time to Julia in Love, Fiori in Neve, Vento del Nilo, Sospensione or La Rosa e le labbra, one may grasp tender emotions similarly delivered by Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, Erik Satie, Vladimir Horowitz, or perhaps Bill Evans. Listen more deeply, then the elegant chords and measures resonate a delectable style of improvisation that can only belong to Danilo Rea, one of Italy’s most respected and gifted pianists and composers. From his picturesque hometown in Rome to congested Tokyo, Danilo delighted Japanese with his melodic compositions, accompanied by trumpeter Flavio Boltro’s powerful performance at the Bulgari Ginza Tower last May.

The infectious air and mystery of Japan is not new to Danilo. In 1982, he first arrived in Japan, fledgling and adventurous, groomed by versatile trumpeter and composer Nino Rosso. For many years, henceforth, the two talented artists toured all over Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu, where their music sprinkled sweet sounds from generation to generation. Danilo recalls some of his best memories in Japan.

Danilo Rea: Surely, my first trip to Japan around 1982 was so unforgettable. I was just like a kid, and everything in Japan was so new and different from Italy. After coming to Japan so often, I could see how Japanese are so knowledgeable about music. I remember Nino Rosso telling me before one concert, “Danilo, tonight you have to play a classical piece by Beethoven. Remember, Japanese know every note of a Beethoven piece; you cannot make a mistake”. (laughs)

A wide knowledge of music was not the only surprise for Danilo then. For the past thirty years, the Japanese adherence to their traditions, coupled with their zest for Westernization had also intrigued Danilo immensely.

The other night, Flavio (Boltro) and I were talking about this aspect of tradition. Everything in Tokyo is so modern, but you can see and feel that tradition is still very much intact in the Japanese lifestyle. We wished we could see and feel this same way of embracing tradition in Italy. Italy has such a rich and very important history, and a long line of great masters in art, music, science, literature, mathematics, philosophy... that any Italian can be proud of. Yet, in everyday life, Italians no longer manifest tradition—tradition in respect for elders, tradition in good manners, and more importantly, a strong belief in one’s work, in what we do. We have lost “it”. It is very sad. Italian musicians, for example, should believe more in their own work, and put trust in their roots and tradition.

Having graduated from the Santa Cecilia Music Conservatory in Rome, Danilo’s music education was surely founded on severe classical methods, but in his later years, he developed the compelling desire to improvise, and this he knew could only be possible through Jazz.

Entering jazz was a necessity for me because I always wanted to improvise music. I listened to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and instantly, I was hooked. I think that many Italian musicians today lack this interest and skill in improvisation, and somewhere along the middle of a jazz tune, melody is lost. But, melody is very important in music. I always try to maintain a melodic tune and work around the arrangement from there. The melody gives me the momentum to play from my emotions, and you can only translate music well if your music delivers emotions to the listeners. Through improvisation, I can compose tunes from the opera, traditional songs, jazz, pop, and even songs by the Beatles or Rolling Stones, which is the theme of my new album. I believe improvisation is the core of jazz composition.

Danilo had been heavily influenced by the sensational Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Vladimir Horowitz, Keith Jarrett, and one of his top favorites Art Tatum—many of grandest of artists whom he has met and worked with professionally. He has collaborated as well with Pino Daniele, Gino Paoli, Mina, Claudio Baglioni, Adriano Celentano, Gianni Morandi, among others, and on the Western bank, Lee Konitz, Steve Grossman, Curtis Fuller, Phi Woods, Michael Brecker, and the magnetic Chet Baker.

I was so young when I did a concert with Chet Baker. I could never forget how I had to borrow my father’s car to drive Chet to the concert. I drove and he sat next to me. He was always sleeping in the car (laughs), but he was such a truly great musician. Collaborating with so many wonderful musicians all over the world has taught me so much. One time, when I played with Lee Konitz, I made some mistakes in my playing, and he got angry with me (laughs). But, I learned that making mistakes made me grow as an artist and as a person. Privately, I still prefer to play solo, rather than with a group, because as a soloist I can truly express myself more fully and elaborately, but surely I always enjoy working in a duo or trio.

Danilo also develops his musical inspiration from teaching at the Santa Cecilia Music Conservatory. The challenges of instilling proper music education in the young today are undoubtedly enormous. In today’s times, clouded with imitation, fumbling sense of discipline and low motivation for originality, Danilo is constantly reminding his students to hurdle these setbacks and to create something that is truly their own.

The young generation today is just a different world. Many young people are no longer composing songs. They just create versions of existing music. I tell my students the importance of originality and understanding how to create from our tradition. You cannot erase the past. Then, they need to practice improvisation to bring out that tone of originality, because that is what makes a musician unique from the rest. For the concert in Tokyo, Flavio and I are playing improvised tunes from the opera taken from my album “Opera”—songs by Rossini, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, etc. It is our way of reminding listeners of the rich tradition of music. At the same time, I am also releasing my next project on improvised tunes from the Beatles and Rolling Stones. These are all experiments for me, and thanks to the magic of improvisation, producing this type of music in this way can be possible.

The hat and dark sunglasses have not faded. After more than three decades, Danilo still glides his way in that debonair flair from one stream to another; from one octave to the next; from old dreams to new challenges—pressing his fingers on the sharps and flats of simplicity, grace and beauty.

With gratitude to New Age Productions/Suoni Italiani