Music is like a rainbow.
A man with an enormous presence, lightness of heart, and impeccable versatility, Italian pianist, singer and composer Raphael Gualazzi has more glittering magic up his sleeve than a Sanremo Festival Newcomers Award (n 2011). Having shared a pleasant chit-chat with this energetic personality at Blue Note Tokyo last March before he graced the night with his fabulous mixed repertoires of ragtime, blues, mainstream jazz, Dixieland jazz, pop and other genres was a capsulated, short moment of bright revelations.
Raphael’s resonating voice is clear, solid, excitable, and delightfully lingering with its wide range of octaves, just like the unparalleled breadth of his stride piano technique. “I wanted my hands to be rhythmical,” Raphael smiles when he talks animatedly about his personal discovery of the stride piano. During the show, his red, striking shoes jumped vigorously on the pedals, and the crystal joy on his face accompanied by the titillating power of his vocal chords echoed colorful rainbows on stage. Gianluca Nanni on drums and Anders Ulrich on double bass, his avid partners in musical crime, added sweet flavor to the evening’s concoction of vivacious sounds.
Raphael confesses that as a young boy, he never had pious intentions to be a musician. He loved playing only for fun until one unexpected miracle led to another.
R: I started music just for fun. When I was around eight, I would watch my younger cousins play the piano since they took classic lessons, so I would practice piano with them. My older cousins would improvise blues and rock & roll. That time, there was a film broadcasted on TV about the life of Jerry Lee Lewis (1950s piano composer). He was the father of rock & roll, as you know, so this vision had a great impact on me. I was very inspired by the film that I started to imitate Jerry Lee Lewis’ style.
At the same time, I absorbed both classical and other possibilities of music. My father was a self-learned musician. He had a huge collection of vinyl records of blues. He made me listen to Ray Charles’ “Yesterday”, and told me, “This guy has a lot to teach you for vocals and piano…just listen to this guy if you want to sing.” True enough, to me, at such a young age, Ray Charles was an explosion of beauty. He was just amazing.
When I got older, I decided to study piano more. My first teacher was a woman although I didn’t feel she was the right teacher for me, especially since she shifted professions and later worked in a bank. I quit piano lessons then, but I joined chorales, doing soprano parts with other children, singing like 13th century aria in Latin, German, and French. It was so great and gave me a lot of input.
Urbino city stopped giving funds, though, to the choir, so our chorus teacher moved to Pesaro. I was only nine then, and I thought it was too far for me to move out of town, so I eventually quit the chorale group.
Nevertheless, I tried to write pieces on the piano only for fun. Then, one day, the father of a friend of mine from secondary school heard me playing blues like Jerry Lee Lewis. He said, “You have good hands. I’ll teach you the piano.” So, he became my piano teacher in the end. My mom said “Alright, I will pay for your piano lessons, but this time promise me you will dedicate yourself to music.” So, in the next four months I prepared for the examination to enter the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro.
The conservatory embraced too much classical music for me. I felt I had to find other forms of music, and at that time, doing that was like hiding a crime.
Crime or no crime, Raphael knew he was on his way to a long and unstoppable journey. The inevitable motivation led him to write songs more passionately and gather his first quartet.
R: I formed a quartet playing fusion, and we did live shows without really recording. I was around 17 and was writing instrumental music and jamming. Then, university came, so I learned to write my own stuff without a group and to talk more about my own stories and sensations—thanks to steps in life, like a woman who breaks your heart…I continued to write songs, mixing the classics and my passion for blues melodies.
I think my piano playing is very rhythmical. I created my ragtime blues style with stride piano (that existed in the 1920s to 30s). It consists of making a big jump on the keys, bigger than an octave; sometimes you also use the 10th finger—so it is technical, rhythmical, and a true revolution of ragtime, which I mixed with a sensation of vocals. I’m also like a crossover: I am basically rooted in jazz blues, but I can also do mainstream, very clear melodies, jazz pop, and so on. I was very attracted to jazz blues since I was young. My generation listened to rock, Metallica, and of course, I also listened to that and liked Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen, but even these groups were all filled with blues. You can find a connection of blues and rock with Rolling Stones.
I did my first album in English, which involved a very long production period, but which I recorded in one and a half days. So, in 2003 I first recorded my piano solos. The next year, 2004, I recorded a trio live in one day. Then, in 2005, I released my first time album, ‘Love Outside the Window’.
Finally, Raphael has found himself stepping out of the “just for fun” mode and immersing into the true, professional realm of a musical career. Fortunately as well, he discovered his own sound passion, which orchestrated around modern, and what he termed “contaminated old-style” experimental tunes. Next, he was ready to hit big and join international festivals.
R: My father helped me in my career, and in fact, became my manager. He telephoned people to promote me. I began to get calls from jazz and blues festivals, and the first one I participated in was the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta in 2006. I was like a gypsy then, and joined any festival abroad that I could.
In 2008 I met an American percussionist, Steve Ferraris, who was in Urbino for the Urbino Jazz Festival. He collaborated with Charlie Haden, Paquito d'Rivera and other great musicians. We became good friends. He came back to Italy for a collaboration exchange with a guitar player based in central Italy. The bass player asked me to pick him up because he didn’t speak Italian and I could speak English. So, we were talking in a bar, and he just illuminated me, telling me to come to America to play with him. After six months I found myself in Vermont, playing for a project with other five to six musicians (including Michael Ray, trumpeter of Kool & the Gang)—jazz, stride piano, and writing arrangements—it was fantastic. We did a project on the history and mystery of jazz so that everyone would represent a period in jazz development and history.
Then, I went back to Italy, and my publisher told me I have been doing well, but without an album for already three years. I ended up signing a publishing contract—to be a songwriter, composer and write songs every year for a fee. I was so poor at that time, so I felt I had nothing to lose.
I used to write and sing songs in English, which is part of my half-American culture, so to speak. Many Italians like it and I could get a bigger audience. We have a history of American musicians coming to Italy in 1940s, so the heritage of the language is there. But, I also forgot the Italian part of myself, so I went back to writing in Italian, bringing experimental sounds in the Italian language.
From the young curious ragtime boy in Urbino to a sensational international musical talent, Raphael has hit his home run in the name of contemporary jazz blues, and soon tasted his big break at succeeding Sanremo Festivals: the peak of which were garnering the top award for the Newcomers section in 2011 for his song “Follia d'amore”; followed by coming in 2nd place at the Eurovision Song Contest in the same year for “Madness of Love”; 5th place for “Sai (ci basta un sogno)” in 2013; and 2nd place for “Liberi o no” in 2014.
R: Caterina Caselli of Sugar Music contacted me, asked me to do an audition, and signed me up for Sugar Music in 2009. I was very excited as it is a huge label, covering Andrea Bocelli and many other great talents. I started to work on my album and in 2010. I did a cover song of “Don’t Stop”, the Fleetwood Mac song, which became a hit. Then, I released my first single, “Reality and Fantasy”. Caterina asked me, “We need just one real, simple, and beautiful Italian song, can you do that?” And, this is how I came up with my entry song for the Sanremo Festival in 2011.
I was in my car one day, and I forgot my seatbelt. Somehow, I kept hearing this melody G, A, and B flat and a pounding beat, which reminded me of Richard Strauss’ inspiration from a coach. So, I used these sounds and these three notes in G minor, and before I knew it, I had a melody for the Sanremo Festival. I wrote the song in only 25 minutes completely in Italian for Sanremo and won in the Newcomers section.
It’s always a pleasure to join the Sanremo Festival. I think it is the only moment that gives attention to Italian lyrics and songs. Unfortunately, no other place in Italy occupies this important venue to promote original Italian songs, and watched by more than 13 million people. Italians have a responsibility to make good music. If I feel I have a real good song for Sanremo, I will do it again.
Raphael is on his 4th major album, “LOVE LIFE PEACE” by Sugar Music and his special Japan-only release, “BEST OF” by Rambling Records. There’s no stopping now for Raphael Gualazzi. His sweeping race from fantasy to reality leaves no stone unturned. As he remarked, “Music is like a rainbow. I can play with different colors.” And, there will be many more shimmering rainbows for Raphael to paint in the years to come.