The role of the bass is to be the foundation.
For those (like myself) who have been seduced by the dizzy aroma, appetizing spices and titillating palate of Pesto alla Genovese pasta, you can be sure its special concoction was not borne from pure modern imagination. Prior to the origin of the Genoan recipe around 1863, the pesto sauce was apparently spoken of in Virgil’s collection of poems, “Appendix Vergiliana” or “Juvenilia of Virgil” around the 1st century AD. In a transcription from the poem, Moertum, which equates to the “Pesto”, Virgil writes:
“On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese is added… The aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce…the reeking garlic with the pestle breaks… Then everything else he grinds equally into a juicy mixture. His hand moves in circles until gradually, by degrees, the ingredients Lose their distinctive appearance, and the color, out of many, becomes one”
If this pesto mix of crushed garlic, basil and pine nuts blended with parmesan, pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk) and olive oil are ground with as much gyrating movement as the fingers of a man who could pluck and slide down the bass strings with equal synchronicity, then those hands must deservingly belong to the talented Italian bassist, composer, and educator Massimiliano Rolff.
Nothing could take the wind out of his sail when he began his musical journey last May from his native Genoan Gulf across the Atlantic Sea to the exotic perfumes of Asia. Having inhaled all the pungent spices and penetrating odors of more than 15 concerts in 21 spiritful days in Hong Kong, China and Japan, Massimiliano eventually took home more than enough herbal ingredients to add to his pesto Genovese sauce.
Massimiliano’s play is watchful, smooth, yet vibrant and engaging—contagious enough to swim through the emotions that glide seductively down the neck of his double bass. Playing in five concerts in Japan: alongside exceptional guitarist Alessio Menconi at the Italian Cultural Institute and Virtuoso Akasaka in Tokyo and Umeda Always Osaka; and with the young saxophonist Yasuki Sogabe in Okamoto Jazz&Live Born Free Kobe and Under Deer Lounge, Tokyo, Massimiliano has certainly emerged from his sugared pop & rock band days into a strong, determined artist ready to learn, explore, and savour more adventurously an infinite horizon of melodic possibilities. From fusion, Latin, African, Cuban, to a full orchestra of mixed sounds generated from active collaborations with various world musicians, such as Steve Grossman, Scott Hamilton, Eliot Zigmund, Jesse Davis, Dave Schnitter, Phil Woods, Peter King, Garrison Fewell, Herb Geller, Rachel Gould, Eric Legnini, Danny Grissett, and more, Massimliano’s repertoire also extends beyond cultural borders—having acquired immense experiences and inspirations from educational stints in the USA and Holland, and numerous tours in other parts of Europe.
It all started from a music store guitar….
Massimiliano: I don’t really come from a musical family. When I was 11, I walked into a music store near my hometown in Genova, and I just liked the look of the guitars, and asked to have a guitar for myself. From there, I learned to play the guitar by myself. Then, when I became a teenager, I started to play with bands. The bass player was always missing so I switched to bass. Thereafter, when I was about 20, I moved to Holland and earned my masteral degree from the Jazz Conservatory of Groningen in Electric Bass and Music Pedagogy. When I started to play professionally, especially in jazz and pop, I began to tour Europe and the US with an American band, which was a really nice experience. When I got to be 30, I first got my double bass.
I decided to quit the pop bands because I realized that with the double bass I could play more jazz music, fusion, and so on. I wanted to play more traditional jazz like acoustic sounds, which was easy to do with a double bass. It was like I found my thing. I write and compose music a lot. I wanted to do my own music and learn and perform jazz with that as my base. I felt that my writing was more fit with jazz—giving more expression. I guess I grew quite bored in the pop industry (smiles). You know, the pop music world deals with “image” and many big label companies, and focuses a lot on what or how much you can sell…which is fine because music needs to sell, of course. But, it started to feel like the creativity was dealing with less important things. In jazz, you sell less but you do what you really like, so it invites a more artistic approach. You can do things that can truly communicate to people. Further, I could compose music that gives emotion—music without words that creates landscapes and imagination. I did play with so many singers that appeared in national television, and with a successful American band touring the country, doing huge concerts that attracted thousands of people. I did the top of the pop. It was nice but I thought that anybody could have done it. In jazz, I discovered there is more individuality, especially if I play my own music. I have a chance to be a leader of my own thing.
Since I was a kid I listened to jazz. I was very lucky that my father had a huge collection of jazz records, of big bands, like Count Basie, Benny Goodman. One day, I was just a teenager around 15 or 16, I crashed into Miles Davis with some guys in his Amandla Tour near Genova. I think that was his live concert. That concert changed my mindset totally. I was completely astounded by his “Kind of Blue” album.
The American Dream
I must have been around 26 when the Dutch government gave me a scholarship to study in New York for about two weeks. I had the chance to study with the bassist John Patitucci at Bass Collective in Manhattan, and got to play in several clubs with singers Ginger Leigh and Sarah Dashew. Such a beautiful experience. The American experience taught me a real attitude towards music I think every jazz musician has a mission to to go there and see what’s going on in the roots of the jazz world, and importantly, to have a great sense of show the way the Americans do it. This sense of stage, in terms of the technical aspects, is quite lacking unfortunately in Italy. Perhaps, we carry a kind of purist attitude: “I play, and if you like it, fine, if not, I don’t care.” It’s not really playing for people, but communication has to arrive to people. The musicians there play like old masters.
Yet, despite my robust experience touring around the world, the closest source of inspiration for me still comes from Italy. I know my country has many problems and unpleasant things, but at the end of the day, I still see something nice, and encounter many nice people, which gives me a lot of inspiration.
The Asian Conquest
This Asian tour I have done for almost a month has revealed to me societies that are full of immense and young energy. Suddenly, Europe looked like an old man, while Asia is like a kid. In China, Hong Kong and Japan, I felt a strong attitude towards the future with great energy and positivity. In Europe, we seem to look at our great past and momentous things we did by reminders of classical buildings, which really bear a huge influence in our daily life. Things don’t change because people want to preserve tradition. In Asia, however, people try to change and create things. In Hong Kong, for example, there are many layers of the society, from rich to poor, but everybody rises to the future to the same goal. China is amazing as well. People are very sweet, nice, and helpful. The Chinese people are interested in something different and are very curious. I almost felt like a jazz missionary, especially in small cities in China.
Japan is also a great place for music. I see a lot of attention towards jazz music, and it’s special to see young people and families at the concerts. The Japanese society is probably from my point of view, the most organized country in the world. People show full respect to the community, putting the needs of the whole country before individual needs. It is a very unique society and I would love to discover more about it by coming back on successive tours.
The Jazz Millennials
I somehow feel that the young generation jazz enthusiasts write music to be listened by musicians, rather than by the audience. There is higher focus on technique, which may not be so joyful. With the overflow of YouTube, Spotify, and other online music sources, the air of slight superficiality and minimal passion can lose a musician’s way. As an educator, I have to teach the young to be of service to music. The bass has to be the foundation of everything, so a bassist needs to be helpful to the band, like a “host”. Try to throw a big nice carpet first, then you can do your own solo later. The role of the bass is to be the foundation.
New album: Home Feeling
I am releasing my next album sometime in fall this year, which I am calling “Home Feeling”. It reflects a feeling of “home” wherever you are, because really, to say that you are away from home when you travel is only a state of mind. Your home is inside you and it doesn’t matter where you are. I wrote many of the tracks in the album while I was traveling; hence, I felt there was a strong and fragile connection between cities. I will have with me special musicians, like Hector Martignon (Colombian pianist), Mario Principato (percussion) and Nicola Angelucci (drums). There will also be a song by the Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez and a Brazilian composition by Nino Cavaquino, “Beija Flor”.
Massimiliano’s Life Recipe
I aim to keep going forward and to keep on traveling, even traveling without music, which I always want to do. I will continue to teach and perform. As a person, I am constantly trying to find my thing, which seems to take a long process. Every time I perform and write music I always want to do something different from before, and to discover if that thing fits me in that particular moment. If I find that spot, I can go deep into it and stay there while learning more in that chosen space. It’s like walking into a room, and when you see it’s not your room, you take a turn until you find your own room. I’m afraid of searching continuously, but maybe it’s okay not to be satisfied in the perfect sense.
If this continuous search resembles Massimiliano’s versatile finger rotation from string to string, from the upper bout to the lower bout of the double bass across a breadth of universal tunes and rhythms, it is because his quest for something newer and something deeper is ephemeral. This “basso alla Genovese” has never tasted sweeter.