Famous Italian Jazz Musicians (European Legends)

Whilst the phrase “European Jazz” is often used as a kind of description of a certain type of music, in reality the continent is made up of multiple countries, each with their own rich history and scenes.  In this guide we shine a light on some of the great Italian jazz musicians.

Jazz has had a foothold in Italy since the end of the first World War, and the first known Italian jazz group was reportedly formed by drummer Arturo Agazzi in 1918.

Agazzi had spent some time in London working in the best clubs of the day, and anxious to bring the new music to his native Italy. Running the house band at his Mirador Club.

Alongside Agazzi was the Blue Star Orchestra, an incredible ensemble led by Pippo Barzizza of just seven musicians who were all multi-instrumentalists playing no less than 36 instruments combined.

As jazz swept across Europe, and with the advent of greater opportunities to record the music was heard by an ever-increasing audience.

The migration of many US musicians to various parts of Europe in the sixties in search of better working opportunities and appreciation of their music, gave many musicians who accompanied them much needed exposure.

This led very quickly to the notion that jazz wasn’t just an American music, but that there was much superb music being performed outside of the US and the emergence of labels such as ECM have done much to promote musicians from every corner of Europe.

The Italian jazz scene has always been rich in talent, and some of the most influential and important new musician are detailed here.

Enrico Rava

Photo by Dirk Neven, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trumpet and flugelhorn player Enrico Rava has played an important part on the Italian and international stage since the 1960s. Joining soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in the late sixties during the saxophonist’s sojourn in Europe, Rava relocated to New York.

In a distinguished and varied career, Rava has performed and recorded with John Abercrombie, Gil Evans, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian.

With fellow Italian Paolo Fresu he has recorded several albums acknowledging the legacy of greats such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

For more than forty years he has recorded regularly for the ECM label with an impressive discography that often features his fellow countrymen in his groups.

Recommended album: Easy Living (ECM)

Paolo Fresu

Born in Sardinia on 10 February 1961, Paolo Fresu is one of Italy’s most versatile and vibrant jazz musicians.

He took up the trumpet at the age of eleven. One of a new breed of jazz musicians in Italy, Fresu also composes and arranges and is remarkably well-studied and is also now involved in music education himself.

Photo by Dirk Neven, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He made his debut recording as leader in 1985 with the album Ostinato, and since then he has worked in a wide variety of contexts as a sideman as well as recording regularly under his own name.

He has recorded with Carla Bley as part of her Lost Chords quartet in 2007, but is more frequently heard performing with his own projects.

Recommended album: Metamorfosi (RCA Victor)

Enrico Pieranunzi

Born in Rome on 5 December, 1949, Enrico Pieranunzi initially trained as a classical pianist.

He followed this pathway until 1973, becoming professor of music. Two years later he left his post and followed his interest in jazz. He has recorded prolifically, often for Soul Note, Challenge and CAM Jazz.

An elegant player, Pieranunzi does not seek to hide his classical training but embraces it, and his intuitive sense for improvisation is never dulled or impeded by technique over imagination.

Never one to indulge in abstraction, the pianist follows the lineage of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock with a healthy knowledge of bebop added to the mix as required.

Giovanni Guidi

Piano player Giovanni Guidi is perhaps best known for his association with trumpeter Enrico Rava, with whom he’s been a frequent collaborator and recording sideman for ECM Records.

This, in turn, has led to Guidi being offered his own dates on the imprint, which have seen the pianist grow immensely in stature.

Rava’s faith in the pianist continue to this day and Guidi’s contribution to the trumpeter’s love album Edizione Speciale is a central part of the ensemble.

On Guidi’s recordings it is possible to detect a continuous path of development and growth which makes for some fascinating music.

Recommended album: Ida Lupino (ECM)

Rita Marcotulli

Coming from a musical background, Rita Marcotulli’s father was a sound engineer who worked with both Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. Born in March 1959, she began playing the piano at the age of five, studying classical music.

She went on to further her classical studies at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory where she developed an interest in Brazilian music, along with jazz and improvisation.

Establishing herself as a professional musician in the early 1980s, her reputation was greatly enhanced by collaborations with Enrico Rava, Kenny Wheeler and US jazz musicians Steve Grossman, Chet Baker and Peter Erskine.

Developing her unique brand of piano playing that was largely based on improvisation, she also drew on African and Indian influences along with Brazilian music.

Marcotulli formed a lasting music partnership with the late Dewey Redman and duetted with Pat Metheny at the 1996 Sanremo Music Festival. She has also recorded and toured with the English saxophonist, Andy Sheppard.

Recommended album: On the Edge of a Perfect Moment (Incipit)

Glauco Venier

Born in Sedegliano, Udine on 8 September 1962, Glauco Venier studied classical music at the conservatory of Udine as an organist. He also played piano and rock, as well as classical music.

After graduating from the conservatory in 1985, Venier took lessons with the Italian jazz pianist and composer Franco D’Andrea and four years later was a finalist at the Thelonious Monk Competition held in Washington.

In 1991 the pianist went on to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston after having been awarded a scholarship.

The pianist formed a duo with saxophonist and bass clarinettist Klaus Gesing, and their association has been particularly fruitful.

The duo would expand into a trio with the addition of British vocalist Norma Winstone and record four highly acclaimed albums for ECM Records.

In 2016, Venier recorded a solo piano album (also for ECM) that incorporated the subtle use of sound sculptures in a series of miniatures that drew on influences from classical music, jazz and free improvisation.

Recommended album: Dance Without Answer (ECM)

Stefano Bollani

Pianist Stefano Bollani was born in Milan on 5 December 1972 and grew up in Florence. He started playing piano at the age of six and by while still in his teens was performing professionally playing in a pop/rock band.

Since the mid-nineties Bollani has established himself as one of Italy’s premier jazz pianists, and has played with some of the most important living jazz legends including Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Bobby McFerrin.

Perhaps his most important association, though, is with fellow Italian, Enrico Rava.

From meeting and playing together for the first time in 1996, Rava and Bollani have performed hundreds of concerts and recorded more than a dozen albums together.

As a jazz pianist, composer and arranger the Stefano Bollani discography is an extensive one that covers many different styles of the music.

These include (to name just a few highlights), a duet album called Orvieto with fellow pianist Chick Corea, and another with master bandolin player Hamilton de Holanda (O Que SerĂ , 2012), along with his own trios and compositions and arrangements for large ensembles.

Recommended album: Mediterraneo (ACT Records)

Franco D’Andrea

Francesco “Franco” D’Andrea was born on 8 March 1941 in Merano.

A gifted musician, he played the trumpet, soprano saxophone and clarinet before taking up the piano at the age of seventeen.

His professional career began in 1963, and the following year he made his first recording with the fiery Argentinian tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, thus beginning a two year association.

In 1968 he formed the Modern Art Trio, with fellow Italian musicians Franco Tonani and Bruno Tommaso.

As his reputation grew, D’Andrea would frequently assemble his own bands to feature and give exposure to other Italian jazz musicians. As well his trio he also led a quartet with Tino Tracanna, Attilio Zanchi and Gianni Cazzola.

In a long and productive career, he has also played and recorded with American greats such as Pepper Adams, Steve Lacy, Barry Altschul, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Knepper, Hank Mobley, Max Roach, as well as with the cream of the European jazz scene; Martial Solal, John Surman, Albert Mangelsdorff, Ernst Reijseger, Jean-Luc Ponty and Han Bennink.

In addition, the pianist has written around 200 compositions with approximately half of these to be found on his own recordings.

Always keen to pass on his knowledge and experience, D’Andrea has been extensively involved in music education since 1978.

Recommended album: My one and only love (Red Records)

Thanks for reading this short guide to some of the most famous Italian jazz musicians of all time.

Of course, there are many more we could have included, not to mention a burgeoning modern jazz scene today. 

Looking for more of Europe? Check out our pick of essential ECM albums, a guide to some of the best European jazz festivals or the most iconic European jazz musicians in history. 

2 thoughts on “Famous Italian Jazz Musicians (European Legends)”

  1. There are, of course, typical Italian names, such as La Rocca, Prima, Butera, Venuti,
    Candoli, DeFranco, Sinatra, Pizzareli, Tristano, Russo, Lovano, Di Meola,
    DeFrancesco, LaFaro, Rosolino, Rugolo, etc.
    But also real surprises, for many, such as Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro), Flip
    Philips (Joseph Edward Filipelli), Louie Bellson (Luigi Paolino Francesco Balassoni),
    Tony Bennett (Anthony Dominick Benedetto), Ray Anthony (Raymond Antonini),
    Vinnie Burke (Vincenzo J. Bucci), Frankie Capp (Frank Cappuccio), Johnny
    Desmond (Giovanni Alfredo DiSimone), Joe Farrell (Joseph Carl Firrantello), Jimmy
    Giuffre (James Peter Giuffre), Jerry Gray (Generoso Graziano), Pete Jolly (Peter A.
    Ceragioli), Frankie Laine (Francesco LoVecchio), Marty, Phil and Teddy Napoleon
    (Matteo, Filippo and Salvatore Napoli), Tony Scott (Anthony Joseph Sciacca), Nick
    Travis (Nicholas Anthony Travascio), Charlie Ventura (Charles Venturo), George
    Wallington (Giacinto Figlia), etc, etc, etc.
    Well no, Louis Armstrong is not Italian!


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