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Central Italy’s Tasteful Communicator on the Guitar, Umberto Fiorentino



JGT contributor Joe Barth covers the international jazz guitar scene in this interview with Italy’s Umberto Fiorentino.

Umberto Fiorentino was born in Rome in 1956 and has lived his entire life in this area.  His approach to the guitar is the “less is more” perspective championed by the great Jim Hall. His love for music cultivated each year as he completely self-instructed himself in musical technique and expression. Though jazz is his central passion, he has disciplined and developed himself equally in classical, pop, and rock styles.

JB:  You’ve been playing for over 50 years, I know you’re self-taught, so tell us briefly about what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

UF:  When I was in high school there was another student who had learned some songs by John McLaughlin and George Benson. When I heard him play, it was a shock to me. So, I started listening to jazz music.

JB:  What do you think are the three most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

UF:  Maybe there are others that I like more, but certainly the ones that made me learn a lot when I was just starting out were, in chronological order, Birds of Fire by John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Birds of Fire was for me an album that arrived in a period in which the music I listened to was that of Genesis, King Crimson, and Led Zeppelin. It was a revelation for me, I found in that album a disruptive and spiritual force that immediately fascinated me. McLaughlin and Cobham showed me a path that was completely new to me at the time and this gave me the opportunity to get to the sources of those ideas. From that point, getting to the way Miles Davis and John Coltrane communicated was a natural consequence.

From that point in fusion, my discovery of jazz gradually moved toward the traditional. Among the guitarists I loved and strongly influenced me there is

Pat Martino. Footprints is still my favorite album of his. He introduced me to the post-bebop language. Martino’s lines and his conception of having a flow of ideas develop according to a “minor” vision helped me a lot to develop something similar, even if not directly transferred from his lines.

Third and above all, It’s Nice to be with You by Jim Hall. Jim Hall influenced me the most. It’s Nice to Be with You was one of the first albums that I bought. I loved it right away, but I only understood its importance later. Jim Hall is very different from Mc Laughlin or Pat Martino, like Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond are different from Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Everything Jim played has a poetic and profound meaning, he speaks a language that gets straight to the emotions, without frills of any kind, and the musical space he gives has the same value as what he plays.

JB:  What are two or three of your favorite jazz guitar albums today and why?

Among the many guitarists who have come after and are influenced by Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, the most prominent is Kurt Rosenwinkel. He is an all around musician of the highest order even more than being a great guitarist. Rosenwinkel has his own style that extends beyond his extraordinary ability as an improviser, he is an innovator and a composer who has clear ideas and conception. His album Reflections is the one that I have listened to the most over the years.  Kurt found the perfect combination of tradition and freshness. Another favorite album of Kurt’s is The Next Step, the first of his albums, where in my opinion, Kurt’s musical personality matured and consolidated.

JB:  Tell us how your musical partner, guitarist Claudio Quartarone, brings out in you musically compared to what other musicians might otherwise inspire you.

UF:  Claudio is an extraordinary guitarist who has very strong classical influences and at the same time a great ability to improvise.  With Claudio we can take up our guitars and improvise music by focusing on form, both starting from harmonic structures like those of the standards, but within the context of total freedom.

JB:  You have several CDs out. Tell us about your latest work, Anamorfosi.

UF:  I recorded Anamorfosi with Claudio. What we do on Anamorfosi is a mix of our musical influences ranging from jazz to classical music, with some elements of electronic sounds. We allow for a lot of free improvisation and interaction.  We also perform the same on our newly recorded album to be released, entitled II.

JB:  You performed with guitarist John Stowell.  Talk about John’s impact on your playing.

UF:  John is another musician from whom you can expect the music to go where you want it to go and at the same time he can surprise and inspire you. He is an extremely sensitive musician who is always listening and, of course, this is essential. It was a pleasure performing with him, he is a great musician, and we promised to collaborate again in the future.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about your main guitar?

UF:  I mainly play two guitars. The first is a smaller-scale Tele Thinline with a neck humbucker built by Stefan Schottmueller. It is an instrument that I use both in contexts where energetic and elaborate sounds are required and as well in more reflective situations.

When I play in a guitar duo with Claudio Quartarone or Fabio Zeppetella, my historic musical partner and friend, I prefer to use my Moffa Maestro archtop.

JB:  Can you tell us about the amplifier you use?

UF:  I have a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe 40 George Benson and a Henriksen 10-inch with an additional cabinet.

When I can’t take them with me, I ask for a Fender DeVille with two 12”s.

JB:  As a full-time musician, talk about the jazz scene in Rome and central Italy.

UF:  There are many excellent musicians. The young people have reached a very high level of preparation. However, it is not the best time in terms of the opportunity to play. The economic crisis and cultural degradation do not help. I think it’s a problem that affects many countries. There is less good music around but when it happens the quality continues to be there.

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