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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the first time in over a decade, Massimo Biolcati is releasing a new record as a bandleader. Biolcati is known as a producer, composer, sideman, co-founder of Gilfema (a trio featuring Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke), and developer of the iReal Pro app. The Swedish/Italian bassist has lived in New York for quite some time, and has logged tours with Paquito D’Rivera, Terence Blanchard, Ravi Coltrane, Lizz Wright, and Luciana Souza. The new record, Incontre, is slated for release on January 24th, and features Dayna Stephens on saxophones, Sam Yahel on piano and organ, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. For our recent interview covering the new album and the iReal Pro app, read on.

TJG: Where and how does Incontre fit into your other projects? I know you’re busy with a lot of things, including your trio Gilfema with Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke.

MB: Yes, I’ve been playing a lot with Lionel, mostly in the Lionel Loueke trio configuration. We also have a more collaborative band, Gilfema, where I contribute compositions. This new band on the recording is my own band. I decided everything, took on all band-leading duties. Last year, I decided it was time to record another record as a bandleader. It had been about ten years, and as a bass player, one gets spoiled being called as a sideman on many projects: Sometimes it’s easy to get lazy and feel like you’re playing enough good music as it is, and I’ve been lucky to play with great people. But I felt it was time to record some music I’ve been writing throughout the years, so I decided to go into the studio. I looked to some musicians I’d played with in the past, as well as newer young musicians I’ve discovered recently. It was a nice combination.

TJG: Talk to me about the band.

MB: I’ve been playing with Sam on and off through the years. I love his playing. He also plays organ, and he’s gone deep with it, so he knows all about it. I like the idea of having that option as another color. Sam plays organ on several tracks. I’ve known Dayna since back in the day. We went to Berklee College together, then went to the Monk Institute together in 2001. He’s got such an earthy, soulful sound. He’s a beautiful person as well, which is so important when you’re making music with other people. JK is a young drummer who also went to Berklee, he’s in his mid-twenties. We started playing a few gigs here and there. I love his playing, he’s great. His groove is incredible, his listening skills are something I look for in a drummer. He’s truly in the moment, reactive, listens carefully.

TJG: How did Jongkuk Kim get on your radar?

MB: I host regular sessions at my house, and I always encourage people to bring their friends. I try to always meet the new young musicians that come to town. He’s one of the people I’ve met in this way. I like to keep a balance between playing with people of my own generation that I’ve grown up with musically, and I also want to be in the know, see what the young kids are doing, and get inspiration and motivation from that. I like the sharing between musical generations like that, it’s inspiring.

TJG: How did it feel to have a cross-generational group for this session?

MB: It’s something I’ve wanted to do. I don’t know if it ‘sounds’ trans-generational, because JK’s playing is so mature, it all blends so naturally. The trans-generational thing for me is an attitude, a sense of inspiration. Both Dayna and Sam, even though they’re my generation, they’re modern players as well, so it’s mostly a feeling of inspiration.

TJG: What does “Incontre” mean?

MB: It’s a made-up word. With instrumental music, when there are no lyrics, it allows the listener to create their own experience while listening. As soon as you add lyrics, it’s going to draw you in a certain direction, and possibly limit your experience, which can be good or bad. Even a title, for me, is similar to having lyrics. So I wondered, what if the title doesn’t mean anything? A pure sound where the listener creates their own image for the image.

TJG: And tell me a little about the music on this new record. What does it sound like, how did you write it?

MB:  Half of the compositions are original compositions that I’ve been writing over the last decade, trying out at gigs and sessions. I’ve had the chance to work through them and see what works and what doesn’t, and I chose the ones that I felt represented breadth of the music I play and like. At the same time, I tried to keep a unified sound. I didn’t want it to sound like a compilation with latin, funk, swing, one with a vocalist, and so on. I tried to keep it unified.

On the other hand, I wanted to explore different things, so this was my attempt at doing both. Besides more traditional straight ahead gigs, I’ve played a lot of jazz-funk, however you want to call it, in the style of Dave Holland band. There are a few tunes on the record, like “Hello, I Lied,” and there’s actually one of Dave Holland’s tunes on there, “How’s Never,” and Sam does a great organ part on it. We came up with something a little different from what Dave did originally. I chose a few songs to cover, a couple of old standards, one of my favorites, “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin. We give it a modern take by changing the groove, reharmonizing it a bit to give it a melancholy sound rather than the happy sound it originally had.

TJG: How do you feel about the record as a whole piece of art?

MB: It’s a snapshot of me, musically, with these people. A snapshot of where I am at this point, as interpreted by me and the band. I always want to let the individual players shine. I try not to write too much, I leave a lot of space for individuals to be themselves. The unifying characteristic of the record is having these unique players’ sounds shine through on every song.

TJG: I was amazed to learn that you are behind the iReal Pro app. I’ve used the app and never once considered “Wow, this was made by someone.” Do you still use the app for your own practice and motivation? Is it more of a business right now?

MB: I did all of the coding and everything, and now it’s more in maintenance mode, making sure that things keep working on new versions of iOS and Android. I don’t work on it a lot like I used to do a few years ago, and I have someone helping me with customer support. I do still use it myself. The fact that it’s so highly customizable, when I have to learn somebody’s music, I often put it in there and it makes it more fun to have a play-along, especially when you have to learn complicated music with odd meters. It’s nice to spend some time ahead of the rehearsal so you show up prepared. It’s good to have a quick reminder when someone calls a standard, instead of always saying “Oh no, I don’t know it.” It depends on the standard of course, you should strive to pick it up by ear, but if it’s a complicated Wayne Shorter composition, might be tricky [laughs]. So it’s good to have a reminder of chord charts in your pocket.

Massimo Biolcati celebrates the release of Incontre at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 23, 2020. The group features Mr. Biolcati on bass, Dayna Stephens on saxophones, Sam Yahel on piano & keyboards, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.