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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Rori Palazzo, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, February 20, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Nicola Caminiti to our stage for his Gallery debut. A native of Sicily, Caminiti came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated last spring. Inspired by Jazz Gallery favorites like Walter Smith and Will Vinson, Caminiti sports a style that’s rhythmically-dextrous and harmonically-lush. We caught up with Caminiti to talk about growing up with jazz in Sicily and finding himself in the New York jazz community.

The Jazz Gallery: What were you doing in Italy before you came to New York?

Nicola Caminiti: I was born and raised in Sicily, so I spent most of my life there growing up, playing, and listening to music. I started playing saxophone when I was 8. I’ve been listening to jazz forever though. It’s funny—I was exposed only to jazz until I was about 4 or 5 years old, so I thought that was what everyone listens to until I got to elementary school where I realized no one even knew what jazz was.

TJG: Are your parents musicians?

NC: My father used to play guitar, but he’s moreso just a really big fan of jazz. I tell people that he knows more about jazz than I do even though I’ve been playing it for a while now. He got hip to all of the modern stuff before I did. Around 2008 through 2010 I was in my early Kenny Garrett stage and he was already showing me recordings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson, Gary Versace, Mark Ferber. He found them all on Youtube, which has really opened up a lot of music to the world.

When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but 2 or 3 years later that was my favorite stuff to listen to. My dad always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

TJG: Would you say that there is an Italian musical tradition to grasp onto? How did you become a jazz musician specifically?

NC: Well, classical Italian music is opera, and there are also regional traditional musics that sometimes incorporate pop elements. In Sicily, there is the Tarantella and Neapolitan music, which I love. There are also Neapolitan musicians who have crossed over with jazz musicians—for example, one of my favorite singers is Pino Daniele, who is a guitar player and singer. He even played with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Santana…it was kind of pop music, but not consumerist pop: meaningful pop.

Italian traditional music isn’t really that prevalent in every day life though. I feel like this type of tradition is stronger in countries like Cuba, for example. I have a lot of Cuban friends and friends from Latin America in general, and they tell me that music is being played on the street. It’s there. You can feel it. Even in Washington Heights where I live, you can feel it to some degree. It may be far from the Afro-Latin heritage, but you can still kind of get that feel. In Sicily, you don’t get that. You get pop, and usually it’s American.

But really, the reason jazz has always felt natural to me is because I was listening to it day and night with my dad.

TJG: And you starting touring around Italy before you came to Manhattan School of Music, correct?

NC: Yes, I started going outside of Sicily around 2013 when I was 18, and I need to thank a good friend of mine—a killing guitar player from Vicenza, Italy, Joe Clemente, who took me outside of my comfort zone. He brought me north, playing with musicians from the area, and that was the first time I toured and played some gigs outside Sicily

TJG: What was your jazz education like up to that point?

NC: My academic education was mostly in classical music—that’s what I studied when I was 12. But regarding jazz, I was always around the Sicilian jazz scene, and between 2008 and 2014 I felt like the scene was really strong. There was a good 25 or 30 of us who would get together during the summer for workshops and work on material together.

TJG: How did you find these other musicians?

NC: I studied early with this Italian saxophonist, Orazio Maugeri. I love his playing and consider him one my first mentor. The first summer camp I went to he was teaching. I went a few times, and in my third year attending, I started studying with a drummer who I’d also consider a mentor of mine, Mimmo Cafiero, who really pushed me to start thinking outside of the box.

Everything up until then had been chord changes, standards, reading from the real book, and Mimmo was the one who asked questions like “Why don’t you try this tune in five?” And at that point, I was like, “What’s five?” [laughs]

I remember in the first lesson we played “Pannonica” by Thelonious Monk, and I wasn’t ready for the chord changes, but I was so excited. I also got into an ensemble around that time with a lot of players from outside of the area, and it felt like a mini Herbie Hancock Institute of Sicily.

The tenor player from that group ended up going to Berklee, so everyone was getting their voice out.

TJG: Were you already thinking of coming to New York by that time?

NC: Oh no, hell no. About a year and a half later I auditioned for the Italian Jazz Youth Big Band and I got in as lead alto. In the orchestra with me there was a Sicilian pianist, Sam Mortellaro, who I knew from Conservatory, and he did his bachelors at New School. He was telling me about the different schools in New York, and so I started thinking about it by 2014. But at that point, it was really just a game. When I applied to these NY schools, I didn’t understand how elite they were considered in the states.

TJG: When you first got here, were you overwhelmed by the amount of talent?

NC: No, but I can tell you why. I don’t want to underplay how proud I was to get scholarship offers from both New School and MSM, but I had already been exposed to guys like Will Vinson and Robert Glasper when I was in Italy. It was for this reason that I wanted to come to the states—I knew I wouldn’t be able to play like this if I stayed in Sicily. There are a lot of really good traditional players in Italy, and I can listen to that music all day and night, but I was ultimately looking for something else.

I got lucky enough that when I got to school, there were a lot of people with the same mindset. But of course, I was also very impressed with a lot of the talent at MSM. Some of these kids were 17 or 18 years old and they were playing like crazy. But I wouldn’t say I was shocked—more just excited.

TJG: Can you tell us a little bit about the theme behind the set you’re bringing to the Jazz Gallery

NC: I’m preparing about 11 original songs, and I’m mainly trying to channel images and derive music from them. A lot of the music we’ll be playing was written with a title in mind already. For example, I wrote a song called “Cloudy in(to) the Sky” when I was on the airplane coming to New York in September. When I was on that flight looking out the window, the image inspired a melody.

TJG: Do you write melody first when you’re composing?

NC: It depends, but melody is the most important thing for me in general. Sometimes I’ve trashed songs because they have cool changes but the melody isn’t working. For me, the melody is the statement. Any work in the history of music is remarkable because of its melodic content.

TJG: Do you find that to be the case with late Coltrane?

NC: Yes, late Coltrane and Ornette Coleman had such a melodic drive. It was different of course. Some would argue that these are not simple melodies. But being simple or diatonic is not the measure of a melody. It’s whether you’re able to channel something through it.

TJG: How did you choose your bandmates for this gig? Can you talk about their playing and how it affects the overall band’s sound?

NC: I’ve been playing with Lex outside of school more than any other pianist. I love his playing beyond the definition of love. He’s unbelievable. Soloing-wise he’s amazing, but the way he comps, I can’t even describe it. I remember the first time I played with him, he just made everything easier than easy.

It’s funny, I was back in Italy listening to Ambrose [Akinmusire], Walter Smith, and Robert Glasper records—Lex’s comping has that that degree of depth, but he’s comping his own way. As a horn player, having a player like that behind me makes me feel like a kid with his favorite toy.

I also feel like Lex has the versatility to play my harder material and my more melodic material equally well. He always seems to know exactly what to do at the exact right time, meanwhile still being Lex. And that’s why guys like Tyshawn Sorey are calling him up.

Hwansu Kang and I played a little bit two years ago, but we were in the Buster Williams ensemble together last year at MSM so I got to play with him more then. I look at him as the reason why our music sounds together. I think of him as the ground. Hwansu isn’t one of those bass players who will necessarily play a lot, but when he plays that one note—one note from Hwansu means the world. When he plays the root in a certain spot, it’s like a balloon exploding with confetti. It feels that joyful.

And then there’s Jongkuk (J.K.), who’s probably the most requested drummer in New York at the moment. He plays completely different than anyone else. I can’t tell you why, but when I play with him I play different rhythmically. Also, he has so much variety in terms of sounds.
I like to think of drummers as orchestrators as well. There are a lot of cats who do that so well, like Kendrick Scott, Justin Brown, Marcus Gilmore, and I think J.K. does it as well. He doesn’t just play the tune and interact with you, he orchestrates it. He’s the one man equivalent of a six-piece percussion section in a symphony orchestra.

Really, the best trick for a horn player is having a rhythm section that’s better than you [laughs]. Whatever you do, they’re going to make it sound good. But a lot of it also has to do with the freedom I feel when playing with these guys. We just play whatever we want. We don’t really care about anything. If you listen to “Stablemates” from my recital recording, I think I may have actually messed up a little bit at one point. But it totally doesn’t matter because of the level of trust between us. I trust these musicians so much that I would jump from atop the Empire State Building and I’m sure they would catch me. Also, I’m sure there are older recordings of Miles or Coltrane where they mess up, but who cares? That’s not the point.

TJG: What is the point?

NC: The point is just to express yourself. Being honest in what you’re playing to yourself, to the audience, to your bandmates, and just letting the music be what it is. Music is such a big gift—just being able to express with sounds and make sounds in order. The little things don’t matter. Everyone messes up. There is so much more depth to music than a missed beat or what we might call a “wrong note.” All twelve notes could be right.

TJG: Has this always been your point of view?

NC: No, it’s changed recently as a result of hanging with my peers at MSM. Messing up was always in the back of my head because I grew up with standards and was taught to play licks. I didn’t always have the courage to play the way I do now, but when I got to MSM I realized everyone was so focused on what I understand now to be more important things, and that shifted my mind.

TJG: Let’s talk about how this has applied to your style of playing. How do you develop a solo?

NC: I try to create arcs. I don’t want my solo to be stagnant. But for me the most important thing is the start. I don’t want to generalize, but I like to grab material from the people who are playing with me. It’s rare that I start out of nowhere, or if I have an idea, I’ll start with it, but I want to reference what’s already been played before me. I want to contextualize my solo and listen to what’s being played around me.

TJG: I’ve also noticed that your sound sometimes changes mid solo. You’ll sometimes start off soft and wispy and your sound will become more edgy as you go. Is that a conscious decision?

NC: Most of the time yes. I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of timbre, and I’m trying to think more about tonal changes to convey the situation or what I’m feeling at the moment. Also, I try to be reactionary to the rhythm section and the ideas they’re pushing.

TJG: How do you as a group approach soloing? Would you consider it a collective experience?

NC: Yes, I don’t exist if they don’t exist at the same time. But sometimes I’ll pose my ideas, and if the rhythm section doesn’t agree with it, we can go in a different direction.

TJG: It sounds like a very democratic process.

NC: It’s totally democratic.

TJG: But you’ll be the leader of this gig. What does that mean to you?

NC: Well the biggest responsibility is that I have to write the music.

TJG: And you’ll be talking on the microphone…

NC: That’s going to be hilarious [laughs]. I’ve done it a couple of times in English, and now when I go back to Italy to tour, I’m all out of sorts since I’m used to English. But overall, I don’t feel much extra pressure with the leader title.

TJG: What are you most excited about for this gig?

NC: First of all, playing at The Jazz Gallery. I feel like I spend half of my time in New York at the Gallery—I’ve seen 80 or so shows since I’ve been here. That doubles any other jazz club in New York. I like the acoustics, I like the space, I like the people, and thank you Rio so much for the opportunity.

I’m also excited to share all of this music with people. It doesn’t happen often for me where I can be this open and just share. Actually, my recital was the first time I played mostly original music in New York. This will be the first time this quartet will play outside of school.
I’m also really excited for Ed to introduce my band. He’s one of my heroes. Him talking about the website, the artwork—I’m just so excited for that intro.

TJG: Before we go, can we talk about some of your current influences?

NC: Not including Coltrane, Miles, or Wayne Shorter, everything that Ambrose Akinmusire and Walter Smith III are doing is amazing. It’s funny, in 2014 I went to the Siena Summer workshop—some of the American teachers were Walter Smith, Ambrose, and Mark Turner. I went to see Mark and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know who Walter and Ambrose were even though they’re some of my biggest influences now. But again, in Italy back then things arrived late.

I went back home and told my father about Walter Smith and he bought me the prerelease of Still Casual, which I think is now one of the top 3 records of the last 30 years. For me that record has everything and has shaped my playing the most. The first song starts with two rimshots from Kendrick, and right from the beginning I was hooked. I’ve listened a thousand times now and haven’t gotten tired of it yet.

I also need to mention Tigran Hamasyan. I learned about him when I was already at MSM, but he had a huge impact on me and opened my mind up a lot rhythmically.

TJG: How about saxophone players specifically?

NC: I would say Walter, Logan Richardson, and Will Vinson. But it’s hard to avoid also mentioning Miguel Zenon, Dayna Stephens (who was my teacher for a year and a half), and Ben Wendel.

TJG: I definitely hear some Will Vinson in your playing.

NC: Will was my first influence post-Kenny Garrett. I think it’s funny—sometimes you gather more from your second influence than your first.

I also want to thank my MSM peers who really influenced me a lot. I’ve played a lot with Abdulrahman (Rocky) Amer in his band Ba Akhu (Hwansu was actually in that band as well), and also this piano player Chris Fishman, who was recommended to me by Walter Smith. He influenced me a lot too. I feel like the influence you gather from sharing and playing with your peers may be even more important than your hero influences. And there are so many others I’ve forgotten who have had such a huge effect on me.

TJG: Nicola, thank you so much and we look forward to your playing at The Jazz Gallery.

NC: Thank you! It’s gonna be fun.

The Nicola Caminiti Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 20, 2020. The group features Mr. Caminiti on alto & soprano saxophone, Lex Korten on piano, Hwansu Kang on bass, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.