Rome’s Blutopia Record Shop is in the Business of Listening

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In 2011, Fabrizio Spera and a couple of colleagues opened the Blutopia record shop in Rome’s Pigneto neighborhood.

(Photo: Alessandro Carpentieri)

“For me, as well as for many other people of my age, a record store has always represented a meeting place, where besides buying records you could get in touch with other people,” said Italian percussionist Fabrizio Spera. In the years before he became an international figure in progressive rock circles, and later, free-jazz and improvisation, record shops have been a second home to him.

Beginning in 1992, Spera worked at a series of iconic, but now shuttered, record shops in Rome—Disfunzioni Musicali and Rinascita—as the buyer of jazz and experimental music, even as his schedule as a performer grew increasingly busy. By 1995, he cofounded the experimental electro-acoustic trio Ossatura with guitarist Elio Martusciello and accordionist Luca Venitucci, a combo heavily informed by the Rock in Opposition movement heralded by England’s Henry Cow. Even in collaboration with Henry Cow’s Tim Hodgkinson on its 1998 debut album, Dentro (ReR), Ossatura has practiced a more abstract strain of exploration, with improvisation exerting a greater input.

When Rinascita closed its doors in 2009, Spera began working for the Italian distribution company Goodfellas, curating its international free-jazz and experimental music catalog, but still yearned for the social connection of a record store. So, in 2011, he and a couple of colleagues opened Blutopia in Rome’s Pigneto neighborhood, which shared a space with an upstairs bookstore, Satellite.

“We considered Blutopia also as a space for other activities, such as gigs, meetings, discussions, workshops and films about music and other topics,” Spera said. Indeed, not only is Blutopia one of Rome’s most important retail sources for adventurous music of all stripes, it’s been one of its most crucial live music venues, albeit on micro level. “Over the years and through these kind of activities, a community of people began to grow slowly but gradually around the shop,” he continued.

Since Blutopia opened, it’s hosted concerts on a near-weekly basis, cramming listeners into a tiny performance area. During the last eight years, just about every notable Italian improviser has played in the store, as well as an impressive roster of international artists, including Axel Dörner, Tomeka Reid, Ben Goldberg, Michael Moore and Ava Mendoza. Although there are Roman venues that present top-quality jazz, like Casa del Jazz, musicians outside of the mainstream have struggled to find playing opportunities, especially since the long-running free-jazz festival Controindicazioni—started in 1988 by the legendary saxophonist Mario Schiano and codirected by Spera during its final eight years—ended in 2007, when the city stopped contributing funds.

While Spera grew up attracted to progressive rock, his innate curiosity eventually led him to a deep engagement with jazz; these days, he comfortably straddles multiple disciplines. Most notable in recent years is his free-jazz quartet Roots Magic, whose two excellent albums on the Clean Feed label explore the profound connections of early Delta blues with the music of African-American composers like Sun Ra, Marion Brown and Henry Threadgill.

“After many years of exploring the more abstract sides of music, I felt the need to go back to a more ‘basic’ approach,” the drummer said. “On the other hand, this is also a work of love for the music of people like Julius Hemphill, Marion Brown, John Carter, music that I literally grew up with, while my relationship with early country blues came later, especially through my encounters with [English expat guitarist] Mike Cooper.

“In fact, it was with him that I first experimented a way to connect my experience in free-jazz and improv with the music of people like Fred McDowell or Skip James.”

That connection was recognized last year when the group unexpectedly was invited to perform at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Spera continues working with Roots Magic and Ossatura, which veered toward a more melodic direction on its pristine 2016 album Maps And Mazes (ReR) and in ad hoc improvisational groupings with Cooper, saxophonist John Butcher and pianist Alberto Braida. But when he’s not on the road, adventurous listeners still can find him behind the counter at Blutopia, eager to share recommendations or to listen together, all to fortify community. DB



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September 2019
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