Q&A with Saxophonist Piero Odorici: Meeting with the Masters

(Photo: Courtesy Umbria Jazz)

One of the many pleasures of last year’s Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, was the opportunity to hear the world-class tenor saxophonist Piero Odorici, who played each night at Malandrino Bistrot, one of the many fine restaurants that operate in the ancient hilltop town of 8,000 souls. Joined by a world-class trio featuring American-expat bassist Darryl Hall and Roman drummer Roberto Gatto, Odorici—a protégé of the late Cedar Walton who has spent bandstand time in recent years with George Cables and recently toured with a rhythm section comprising Eric Reed, Dezron Douglas and Willie Jones, III—told discursive, compelling stories with a gorgeous tone and rhythmic force.

Odorici, 54, spoke to Downbeat in the “library” of the Grand Hotel Italia, headquarters for many of the musicians who performed at the festival

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Unlike a lot of Italian musicians, you play a lot with Americans.

I grew up in Bologna with American musicians. When I was very young, I studied classical saxophone and clarinet. Around 15 years old, I bought a record of Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin, a live concert, and for the first time in my life I heard jazz. I loved the sound. I understood that this is the music I wanted to play, and I started to try to play this music.

I studied in the beginning with an Italian saxophone player named Giorgio Baiocco. He died a long time ago. He was a very good teacher in Italy, who loved jazz, and he taught me to find a way to play jazz. After that, I met [Bolognese clubowner and Umbria Jazz co-founder] Alberto Alberti, who was very important to me. Alberto worked with everybody, and he introduced me to many great musicians. I met Dexter through Alberto, Stan Getz—many of these people.

Alberto brought Steve Grossman to Italy, and Steve stayed in Bologna for a long time. In 1982, when I was 20, I found a place for Steve in the same building downstairs from me. Many times, I’d go downstairs: “Hey, Steve, can we play some?” Steve would come to play piano, I’d play saxophone, or he’d play saxophone… He didn’t talk really about “You have to do this exercise, or this, this, this.” We’d play together all the time. He wrote a tune; he wrote a part for me—we’d play the tune together. Learning by doing. One time I said, “Steve, I want to play like you; how can you play this way?” And he answered, “When you are old like me, you will play in your way, and better, and you will understand how I play in that way now.”

You were relatively young when you started doing gigs, correct?

I had a band with a friend in Bologna, and we listened to a lot of jazz. We tried to play standards. We started to play together, especially with [the late trumpter] Marco Tamburini; Roberto Rossi, who is a very good trombone player; and [drummer] Roberto Gatto. But Roberto is older than us.

We had many places in Bologna and around Italy where we could play, not like today; we’d go to Torino, Milano, other places. I was lucky, because I found musicians like me, who want to play jazz in that direction.

By “that direction,” you mean more swinging, less avant-garde.

Yes, more old school. We practiced a lot together, learned the standards. I played for the first time in Umbria in 1984, I think—I was 22. I played every year for 10 years in the summer at Umbria Jazz in Perugia, and I met many musicians; we had jam sessions. A really nice school is in the street. It’s not in the classroom.

A few years before he passed away, Cedar Walton worked on a recording with you, David Williams and Willie Jones, III—First Place [Savant, 2012].

Alberto Alberti brought Cedar to Italy many times. I remember the first time I saw the trio in Rome at the Music Inn, a famous club. Alberto introduced me, and Cedar came back the year after.

Alberto produced my first record. I played alto. I loved Jackie McLean, and I tried to play like Jackie. Alberto told me, “I gave the tape of your record to Jackie McLean.”

Jackie McLean was coming to play in Italy after some months, and Alberto called me: “Hey, Piero. Jackie Mac wants to see you.”

I go to Bologna, and I meet Jackie McLean. Jackie was very kind with me: “Hey, Piero, I love your record,” he said. He gave me a little piece of paper where he wrote: “I love your record, First Place. Sincerely, Jackie McLean.” He told me, “You can put this on your record as my remark.” After that, every time Jackie McLean came to Italy, I’d go to the concert. Many times, I saw Jackie McLean and Cedar together—they played in Umbria Jazz for one week, and I went crazy.

Then Cedar came again with the trio and Ralph Moore. He said, “You come with me; you drive the car.” During the gig he said, “Piero, play one song with us.” This was 1992-’93. Ralph is one of my favorite players, very kind, a beautiful person.

Over the years, Cedar would sometimes call me to play a song, but at Umbria Jazz, in 2006 maybe, he told me, “Piero, tomorrow we go to lunch together.” Then he told me, “Now is the time that you can start to play with the ‘Generale’”—we called Cedar “the Generale.”

In the beginning, Joe Farnsworth was in the band, and after that it was Willie Jones. We played a lot together. One day, I was in New York and Cedar called me. “Hey, Piero, I want to do Cedar Walton Presents Piero Odorici.”

“Do you have a gig?”

“No-no-no, I want to do a record for you. Tomorrow you come to my home; we’ll decide the titles and everything.”

We had a one-day rehearsal at Vincent Herring’s home, and then we did [First Place] in one day. Cedar didn’t want to repeat the tunes. Only one take.

Have you participated in Italy’s experimental music scene?

It’s nice music, it would be nice to play it with those guys, and it’s no problem for me to play it. But it’s a different language than jazz. Jazz is a language. It’s Afro-American classical music. It’s like for us to play Mozart or Bach. For me, jazz is really a one-way street. After you play with masters like Cedar, George Cables or George Coleman, you need this kind of feeling. I can play with everybody. It’s fun.

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