The Jazz Life of Maria Pia De Vito

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“Different parts of myself need a voice, and I sometimes release very contrasting records one after the other,” says De Vito.

(Photo: Courtesy Maria Pia de Vito)

Few singers in jazz and experimental improvisation function within multiple genres as fluently as Naples-born, Rome-based singer Maria Pia De Vito. As an example, consider, from De Vito’s recent discography, Moresche e altre invenzioni (Parco Della Musica), a 2018 release on which she, pianist-vocalist Rita Marcotulli and a large choir explore 16th century composer Orlando di Lasso’s carnivalesque Neapolitan dance-songs representing the speech of African slaves, and several De Vito pieces that idiomatically channel that polyphonic genre.

Or consider, from 2017, Core (Coração) (Jando/Via Veneto Jazz), where De Vito — joined by several long-time collaborators, including Welsh pianist Huw Warren and Umbrian clarinet maestro Gabriele Mirabassi — sang songs by Brazilian masters Chico Buarque, Tom Zé and Egberto Gismonti that she translated from Portguese into Neapolitan vernacular dialect. This followed her appearance on Porto Da Madama, a 2015 album by Brazilian guitarist-composer Guinga, who also convened Esperanza Spalding, Maria João and Mônica Salmaso for the occasion.

De Vito’s latest albums appear on her new digital-only imprint label, MDTV. Last fall, she reissued Tumulti, a free-improvised session from 2003 where she nails the voice-as-instrument function with Euro outcats Patrice Héral on drums, Ernst Reijseger on cello and Paul Urbanek on piano. Then, in early 2022, she issued Dreamers Live, a September 2020 concert at the Pomigliano Jazz Festival on which she displays formidable storytelling chops. Joined by her think-as-one working trio of pianist Julian Oliver Mazzariello, bassist Enzo Pietropaoli and Alessandro Paternesi, she incorporates extended techniques into the flow while stretching out on repertoire by Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, David Crosby and Tom Waits that she’d initially recorded in-studio on 2020’s Dreamers (Jando).

The Dreamers albums aren’t De Vito’s first recorded encounter with the Boomer North American Songbook: On Pietropali’s Stolen Songs, from 1999, she put surreal mojo on harmonically abstracted versions of works by Dylan, the Sex Pistols and Stevie Wonder, deploying electronics and extended vocal techniques into her flow. On So Right (CAMJazz), from 2005, she rendered seven Joni Mitchell songs and four English-language originals whose direct, demotic intimacy evokes Mitchell’s essence.

De Vito once told DownBeat that, for her, “speaking English is like eating chocolate,” and on all four of these albums, she inhabits the lyrics, with nuanced phrasing that functionally incorporates a global beat matrix, internalized from immersion in Balkan 11/8s and 7/8s, Indian tablas, Afro-Brazilian, and straight-up swing at various points during her 45-year career as a performer.

“I’ve always been curious about the different things you can approach through the practice of jazz,” De Vito said. “I didn’t want to sing torch songs or cabaret songs. I wanted to improvise, like Ella Fitzgerald did, for the happiness of inventing things in the moment. I’m experimenting to see how far I can go with inflection, or in my emotions, so I can bring out something sincere. For me, jazz is a process, a way to face the music, to go deep, surprise yourself with something that gives you another path. That’s why, whatever I do, I consider myself a jazz singer.

“Different parts of myself need a voice, and I sometimes release very contrasting records one after the other. I started with standards and bebop when I was 19. Then, in 1994, when I was 34, I rediscovered my Neapolitan roots; it’s such a rich world, and I did a lot of that. Then I did two records with John Taylor and Ralph Towner. Then I felt a need to do something completely improvised. After that I decided to do the project about Joni Mitchell, who I think of as a jazz musician because she’s always progressing towards something. Interpretation and being with the lyrics — poetry and narrative — has become ever more important to me. I’m always respectful of the forms, but when I improvise I try to change something in the frame, in the groove.”

De Vito spoke in her hotel’s breakfast room during the 43rd Bergamo Jazz Festival in the north Italian province of Lombardy, which appointed her artistic director in 2020 after she’d established a successful track record curating the jazz component of the Ravello Festival. “As a woman and singer from southern Italy, it came as a beautiful, complex surprise,” she said. “It seems to be my karma to have to break invisible walls; I’ve been a pioneer of a few things in Italy. I’m obliged to be a warrior, though it’s not my nature. It hasn’t been easy. But I’m stubborn. The work has to speak by itself.” DB



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February 2023
Lakecia Benjamin
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