Danilo Rea started his joyous love affair with the piano as a youngster in Italy.
"I always listened to every kind of music, searching for musical emotions," Rea says. "Classical and folk/pop music from Europe were very important and helped me to find my way to improvise. European musicians put European culture in jazz. You play what you are, so the more you listen, the more your personality and your spirit grow."
Born in Vicenza (near Venice) in 1957, Rea stared taking lessons at the age of 6 and got his own piano soon after.
"I always liked the piano," says Rea. "I think it is the perfect polyphonic instrument."
A graduate of the Santa Cecilia music conservatory in Rome, he began playing professionally at the age of 22, heading out on the road across southern Europe as a member of various backing bands and ensembles led by jazz greats like Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, and Art Farmer.
"I started to play on tour with two great Italian singers — Rino Gaetano and Riccardo Cocciante — and the jazz/rock group New Perigeo," says Rea. "Giovanni Tommaso, a very important double-bass jazz player, was the leader of the group. I learned so much so quickly."
New Perigeo was an Italian progressive rock group in the '70s and '80s. Several of the members went on to have long careers in jazz.
As he experienced different forms of musical performance and improvisation, Rea eventually developed his own musical ideas.
"I liked to open my territories, and all these experiences helped me to find a personal way to improvise," Rea says. "It's a mix that helps me to feel free, like real jazz should be. For example, I like the Beatles, and I want to be free to improvise their music, starting from the melodies. I love Puccini, and I must improvise on his music, too."
Rea's improvisations seem to flow freely and effortlessly. But he doesn't meander. Melodies pop up, dissipate, and then re-emerge.
"When I play solo piano, I start without any order, and every single note drives me to other melodies," Rea says. "I can mix it all together, passing without stopping through many tunes, searching pathos and energy, emotion from me shared with the audience."
His melodic touch is all over his latest studio release, Piano Works X: A Tribute to Fabrizio De André.
"It's a tribute to a great Italian songwriter — a great poet that was important for my generation," says Rea. "It's an improvisation on De André's music, made in the style of Italian popular song. I recorded with De André. It was his last work before he died in 1999."
As part of the Spoleto Festival USA's Wells Fargo Jazz Series, Rea will perform six recitals on three nights at the intimate Recital Hall at the College of Charleston's Simons Center for the Arts. As per usual for Rea, the program seems to be flexible.
"I usually don't know what I will play," he says. "I have many concerts in only a few days there, so I think that I will pass through jazz standards and Italian songs to Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Ennio Morricone. I'll touch on soundtracks, too, as well as Puccini, Bellini, and other classical writers. This is my freedom and my emotion."