You don't need to be an expert to appreciate jazz — just trust your ears. That's the message from Michael Grofsorean, curator of Spoleto's Wells Fargo Jazz Series. While you may have never heard of the international musicians he's assembled for this year's festival, that shouldn't impede your enjoyment.
For one thing, Grofsorean seeks out artists notable for their engaging lyricism, which he feels opens the door to all the other elements. Melody plays the realtor and shows us into the house. "There's a melody. That's the first thing a listener encounters. It begins there," he says. "Harmony, melody, and rhythm are fully integrated parts of this musical fabric of experience ... If you don't have that [lyricism], the rest of it doesn't have much chance to follow."
All of the series' musicians are young — in their mid-30s to early 40s — and virtuosic performers who understand and appreciate traditional jazz, yet aren't necessarily defined by it. They exemplify what critic Albert Murray describes as the artistic impulse to extend, elaborate, and refine what has come before.
For André Mehmari, that has meant taking the jazz classicism of someone like Keith Jarrett and combining it with the rhythms of his native Brazil. The São Paulo pianist/composer has released 16 CDs characterized by their poetic sweep, elegant beauty, and smoldering rhythmic undercurrent.
Like Mehmari, Finnish pianist/composer Iiro Rantala has a predilection for combining classical and jazz music, creating moody pieces of great emotional depth, though in practice they're as different as their geographical climes. Where Mehmari's music bristles passionately, Rantala's compositions explore colder yet still mesmerizing beauty.
"They have different cultural backgrounds, but they're both extraordinarily expressive musicians with huge toolkits," says Grofsorean, explaining that their geographical diversity is just part of what makes them distinct. "I didn't go shopping for a Fin, a Brazilian, and a Pole. I go looking for lyricism, depth, transcendence, and having something to say. I think when you go for these general qualities, the answer you get back is always global."
Other performers include the guitar and clarinet duo of Alessandro Penezzi and Alexandre Ribeiro. Penezzi is clearly informed by classical guitar and indigenous Brazilian styles but with a jazzy, improvisational mien.
Last but certainly not least is Israeli tenor sax/composer Eli Degibri. An exciting young prodigy, Degibri attended Berklee College of Music during two summers when he was 16 and 17. He was given a full ride to Berklee at 18, but only attended for a few months before being invited to attend the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, which only accepts one ensemble each year.
Former Miles Davis sideman, double-bassist Ron Carter, was the program's musical director, and Degibri studied with heroes like Clark Terry and Herbie Hancock. One summer they even toured for a few dates with Hancock. Degibri apparently did well enough to attract the former Miles Davis keyboardist's attention.
"I remember his wife came to me and said, 'You know Herbie doesn't stop talking about you.' That was the best compliment I could ever receive," Degibri says from his home in Tel Aviv, Israel.
"Not long after I graduated, I got a call from Herbie's manager asking me to join the band, which I did," he continues. "During that almost three years time, I wanted to quit the band five or six times because I was afraid and insecure. Of course, nobody let me do that. Playing with Herbie was by far the most intense learning experience I have ever had."
When Degibri got back home to New York where he had settled, he thought he was on his way to becoming the world's biggest saxophonist. Then something funny happened: Nothing. Degibri spent almost a year not working before the flashbulb flickered on.
"I came out of this depression with new compositions and the realization basically that I need to and should lead my own band," he says. "I started writing and that really filled me with so much more than just waiting for something to happen."
That was in 2002, and the next year he made his debut with 2003's In the Beginning. He's since released four albums, the highlight being 2010's Israeli Song, featuring pianist Brad Mehldau and Miles Davis alums Al Foster on drums and Ron Carter on bass. It was a dream come true.
"It was just something that I really wanted to do. Especially having learned from Ron Carter in my youth and closing this circle. And working with Al Foster so many years as a sideman in his band and now he's playing in my band," he says. "Then someone like Brad is an influence on all of us from young and not-so-young generations."
However, shortly after recording the album, Degibri struggled again with depression. It wasn't work-related this time so much as personal. He missed home. When he finally received his American citizenship after 10 straight years in this country, he returned to Israel, where he bought a place, a bike, and a grand piano.
"I realized this is what's going to make me grow both as a person, and obviously if I'm going to be happy with where I am and who I am, I'll make more and better music," he says.
Meanwhile, the piano's proven to be an inspired expenditure.
"It's just better than writing on a keyboard. I don't know why. Also to have such an amazing instrument — it's a chick magnet for musicians," he laughs. "People want to come, hang out with, and play with me. I basically get to play a lot at home because people are always coming over. I play more than I used to [in New York] and I've become a better musician."
He's just finishing up work on a new album tentatively entitled Twelve, because it was recorded on 12/12/12. He loves the symmetry, something you'll also find reflected in his warm, very melodic music.
"Everybody is always talking about the beauty of my music, but not the symmetry," he says. "I take it as a compliment and it's true, I love symmetry and I think you can find symmetry in odd numbers."
That's sort of what Spoleto's all about.