The creative symbiosis between pianist Rita Marcotulli and accordion player Luciano Biondini is stunning. On their new album, La Strada Invisibile, the two are astoundingly versatile, one moment echoing each other note-for-note in a dizzying spiral of virtuoso playing, the next individually providing a lilting rhythmic foundation for the other's playing. Their playing is so intuitively complimentary that after listening to them together, it's difficult to imagine them apart.
Both Marcotulli and Biondini are composers, and they're responsible for nine of the 12 tracks on La Strada Invisibile. To hear them cut loose on Biondini's playful, rapid-fire "Aritmia" or delicately navigate Marcotulli's swaying, shadowy "Tuareg" is intoxicating. And though they're typically classified as jazz, the duo's music easily goes beyond that genre into classical and traditional forms.
Both Marcotulli and Biondini are native Italians — Marcotulli was born in Rome, and Biondini in Spoleto — and perhaps it's a combination of their cultural similarities and their training that makes them such a natural pair. Both began studying classical music as children, and they worked together in a quartet setting before striking out as a duo. And both are strongly drawn to the traditional Italian music that surrounded them during their respective childhoods. In fact, nestled among the originals on La Strada Invisibile is an interpretation of "Cosa sono le nuvole," a classic Italian ballad written by Domenico Modugno.
"I think our musical bond comes from an especially strong similarity in our musical sensitivities," Biondini says. "We also have some parallels in our collaborative experiences, because we've both worked with musicians with diverse backgrounds. This has allowed us to enrich our identities and to communicate through a language less coded and conventional."
And indeed, both their resumes are impressive. Marcotulli has worked with a number of esteemed jazz musicians including pianist Paul Bley, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and trumpeter Enrico Rava. Biondini, for his part, has played alongside Rabih Abou-Khalil, a player of the Arabic stringed instrument the oud, tuba player Michel Godard, and violinist Adam Bałdych, among others.
Both musicians are quick to cite a blend of classical discipline and jazz improvisation as vital components of their sound. "I think that [jazz and classical] are complementary," Marcotulli says. "In classical music there is more weight on technique or the interpretation of a piece written by somebody else that must comply with the aesthetics of the historical period. And it requires a lot of training for those reasons. In jazz, we are composing instantaneously; there's much more freedom. We're exploring both the technical aspect but also the process of improvising music over a harmonic structure."
Biondini adds, "Jazz gives you a great sense of freedom of expression, and classical music requires you to have a high level of technical instrumental ability. In my music, I try to hold together both aspects."
When it comes to live performance, the pair is able to incorporate more improvisation than on a record, but Marcotulli says that the amount of improvising they allow themselves to indulge in is based on the piece they're playing. "Our approach always depends on the tune," she says. "We might improvise a song without structure or suggestion, or we might have a harmonic or rhythmic structure. In our concerts, we often search for ideas that fall between evocative melodies and moments of total improvisation. That transition is kind of an imaginary journey."
Biondini adds that in a live setting, the two often transform their individual songs into something larger and more powerful. "Onstage, we have the ability to treat the whole repertoire as a suite and link the pieces together," he says.
Finding a balance between the technical mastery of one's instrument and being a passionate player can be tricky, but for these two musicians, skill and passion are inseparable. "There is a difference only when the two things are not put at the service of music, but instead are used as one for hiding the limitations of the other," Biondini says.
"In my opinion, the technique must only be a means to have the ability to express what the music suggests," says Marcotulli. "The music may be virtuosic, but it is always to communicate an emotion, not complacency. Technique is not an end in itself."
Whatever the taste of the audience in front of them, and whatever the venue, the duo sticks closely to their own intuition when they play, and they're both emphatic that playing what moves them is paramount. And to hear Marcotulli speak of her music, it would seem that doing otherwise is, for her, impossible. "We are always playing what we feel," she says. "Music is a direction, a way of living. It's in the air, but it is also the mirror of the soul. It's another language that draws the deepest emotions from me. It's the most beautiful thing when the music comes."