Interview with composer and pianist Roberto Magris

Alphabetization of the “Nu Jazz”
Interview with composer and pianist Roberto Magris
(Originally published in the Italian jazz e-zine
April 2007 edition)

JWQ: DMA Urban Jazz Funk and later on Alfabeats, stand in contrast to straight ahead classic jazz. When you first started the project did you feel you took a risk (to alienate straight ahead jazz fans) or it appeared like an opportunity?

Roberto Magris: I’ve always liked the Hammond organ players like Jimmy Smith, Charles Earland, John Patton etc. so when it came the acid jazz season I was so happy to feel that such an organ sound was on the spotlight again. So I wasn’t afraid to miss something but simply I catched the opportunity to play a certain genre of jazz (soul jazz) that I’ve always appreciated. Of course, that kind of rhythm (acid jazz), the hip-hop with the rap lyrics and also the use of some digital technology (loops etc.) were an added value to the music to me.

JWQ: How was Alfabeats received by jazz fans and audiences around the world? Are you encouraged to continue with Alfabeats recording new albums and touring?

Roberto Magris: When I noticed that the “acid jazz” stream reached an artistic end and when I felt a little bit fed up with all those digital sounds, I decided to move the band into a new “acoustic” sound, but I had some difficulties with some bandmates. So, we splitted and I re-founded the band – together with the drummer Paolo Prizzon and rapper Max M’Bassado Marzio (both from the DMA experience) and 2 new musicians, guitarist Luca Boscagin and bassist Paolo Andriolo – under the name of Alfabeats Nu Jazz. From the beginning people enjoyed such a changing of atmosphere, with more aggressive rhythms and a variety of musical influences from jazz to hip-hop, progressive rock and ambient too. The feedbacks were so positive that I had to take my time to decide how and where to get our new CD “Stones” released. At last, some friends and my manager in the U.S., Paul Collins (from the ) were so enthusiastic that we decided together to get it released in the U.S. by independent label Oasis. No doubt that we’ll keep on alfabeating around…

JWQ: Can Alfabeats evolve to a sort of musical laboratory where other contemporary or ethnic sounds and influences can come into mix? Without comparing, can Alfabeats become a sort of “elektric” version of the Europlane Orchestra?

Roberto Magris: I think Alfabeats will always follow the present times and society with its urban rhythms and illusions… Not only my compositions and improvisational mood, but also Max’s poetry is very important too in the Alfabeats project. And the variety of rhythms and grooves too. My personal musical experience began in the crazy ’70s, with a lot of jazz, rock and jazz-rock… too… so I really have a “progressive” approach to music with the Alfabeats and with the Europlane as well. In this period I’m especially concentrated in playing the acoustic piano, without any keyboards, and I’m looking for a dried and more essential approach to music, in the sense of melody, harmony and rhythm. I feel that the Alfabeats have no specific “European” influences, in the sense of musical culture, but just range from different styles and musical approaches (jazz, rock, hip-hop, ambient, progressive) looking for a personalized mixture good for the body and good for the brain of the listeners. Europlane is a jazz laboratory with a different concept, rooted in the European jazz tradition, and trying to export worldwide such a point of view, similarly to Vienna Art Orchestra, for example (even if the musical approach is quite different).

JWQ: How different the collective chemistry and the music-making process is with Alfabeats than with Europlane Orchestra?

Roberto Magris: With the Alfabeats I need very much the collaboration of drummer Paolo Prizzon, who is charged to find the “right” grooves and rhythms for each song, and of rapper poet Max Mbassado Marzio who sets the mood with his stories. I’m very much influenced by the lyrics while composing; see for example “Red Cap & the Bad Loop”, which make me select the key to press (the jazz key, the rock key, the ethno key…). It’s very much a workshop, like an “old time” progressive band. On the other side, with Europlane, I mainly dig my own straight jazz experience and I like to plan everything before: the choice of the program, the arrangements, the soloists etc. Nothing stiff, but I like to be a real bandleader and music organizator. Indeed with the Europlane I’ve always recorded “concept albums”, like, for example, “Check In” featuring Tony Lakatos (Soulnote 2005) or “Il Bello del Jazz” featuring Herb Geller (Soulnote 2006) and just in couple of months I’ll have my newest 2007 album “Current Views” released by Soulnote too (website:

JWQ: Some voices are criticizing the expansion of jazz schools arguing that they produce too much quantity and less quality.

Roberto Magris: I’d say that it’s thank to the music schools that now we have so many excellent professional musicians all around the world (we couldn’t imagine it in the ’70s) and the general level of musicians is so high. Yes I talk about the technical and musical levels, that are fantastic. And it’s a joy to find so many excellent musicians everywhere around the world and to have the possibility to play together with them without barriers, thanks to a common musical background. And this is thanks to the music schools. If the musical and technical level is very high, that’s a great thing for all the “music” I’d say, mostly in such a technological world….

JWQ: In an interview with Boston Herald (Monday, September 11, 2006), Branford Marsalis commented: “The times are different now. The talent level is severely diminished and that stuff that has replaced it has really put jazz in a bind because the music seems to lack any kind of substance in regards to human-ness or humanity. It’s very professorial, like think-tank music. “Jazz is in trouble. But the reason it’s in trouble is not because the music’s dying, but because the people who are playing don’t have a lot of talent. We have great players in terms of playing their instruments, but in terms of some kind of understanding of jazz, we don’t have a lot of talent right now.” Do You think that Marsalis is right?

Roberto Magris: I don’t agree with Marsalis, I’m sorry. If we talk about “art” the story may be different, as Marsalis says. But in my opinion, certain lack of artistry in music is simply a result of the “spirit of times”. That’s the world today.. we have globalization, everything is almost the same everywhere.. how can we have a new Charlie Parker or a new Jimi Hendrix today? I’d say the only way for a musician to find his artistry, is to look inside his experience for his own personal resources. Like George Harrison I’d say that “We live in a material world (with a digital brain)” and we have to compare this to the “naif” Woodstock heroes from the ’60s… and to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler from the ’60s too… The world is different and the concept of art is and will be more and more different…. (what kind of art is the computerized music?).

Marsalis is right when he speaks about great technique without genius. He perfectly knows all the styles and the history of jazz but, in my little opinion, he cannot be compared to masters such as Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, just to mention a few names of the ’60s generation, about artistry and creativity… so I can’t see any reason for him to declare that young musicians have completely lost their talent and jazz awareness today. On the other side, it’s also clear that a new Mozart is missing, even if the Conservatories are packed with students. I’d suggest, let’s try to better understand what it’s happening now to us, to our society and to our music and maybe we’ll find some new concept of “art” if we are open minded enough to cross our cultural heritage and share our experience with the young generation not as a teacher but simply as an older colleague.

That’s the way Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane have shown to us and it’s still the approach of people like Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes, for example, or my own much older friends Herb Geller and Art Davis and the many other living legends of jazz still on the scene today. Last but not least, one of the best results of having all that music students at jazz schools now (it’s obvious that the most of them won’t become nor famous nor stars but just will keep alive the flame of their interest in jazz all their life) is that we find to have grown a generation of “quality” jazz listeners and that we have now an audience not only of jazz fans but also of people who have attended some jazz courses, who can play some jazz, who knows (better than in the past) what we’re playing about… So, that’s not definitely a bad situation, in my opinion.

JWQ: What are your impressions of the artistic and creative content of the current jazz and fusion scene in Europe and North America? What new talents can you see there?

Roberto Magris: I can find many interesting musicians in the current jazz and not only jazz scene. A first name is Roy Hargrove, who plays great music either with his straight jazz group either with his RH Factor, then Joshua Redman, Greg Osby… No, there are no great differences anymore between Europe and North America in music in my opinion, even if each artist has its own peculiarities coming from his race and culture, but it’s simply a matter of good or bad music, without geographical borders.

JWQ: What chances are for European jazz musicians to play more in North America? What do you think that should and can be done to promote it? Do you think there’s enough “market” for European jazz?

Roberto Magris: In my little experience Americans like professionism at the most. If Europeans plays at the same high standard of Americans they are immediately accepted. On the other side, in Europe, jazz is quite strong too and I’m very happy to say this, but there is still a big difference. In America there is much more selection and the average jazz musician has a higher standard than in Europe. However, in Europe everybody can find his own little space, even if having nothing to say, and that’s good for musicians and bad for the audience. However, I’d say that the level of the audience in the U.S. is the same in Europe and in Japan too… and the show business is definitely international, like the credit cards. When you consider that there is not enough market for jazz, yes, I think there’s enough market for European jazz… and that’s a good news in a sad story…

JWQ: Internet became a powerful promotional tool for musicians, yet there are many independent musicians on both sides of the Atlantic who think that their Internet presence and promotion didn’t bring them the benefits they were expecting, in terms of sales and bookings. How beneficial was Internet for your projects?

Roberto Magris: Internet is definitely important for my activity even if I think that it’s hard to spend time and energy to promote a new CD when the most of people won’t buy it in the shops and will try to download it from the net. Probably we must figure out the possibility that the artist will directly sell to the customers the file songs they want to listen but…. what about “concept albums”? Internet it’s like a rodeo, not easy to ride… even if everybody uses it, now. One thing is for sure: Internet has become a fourth part of my life (1/4 music, 1/4 driving to the gig, 1/4 at the p.c., and the rest to be divided trying to survive….)