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by Alessandro Arcuri

The seventies have surely been a time of wild musical experimentations, but many bands didn’t survive past that period, and their fame have been gradually disappearing thru’ the years. A band like Area, though, is still a reference point to define the concept of innovation in popular music even today, and it’s certainly not by mere chance that one of its members, Ares Tavolazzi, is still a cornerstone for many bassists, of every age and of every musical extraction. From the bittersweet ballads of Francesco Guccini to the smoky and sophisticated atmospheres of Paolo Conte, to the wildest jazz improvisations, Ares’ fingerprints have always been clearly recognizable and, as himself says, have been the result of a constant work of research that started back during those “Area times”. 

©2002 Roberto Abbate

Alex Arcuri: looking at your biography I noticed that after you finished the musical studies, you started your career as a session man, but quickly became an active member of Area, and then, after the group called it quits, you came back on the sessions scene, also as a sideman in many musical projects. I know that nowadays you prefer playing jazz live, but apart from that, was the shift from a session man role to being a band member merely a casual fact, or did it happen on purpose? 

Ares Tavolazzi: no, I’d say I didn’t join Area after a long search, they were looking for a bassist and they were rehearsing some, among which there was me, that’s all. So it happened only by chance, I wasn’t looking for something in particular, back then… maybe I would have done that later, but the chance came on that moment and I grabbed it! 

AA: and what about the differences between the two roles? As a session man and as a band member, I mean. 

            AT: well, working in a band is surely better by all means, because you do some research work, you pursue something personal, something of your own, I mean… it’s not that being a session man is that easy, because you need discipline, a different approach on the instrument… they are both interesting jobs, but I definitely like the research side better. 

            AA: is that the reason why you are now oriented, as I red in other interviews, towards that side, within jazz combos, such as the Gibellini – Tavolazzi – Beggio trio? 

            AT: yes, let’s say that Area became the starting point of a long walk, of a path that led up to what I’m doing now. 

            AA: and I also noticed that now you are completely dedicated on improvisation studies; is that kind of work, not only for you but also for every other musician, an easy thing to do here in Italy, or do you feel always a bit sacrificed, both regarding the chances to perform and how the listeners react? 

            AT: no, I’d say that considering the people’s reactions I must be very thankful, because even those who are not accustomed to jazz, always give me a warm welcome, and I’m very happy about that; sure, it’s not easy, on the money side, making a living on that. You travel a lot, you don’t earn that much… you survive, let’s say; it’s a precise choice. 

            AA: so what do you think about Italy’s situation, on that topic? Also compared with the situation abroad. 

            AT: well, now we had some contacts with France, but not much else, let’s say that something’s happening. For example I’m going to San Francisco, in a while, with Enrico Rava, Roberto Gatto e Stefano Bollani, but these are only sporadic chances. 

            AA: and what’s the situation like in the U.S, or even in France, for someone who wants to follow this artistic direction, base exclusively on improvisation? 

            AT: well, when we say France we mean Paris! The rest of France isn’t all that… but I’d say that up there things are a little better than here. First of all you are a little bit more recognized; here if you say you’re a musician it seems like you don’t have a real job, and if you say you play jazz it’s like you are only enjoying yourself. In France you are more recognized, there’s a form of copyright on improvisation and they’ve done some steps that will take a long time, here, to be done, I believe. 

            AA: yeah… but since this involves the topic of musical education, and since you can often see ads of seminars and stuff like that with famous musicians, around, don’t you think that there’s a sort of tendency, within young guys, to become some kind of “monsters in their own bedroom”, that maybe cannot even play in a group setting? I mean, don’t you think there’s too much emphasis on the instrument alone that makes you unable to play with other musicians? 

            AT: eh... it’ s exactly the opposite of what was the situation like when I started out. When I begun playing there were no training aids but you had a lot of chances to play around, even if you did only ballrooms, it was a different approach on the instrument, you kept on learning a lot. Nowadays that’s what’s lacking. Live practice. While you get a truckload of training media, because with the internet, the seminars, this and that… but, you know, I don’t know if it’s all worth it. I mean you become technically prepared (but even on that topic there’d be a lot to discuss about) but you are not ready to play with other people, you’re not rhythmically independent and you don’t have a practical knowledge, that’s it. 

            AA: do you still teach? 

            AT: now I’m teaching in two schools, one in Rovereto [at C.D.M.] and here in Bologna [at the Container], and I also give some private lessons. 

            AA: and I guess you stress a lot on that topic. 

            AT: well yes, I point out that you have to be able to pull out simple melodies, on your instrument, before you start with technical gimmicks that don’t take you anywhere. I think it’s more difficult to come up with a melodic line with some sense than to play a fast scale that doesn’t fit with anything. 

            AA: in fact I noticed that on your solos you tend to start very calmly, and then your melodic component kicks in, so you end up singing what you’re playing. You start very relaxed and then you let yourself go. 

            AT: exactly, and that also depends a lot on the different psychological situations; it depends on who you’re playing with, on how you’re feeling, on how’s the day been, so all the improvisation changes depending on your mood; of course your traits remain there! My personal trait is a melodic feel and that’s it. That’s what I stress a lot on. 

            AA: even if, like my band mates often say, (because we often play Paolo Conte’s tunes), when you have to play – say – a beguine or a mambo, and you just have to do two single notes, you become solid as a rock, so there’s also a strong rhythmic component in your playing. 

            AT: absolutely, that’s why I told you that being a session man helped me a lot; it’s an invaluable discipline. Every music has its rules, its way of playing it and that’s got to be respected, especially when you work for other people. There’s a discipline and a taste even on this, the taste of simplicity, like the taste of Cuban music, with those rhythmically shifted bass parts, with their repetitiveness and with their circular feel that you’ve got to grasp, that you’ve got to acquire; it’s not that easy, all those microscopic rhythm shifts that give you that elastic, that “round” feel. 

            AA: and of course, like you were saying before, since in the seventies there wasn’t all that musical education, you learned everything “on the road” 

            AT: absolutely, but, you know, playing in ballrooms taught me a lot… even how to comp on Paolo Conte’s tunes! It’s a pity that there are no more ballrooms, nowadays! Because now “ballroom” means “liscio dancing”… [translator’s note: “liscio” is a kind of “easy” popular music based on tangos, waltzes and some Latin rhythms, often played for elderly people, more in the countryside than in the cities and, sadly, often by crappy and clichéd bands. It’s the Italian country music, in a way… with the very same pros and cons of the American one… quite curious, huh?] 

            AA: since you told me about the “downside” of the seventies (no musical schools, I mean), you also stated that there was a lot more “courage” and experimentation, musically-wise, than now. 

            AT: absolutely, because you had a lot more chances to play. The political circuit gave you the chances to play really a lot, maybe with small incomes, but with the opportunity to be on stage and test live what you’ve been messing with in your basement. 

            AA: what’s the situation like, now? 

            AT: well, it’s no more like it used to be… like in life, in the politics, the values… many things are not like they used to be. It’s all meant to immediately generate an income, and therefore all the music consumption, especially if you consider the young people, it’s what it is; I mean, they don’t want to hear complex stuff, they want to hear pounding rhythms… not everyone, of course, but if you consider the masses… generally speaking, music has become a kind of background noise, or maybe a chance to rip your brains out with an impossibly loud volume. Or even something to make people talk, at the restaurant, ‘cause if you stop playing music they’ll quit talking, which is a strange thing, if you think about it. It’s an incredible conditioning. 

            AA: I know you’ve been in America, in N.Y.C., to study. Living in such a musical environment, do you think that Europe is very far behind, on that? 

            AT: nah, there’s no more such a gap, it’s years and years that Americans come here and Italians go there; this exchange has happened, now. I’d say in Italy there are extremely good musicians, compared to the rest of Europe, really… and it’s not me, it’s the Americans that say this! 

            AA: nevertheless many big time Italian pop artists keep on calling American players to perform on their records.

            AT: well, that’s almost an illness! Here in Italy we like everything that’s foreign since the day we’ve been invaded… it’s been like that since many hundred years, now. 

            AA: shifting to more technical issues, now, I saw some pics of you using an electric bass of an unknown brand (the photo wasn’t very detailed) which had seven strings. 

            AT: yes, it’s a Warwick; it’s a bass that Warwick made, or – better – adapted for me. It’s a streamer that’s been converted to seven strings, with a special bridge and broader pickups… 

            AA: what’s the tuning? 

            AT: it’s like a six strings with a higher string on top, a high F, so it’s still tuned in fourths. 

            AA: do you use it for its melodic character or more to comp with chords? 

            AT: well, it has many functions, it’s like a piano, so I can use it like a bass, like an harmonic instrument… that’s why I had it made, because I wanted to develop some harmonic stuff I was interested into. 

            AA: and why didn’t you consider picking up the Stick? 

            AT: because its technique is more like playing piano than playing guitar; it involves your hands in a completely different way, it requires independence, you see? And for someone like me, who’s been playing an instrument for which the right hand responds to what’s the left one doing, and vice versa, it’s a bit tough, it would have taken a lot of time. I had the Stick, I begun playing some Bach’s stuff but it would have taken so much time that I should have locked myself at home, and it really was not the thing to do… 

            AA: since you cited classical musicians, what was the influence of your conservatory studies? 

            AT: on what I’m doing now? I can’t exactly say because it happened thru’ the years, but something’s surely still present, in me, like the fingerings on double bass, and sight reading. 

            AA: and not something like a way of thinking harmony and so on? 

            AT: no, because I was a bit of an exception, I attended the conservatory while I was already doing ballroom gigs, so I lived in two kinda parallel worlds; and, also, at the Conservatory of Ferrara, that was a sort of “musical high school” back then, we didn’t listen to classical music, there was no education at all… it was awful, we weren’t followed at all, we were only criticized for our long hair and such things. Fortunately things have changed, now.

So I wasn’t much into classical music, I’d say I got interested later, after I turned thirty, more or less, and more for my own curiosity and my own need. From this point of view I’d say that classical studies didn’t give me anything, and maybe I saved myself from an harmonic and rhythmic disaster. 

            AA: why? Because of classical music studies? 

            AT: the way those topics are faced is hallucinating, in my opinion. They don’t expand your knowledge at all. 

            AA: that’s something many people already told me! 

            AT: conservatories are blindfolded, and only when they’ll realize that music is music… I mean there are guys that study piano for ten years and if you ask them what’s the chord they’re playing they don’t know, because they’re only reading it! It’s terrible; I mean, it’s not that you only have to improvise, but classical music can give something to jazz, and also vice versa. Jazz has a rhythmic elasticity, and it gives you such a mastery that it could really help your expression on classical music, like it’s happening in the U.S. 

©2002 Roberto Abbate

            AA: with Keith Jarrett, for instance… 

            AT: yes, but there’s also something peculiar; if you listen to Kronos Qartet, which has been one of the first strings ensembles to perform Monk’s music and stuff like that, well if you pay attention on how they divide rhythm on Monk’s tunes, it’s almost funny… they’re so square, and they lack that elasticity that’s got to be there, you see? While younger ensembles already overcame that problem and the two worlds are almost united. 

            AA: so the conservatories are what they are, but there are also some modern music schools, around. Not considering the technical issues we covered before, that may lead to something like circus performers, do you think there’s a broad covering of musical topics, in those schools, or do they produce only singers/songwriters/performers? 

            AT: no, no, some schools are focusing their target, of course some are less reliable than others… let’s say that many frauds hide behind that mask, but things are changing. Much of what private schools are offering depends on the teachers, because, for example, where I teach I have total freedom and the school itself only gives me the space and the instruments I need to teach. 

            AA: wouldn’t it be better to have an artistic director who could decide who’s the teacher to call? Or, better, who could decide the artistic direction to follow and depending on that, calling the appropriate musician to teach there? 

            AT: yes but who? Who’s got such a knowledge to face this task, here? Because it’s very difficult to say this, you know…

             AA: not to give free credits to anyone, but I saw you using an Acoustic Image amp, with your double bass, live. 

            AT: I use the Acoustic Image and a German AER, which is now undergoing some fixing. That one has been given me as an endorsement, or at least I think, because they never called me back… while the Acoustic Image is mine and I like it a lot 

            AA: so it’s not a choice based only upon its dimensions, because I saw it’s very small… 

            AT: no, no, I never had this problem, because when I’m looking for the right sound, size doesn’t matter. Of course you always try to compromise, but for example I used a Gallien Krueger for a year and I left it for good because it didn’t give me what I was looking for.  That one, instead, is built to have a fairly good power with a good sound diffusion, with its down firing woofer… I mean, I really like it. 

            AA: aah, there’s a down firing woofer, that’s why I heard your bass all over the place!  Right… and now, since I always ask that question… any advice for a young musician who’s starting on bass? 

            AT: well… what to say… 

            AA: since putting a move on girls is difficult, when you’re a bassist… 

            AT: heh heh... I dunno, because it really depends on each one’s character; I teach a lot to young boys and girls and I noticed that the way I teach changes depending on who I’m talking to. All the youngsters have, like it’s been with every generation, a lot of identity problems, maybe more now than ever, so the advice I can give is to study your instrument really well and do not be presumptuous. I mean don’t take everything for granted, because after all you don’t really know anything. That happens to me almost every day, when I teach. If I ask the simplest things such as tonality or the major scales they say “yes, yes, I know everything” and when I tell them to play a double octave major scale they stop halfway through it. So what I mean is, face the basics, first, and have patience. That’s it, you need to be patient and objective.


Pics by Roberto Abbate


Alessandro Arcuri

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