Stefano Di Battista (Interview): "Ennio Morricone said: 'I'm going to write a song for you now!'"
Updated: May 9, 2021
Stefano Di Battista is one of Italy's most renowned jazz musicians — although it was his move to Paris in the early 1990s that opened the doors for him. The saxophonist has since then performed and recorded with greats such as Michel Petrucciani and Elvin Jones. He has released several recordings as a bandleader, many of them via the famous jazz label Blue Note.
Di Battista's most recent album, "Morricone Stories", interprets the works of one of the best known composers of our time, the late Ennio Morricone. To the Rome born musician, Morricone was not only one of the greatest composers — but also a friend. A friend who wrote a piece of music especially for him — which, titled "Flora", is now one of a dozen tracks on "Morricone Stories".
Hyperlocrian.com spoke to Stefano Di Battista about his friendship with the maestro, as he calls him, his solo career and his work with Michel Petrucciani and Elvin Jones.
Tell me a bit about your relationship to Ennio Morricone – and how it came about that he composed a song for you.
I met Ennio Morricone in 2007, when some friends of mine organized a gala dinner for him after a television prize — a kind of surprise party. On this occasion I got introduced to the maestro. He was very friendly to me, somehow it seemed that he immediately liked me. Maybe it had to do with my history: I come from the periphery of Rome, from a normal family who owns a restaurant. He always could relate to regular people. We started talking and he told me: "Ah, you are Stefano Di Battista – I have heard a lot about you". Later that evening all of a sudden the maestro told me: "So you play the saxophone? I'm going to write a song for you now".
He then took a pen and paper and, in front of all those people, started to write a melody, and then said: "Okay, I'm finished. Now take your saxophone, we're going to play it". I was scared about that, but of course I took my saxophone. He started to play that song. I saw on the sheet that some notes were so high, I was afraid I'd make a mistake. So I decided to play this melody one eighth down. Ennio Morricone stopped me and said "Stefano, maybe you should play one eighth up". I said "Sorry, maestro — I was just trying to save myself". He smiled, and so we played the song. You can see this moment on the internet, there is a video of it.
Would you say it was a friendship between the two of you?
Yes, I would say so. I sometimes called him and asked him to have dinner with me, we spent time together. In the last few years, his health got worse. The last time I called him, I proposed again that we go out and have dinner. He said that he couldn't go out, but suggested that my wife and I come visit him and eat at his bed. I was very blessed to spend time together with him — and he gave me this great opportunity, this music that he gave me. We titled it "Flora", that's my daughter's name. I am so happy to have it.
Did you talk to him about jazz, too?
Sometimes I did. I think the maestro loved jazz. What he didn't like, though, was when people took his music and changed it too much. When they changed the chords for example: he particularly told me he didn't like that. I'm sorry that he can not hear my album. He might have told me: "Stefano! You've changed too much!". Or maybe not, I don't know.
How would you describe his personality?
He was a very nice man, also a very particular person. He loved simple people. Oftentimes, when he went to a gala, he spoke more with the waiters than he did with the mayor. He gave his time to the regular people, you didn't need to be "important" to speak with him. That's the school I want to learn from, that's a good school for life.
Did he know that you planned an album with his music?
Yes, I told him about the project. He was happy, he just said: "Stefano, just don't change the music too much!"
How did you decide on the tracklist? You included some of his best known pieces, but also lesser known work.
When I decided to do this album, I exchanged ideas with the other musicians and with my manager about that. We went through the whole Ennio Morricone back catalogue. By studying his repertoire, we realized once again that all his music was beautiful. The challenge was to put some music on it that some people don't know, like "Novecento". In Italy not a lot of people remember "Peur sur la ville" or "Veruschka". We didn't want to do just famous songs.
What was your approach regarding your interpretation?
I just wanted to focus on the melodies and not put too much jazz interpretation in it. We didn't change any chords, neither melodies. You know, sometimes when playing "Once Upon A Time In America", John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were on my mind – as they often are. But this one time I had to ask them to please be quiet. This is Ennio Morricone! I had to practise discipline. The challenge was to rely on the essentials regarding interpretation. I even think I'm almost happy with my playing on that album. I'm almost never fully happy with my playing, but this one I like very much. That might have to do with Morricone's great music.
What brought you to jazz?
As a kid, I was often alone, there weren't many kids in my area. My father started a little "banda musicale", a marching band — a little group that played folkloristic music with kids. A street band. I started with the saxophone when I was 12 years old, because a teacher told me I needed to. I told him that I didn't even like the saxophone, but he insisted. I am grateful to that teacher now. I discovered jazz when I was around 16 years old, when I first got to hear a record of Cannonball Adderley. I saw another world when I got to hear that album. I became completely crazy for Jazz. Even if I didn't understand anything about it then. It gave the impression that I was superman, that I was able to fly. That was maybe the most important moment of my life: That I discovered jazz by accident.
What were your influences as a saxophone player?
Massimo Urbani was one of the best mentors for me. There were a lot of influences. Almost every sax player I heard, I liked very much. Kenny Garret, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker. I liked Brecker a lot, I got to play with him, he was a guest at one of my concerts in Rome. There's even a recording that I hope his family will agree to release one day, it's great. I also liked Joshua Redman very much. I like saxophonists that play with a lot of creativity.
What made you leave Rome and move to Paris?
I was very curious when I was young. When I was around 18, I took a plane to Boston. I was eager to meet other people, play with other people, get to know their styles. I was so energetic. In Boston, I became friends with Matthew Garrison, the son of Jimmy Garrison. I started to play in Berklee School – without paying for the lessons. I did two or three months of illegal lessons there, I was a bit crazy. But it was a great time for me. After that, I went back to Rome for a bit and then moved to Paris. In France, I discovered myself a little bit more. I got more mature, more quiet. I discovered a part of me that I didn't know that existed. A lot of doors opened very quickly for me, like playing with Aldo Romano, Michel Petrucciani, Elvin Jones. France gave me a lot of opportunities. France is a beautiful place for people who want to do art.
"One time, when Michel Petrucciani was playing a ballad, I had to leave the stage because I started crying".
What are your memories about working with Elvin Jones? You worked with him as a sideman, he also played as a sideman in your band.
It was amazing. Elvin had the power to let you play better. I don't know how that was possible. If you play with Elvin, you just play better. It's magic, something that never happened with any other musician. He makes you shine. I learnt a lot of things from Elvin. He was also very protective of me. Sometimes there were people that would have preferred if Elvin didn't have a white man play in a band full of such brilliant black musicians. Jazz, this beautiful music, obviously comes from great black people. But Elvin just said: "Stefano, if anybody has a problem with you, there's the door, they can leave anytime". The band was amazing, though, Eric Lewis, Steve Kirby, they were all very welcoming to me. I had a great time with those people. I remember at one point, we were sitting in a plane, I asked Elvin: "maestro, what is jazz to you?". He said: "Stefano, jazz is easy. Look out of the window. Tell me, what do you see?" I looked and said "Well, I see clouds". He said: "That's jazz". It's a kind of philosophic way to say jazz is everything, a way of life, of picturing everything. Jazz is more than music, I supposed that's what he meant.
What was working with Michel Petrucciani like?
Michel Petrucciani was different. Even though he suffered from physical problems, he was such a funny and nice man. He was an incredible talent. He could speak a new language within a month. When he was in Italy, within 30 days he was speaking Italian perfectly. His mind was superior. One time we were in Poland, playing with Steve Gadd and Tony Jackson. After the concert we played a session with younger players. Michel was playing so beautifully. He asked me: "What's the title of this tune?" He didn't know the tune, but he played it incredibly. One time, when he was playing a ballad, I had to leave the stage because I started to cry. His playing was amazing.
In Paris, you signed a record deal with "Label Bleu" and released your debut album "Volare".
Yes. Immediately after I arrived in France, Aldo Romano took me with him. At one occasion there was somebody from Label Bleu, a French record company founded by Michel Orier. Michel said: "Stefano, I like you very much, I want to do an album with you. Do you have something to propose to me? I said "No". "Perfect", he replied, "this is the right way to do an album". (laughs). He was happy I didn't have an album ready. We went into the studio and did an album for three days. It was great, the album was good and people loved it. I'm grateful to Michel.
Then you signed to Blue Note Records.
After "Volare", everybody called me to do an album with them. Nicolas Pflug, the boss of Blue Note France, proposed to do two or three albums with a good budget. I said yes. It was the occasion that opened the doors to America. The next album I did with Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lundvall, creator of the most beautiful Blue Note albums in the world. After that, a lot of people started calling me.
Find more info about Stefano Di Battista on his official website.
"Morricone Stories" is out now.