John di Martino Seeking The Poetic Element Q&A by Charles Levin
John di Martino
Seeking The Poetic Element
Q&A by Charles Levin
(Ventura, California) — Some really important moments happen just by chance. For instance, it was just by chance that while playing a jazz cruise, Joe La Barbera learned that pianist John di Martino was in the audience at Joe’s first gig with Bill Evans. Then a Philadelphia teenager, di Martino, already on his way to a career in music, took a girlfriend to hear the jazz piano giant. Joe immediately asked di Martino to contribute his thoughts about that night for “Times Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio.”
Today, the 62-year-old di Martino’s resume spans a whole lot of great collaborations: Latin-Jazz with Ray Barretto; Brazilian music with singer Janis Siegel; bluesy bop with Houston Person; and recordings of his own. Much of that career, I learned, was due to an older brother’s influence. But in an interview conducted by email from his New York-based digs, we first talked about that Evans gig at the Bijou Café.
Times Remembered: You heard Bill Evans in Philadelphia as a teenager. It turned out that it was Joe’s first gig with Bill. What drew you to go that night? How much of an influence was Bill up to then?
John di Martino: At that time I was 19 years old, I was studying with Lennie Tristano and obsessed with the music of his school, artists like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. I was always very intrigued by Bill Evans. I remember hearing him the first time on a TV broadcast and his harmonic concept fascinated me. In high school, I listened a lot to the duo album “Intuition” and then later in my mid-twenties I spent a lot of time listening to what most of us think of as Bill's watershed recording, “Explorations.” Bill's innovations are a great influence on me and all pianists. His influence is felt indirectly as well because it is so pervasive.
When I think about the timeline of the development of jazz piano, Bill Evans is the next important artist chronologically after Bud Powell. I hear the energy of Bud Powell in the early playing of Bill Evans, yet Bill always had a unique approach.
TR: What impact did that concert have on you going forward, that is, how did it impact your musical growth?
JdM: I was very inspired by the performance at the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia. I think of jazz improvisation as a meditation guided by the form of the song. I felt the same way listening to Ravi Shankar at that time in my life.
TR: Your brother, who’s nine years older, appears to be the catalyst for a lot of your growth and interest in pursuing music seriously. He played a lot of Broadway musical soundtracks that captured your interest. As a social worker, he brought you into the local Latin-American community where you discovered your passion for Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa. But it looks like one of the most critical moments came when he played you Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats.” Can you talk a bit about what you experienced on hearing that recording and where it ultimately pointed you?
JdM: Frank Zappa's “Hot Rats” inspired me to study either the violin or the saxophone. I still listen to the track “It Must Be A Camel,” and it still fascinates me! I wanted to take up saxophone, but there were none available at my public junior high school, so I chose the violin at 12 years old. Until today these are my favorite instruments, though I play them only vicariously as a composer and arranger.
TR: There was a time when musical theater was a primary feeder of tunes for jazz artists, particularly in the Great American Songbook. Did any of the music from the plays you listened to as a kid become part of your repertoire? If so, how did you choose to interpret them?
JdM: When I hear any music from West Side Story, I have a very intense emotional reaction. It brings me back to my childhood. I was a comical 8-year-old kid singing songs of Anthony Newly: “Once In a lifetime, a man knows his moment...” and selections from Marat/Sade! My brother also introduced me to Baroque music, such as Bach and Vivaldi.
My mother was an amateur singer and we would leaf through the fake book of standards. I would accompany her. I learned thousands of songs this way, and I developed my accompaniment skills which have been a blessing throughout my professional life in music. Now I produce recordings and arrange music for singers. I feel a close connection to the Great American Song Book. My relationship with these songs is like my relationship with people: always discovering something new about them!
TR: You apparently took to Afro-Cuban music quickly. You became so good at it that you were soon subbing in a Latin band at the Rainbow Room in NY that alternated with a jazz group you played in as well. Tell us about that and where that’s taken you.
JdM: Some friends introduced me to Afro-Cuban music in high school. I fell in love with the music. Many of the greats I listened to, I later played with, like Ray Barretto and Carlos "Patato" Valdes, among others
I was 15 years old when I played with my first Salsa band. The music became a formative influence for me. This early musical influence emerged for me again when I moved to New York. I started playing with the Latin dance band at the Rainbow Room. There were some great players in that band: Mauricio Smith, Victor Venegas and Virgilio Marti. This led to my long association with Bobby Sanabria and later I played with Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit for many years and made four CDs with Ray. I wrote an arrangement of the classic, “Lamento Borincaño,” which features Eddie Gomez and Kenny Burrell for Ray's CD, “Portraits In Jazz And Clave”
TR: Standards and jazz classics are often interpreted by Afro-Cuban artists. Mark Levine, a wonderful pianist in San Francisco, recorded albums focused on that. Ever play a Bill Evans tune in that style? Does it work?
JdM: I am currently working on a Bill Evans project with a classical singer. I am arranging some of Bill's lyrical melodies in both Bolero and Bossa Nova styles. The melodies work well in these treatments.
TR: You also play a lot of Brazilian music, particularly with singer Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer. How did you get interested in that genre?
JdM: My passion for Brazilian music starts early. I was a teenager when introduced to Elis Regina, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, and the great arranger Claus Ogerman! The esthetic of Brazilian music is a great influence on my composing and on my playing. I am always seeking what I call the “poetic element” in music. Poetry, unlike conversation, is the distilled essence of the idea and the feeling you want to express. It's done with a minimum of words. I like to approach music with a poetic sense of space and brevity!
TR: In one of the interviews with you that I read, you mention your one-time interest in Baháʼí Faith. Please talk a bit about your involvement there and what, if any, spiritual paths you’ve gone down and how any of them have influenced you as a musician and human being?
JdM: I strive to live my life according to the most fundamental Baha'i principles: The oneness of mankind and the importance of the unity of mankind, and also the equality of men and women. The focus on individuals not only as they are now, but seeing the potential of what they can become. This enables their growth. The idea of realizing your own God-given uniqueness, not following the footsteps of our “for-fathers and sires.”
I have also practiced SGI Buddhism (Soka Gakkai International), which in essence is the “law of attraction.” I think about this phenomenon: for example, I did have the opportunity to work with many of the artists I listened to so intensely as a youngster, including singers Jon Hendricks and Janis Siegel.
TR: Who excites you right now in music? Who are you listening to and what do you like about their work?
JdM: I love the pathos in the voices of Gregory Porter, Karyn Allison, Kurt Elling, Raul Midon and Samara Joy. I enjoy listening to the musical imaginations of Joe Locke, Geoff Keezer, Gerald Clayton, Benny Green and Bill Charlap. I love all music genres. As a composer, it's great to have many colors on your palette!
TR: Your playing credits are vast, covering multiple genres and spanning instrumentalists and vocalists. Anyone out there you haven’t played with that you want to work with?
JdM: I would love to play with Wayne Shorter who is one of my idols along with Herbie Hancock.
TR: What personal project are you most excited about right now?
JdM: I am composing music now for a project with a double quartet: a jazz quartet with a string quartet.
TR: Do you have a video of a performance you’d like to share with our newsletter readers?
Check out John with his Quartet of the Americas, playing "East of the Sun." John di Martino, piano; Leo Traversa, bass; Vince Cherico, drums; and Peter Brainin, saxophone. For more info, go to www.johndimartino.com.
John di Martino (US) talks to Bernd Ihno Eilts/The Groningen Report, at Prins Claus Conservatorium Groningen, The Netherlands, April 3rd - 2019
************ DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE FEATURE 2012 / WOODSHED PRO SESSION BY ROBERT DAVIS
Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired - Interview with John Di Martino
"Pianist/arranger, John di Martino is equally at home playing jazz, Cuban or Brazilian music, making him a favorite bandmate and accompanist in multiple genres. Jon Hendricks, Keely Smith, and Freddy Cole have collaborated with him and pianist, Benny Green says John’s music is “an honest outpouring of light.” I’ve worked with John, so I’m yet another musician who loves making music with him!" - Judy Carmichael
Keyboard Magazine / TALENT SCOUT interview with John di Martino by JON REGEN FEB 18, 2019
John Di Martino is an acclaimed New York City-based jazz pianist and composer who has accompanied some of the most storied artists of our time. Get to know John di Martino, our TALENT SCOUT Artist of the Week.
NAME: John di Martino
HOMETOWN: Philadephia, PA
MUSICAL TRAINING: I studied with Jimmie Amadie, Lenny Tristano, Don Sebesky and Sophia Rosoff.
FIRST GIGS: I started gigging when I was 15 years old, playing in Philly Salsa bands, jazz gigs, and club dates. I had a house band gig in Atlantic City, NJ for three years before I moved to NYC, and I accompanied different artists every week. I gained a lot of experience with varied styles of music.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, and Horace Silver.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: Everything!
MY BIG BREAK: I "subbed" on a tour in Europe with Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit. Ray and I really hit it off and a year later, I joined the band and stayed for five years. We recorded with James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Gomez, and Joe Lovano. Some years later playing with Grady Tate, I met producer Todd Barkan and that led to countless recordings with Freddy Cole, Gloria Lynn, George Mraz, Ben Riley, Houston Person, David Fathead Newman, Isaac Delgado and many of my own on the Japanese Label Venus Records, under the "John di Martino’s Romantic Jazz Trio."
LATEST PROJECTS: I do a Billy Strayhorn program with Paquito D’ Rivera, and we are now planning to record the project.
FAVORITE KEYBOARDS AND WHY? I have always enjoyed the Yamaha Motif series and its descendants. For piano, I have found that nothing beats a pristinely kept Steinway, but the Yamaha CFX concert grand is a warm sounding piano.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? I want to spend more time writing. I would also like to land a teaching position in a part of the world with a warm climate!
ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Though we learn through imitation, allow yourself to find your own unique voice. Just as our faces and fingerprints are unique, we all have an individual creative voice.
A Neon Jazz Interview with NYC Jazz Pianist, Composer and Arranger John Di Martino with Joe Dimino
Simply Timeless Radio 'In Studio' interview with John Di Martino by Jay Daniels:
He’s a native of Philadelphia, PA, but these days, pianist John di Martino is recognized as a first-call musician in New York City. His latest is a collection of songs by Billy Strayhorn - Passion Flower. John’s accompanied by saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Lewis Nash. Raul Midon is featured as a guest vocalist on the track, “Lush Life.” Our journey of musical discovery begins with John’s early years in Philadelphia.
Chronicles Interview By Tony Outhwaite
In the early days of his career in 1982, jazz pianist John di Martino was a member of the house trio accompanying such internationally famous vocalists as Billy Daniels and Keely Smith at Steve’s Lounge and Elaine’s Lounge, two of the show rooms at Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. He also played electric keyboards with Billy Eckstine, filling in orchestral string parts. “Eckstine was a sweetheart,” Di Martino remembers, “and he and Bobby Tucker, his pianist for many years, took a shine to me and became my mentors. It was fascinating to hear them spin yarns about Billie Holiday and all the great musicians they worked with like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. One night Mr. B. sat in on my late-night trio set and, after I’d backed him on ‘Lush Life’ and ‘Here’s That Rainy Day,’ he looked over at me and joked, ‘Not bad for an Italian.’ I learned a lot working with him. And with Billy Daniels, I learned a lot of tunes playing for him. The first time I did the gig I spent a whole week listening to his sets and writing down the tunes and then I would go back and learn them. Working with Keely, when one of her West Coast pianists like Johnny Veith couldn’t make it, she wouldn’t do one of her more hip sets, she’d do something more like when she’d worked with Louis Prima, lots of shuffles and ‘Just a Gigolo.’”
Early on, the Philadelphia native studied with the reclusive pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano, a revered mentor to bebop and self-proclaimed “cool” jazzmen of the 1940’s and 50’s and a deep influence on prominent jazz saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, among many others. “Tristano’s main thing,” says Di Martino, “was that he patterned himself after Charlie Parker, who had first patterned himself after Lester Young, and he taught you to listen to these famous solos, then vocalize the solo with the recording, then do it all by yourself. It really made you think.”
Today Di Martino is 58 and, though based in New York City since 1988—when he appeared with jazz vocalese master Jon Hendricks at Carnegie Hall—has traveled widely abroad to France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, India, and elsewhere, including regular biannual tours of Japan with Australian bassist and vocalist Nicki Parrott, with whom he has recorded more than 15 albums. He has worked and recorded with more than 100 vocalists; insiders consider him one of the most sensitive and inventive accompanists in the business. Introduced to Freddy Cole—Nat “King” Cole’s youngest brother—by Billy Eckstine in Atlantic City in the 1980’s, he has now played on the 86-year-old singer’s last ten albums. These include the colorful tribute Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B., a 2010 release and Grammy nominee featuring such signature ballad highlights of Eckstine’s career as “Cottage For Sale,” “Tender is the Night,” and “I Apologize”—along with the humorously naughty blues “Jelly Jelly,” which Eckstine first recorded with The Earl Hines Orchestra in 1940 and which Hines, reminiscing in 1976, called “one of our biggest hits.” Di Martino has backed Janis Siegel, a founding member in 1972 of The Manhattan Transfer, the prizewinning vocal ensemble known for inspired and impeccably arranged renditions of bebop, swing, pop, and jazz-rock tunes. Around New York he has accompanied such younger vocalists as Sacha Boutros, Alexis Cole, and Deanna Kirk at the Kitano Hotel (Kirk in the 1990’s had her own eponymous club at First Avenue and 7th Street in the East Village), Myriam Phiro at Iridium, and other classy New York-based jazz vocalists as well as more cabaret-oriented artists like Barbara Fasano and Mary Foster Conklin at the Metropolitan Room, the Duplex, and Danny’s Skylight Room, yet he’s also worked with today’s preeminent big-toned tenor saxophonist Houston Person, at the Jazz Standard.
Typical of master accompanists, Di Martino is very thoughtful about the art of backing vocalists. “With a horn-player, you’re thinking about rhythm and about not crowding them. With a singer, you have to remember that the lyric is sacred, it informs all your musical choices, so an accompanist has to know the lyrics to all the songs. And introductions—the intros are very important to set the mood and the vibe. You’re giving the singer a launching-point, the intro has to bring them in. Hank Jones was a great intro player, but not everyone can do it. You need a sense of the focal point, a sense of clarity. You have to listen, to realize that singers want to be led. I try to breathe with them, to keep a balance between the lines and the harmony. And then all singers are different, so you adjust to each one. Janis Siegel and I always embark on a musical journey together. She’ll kid me, ‘Where are you taking me tonight? Wherever you want to go, let’s go.’ With Freddy Cole, his phrasing is very conversational, like he’s speaking; there aren’t many sustained tones. Myriam Phiro likes to stick to more traditional arrangements, so you want to make sure she’s comfortable. And Nicki Parrott and I have always connected musically—I introduced her to the Venus record label and her first CD for them, Moon River, sold 16,000 copies. But I don’t work well with people who are control freaks.”
Critic Will Friedwald has offered the droll comment that “cabaret is roughly half-jazz, half-musical theater, and half-pop,” and explains that cabaret is not so much about the individual songs but rather about context and narrative and the connecting historical patter that help to create a “show.” Di Martino, as a jazz pianist sometimes working in a cabaret setting, feels that “cabaret singers put the lyric first, they understand that in these surroundings singing is acting, and the melody is color. But the really great singers, like Mark Murphy, can do both.”
Billie Holiday possessed a singular talent for creating a feeling of intimate rapport with her audience, and Di Martino names Tony Bennett, Janis Siegel, and the late Sylvia Syms as others who possess this gift. “The great singers, like Bennett, can be singing to 1,000 people and make everyone feel like they’re singing just to each one of them. I remember seeing him at the Apollo Theater sitting high up close to the ceiling, and I felt like he was singing only to me.”
All jazz musicians have their favorites among recordings on which they’ve performed, and, for someone as busy as Di Martino, there are many. He likes Janis Siegel’s 2013 Night Songs, a collection of late-night love songs that includes the 1932 Rodgers and Hart movie tune “Lover,” Billy Strayhorn’s poignant composition “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” and “Midnight Sun,” the moody melody cowritten by bandleader Lionel Hampton and arranger Sonny Burke in 1947, to which Johnny Mercer added lyrics in 1954. He likes Deanna Kirk’s 2012 Lost in Languid Love Songs, with her renditions of “These Foolish Things,” Hoagy Carmichael’s much-admired “Skylark”—with Johnny Mercer’s charming lyrics—and “I Want to Be Loved.” The last was a 1947 hit by the tragic jazz and rhythm-and-blues vocalist Savannah Churchill, who had already sung with first-rate jazzmen Benny Carter and Red Norvo before, in 1956, she was badly injured during a performance when a drunken fan fell on her from the balcony at a Brooklyn night club, and rarely performed after that until her death at age 53 in 1974.
Di Martino is fond of several albums he’s done with Freddy Cole, including the 2005 This Love of Mine, which spotlights two standout saxophonists, Eric Alexander and the late David “Fathead” Newman, and features such wonderful oldies as “That Old Feeling,” “Out in the Cold Again,” and “The Continental,” largely forgotten today but a feature for Ginger Rogers in the 1934 movie Funny Face and the first song ever to win an Academy Award for best original song. The pianist was pleased to back the excellent but undeservedly underrated Gloria Lynne on her final recording, From My Heart to Yours, in 2007. And he is enthusiastic about his work with Cuban vocalist Isaac Delgado—sometimes called “the Frank Sinatra of Salsa”—on the singer’s 2010 release, L-O-V-E, an album of Spanish tunes originally sung by Nat “King” Cole that includes the title tune, “Perfidia,” and “Green Eyes.”
Talking about repertoire, Di Martino notes that there are certain songs that are “gender” numbers—“you know, ‘My Man’ and ‘I Got Lost in His Arms’ and ‘The Man I Love’ are pretty much girls’ tunes, although I’ve been working with the cabaret singer David Vernon, who performs ‘My Man’ and pulls it off very well. I remember a funny story that Billy Eckstine and Bobby Tucker told me—a male singer, not very bright, changed only one word and sang, ‘Someday she’ll come along, the girl I love, and she’ll be big and strong . . . ’”
“I think of every song as a scene from a movie, and the pianist must be as immersed in the character of the scene as the singer. And the accompanist must match the energy of the singer—if the pianist doesn’t match the character and the energy of the singer then something is missing from the total effect of the performance. I think of the accompaniment as an environment for the singer and the melody. And when you accompany you are a spontaneous arranger.”