Multi-talented pianist, accordionist and percussionist, Francesco Turrisi’s career is one that involves plenty of travel, both the kind that regularly takes him away from his base in Wicklow as well as the more imaginative kind, travelling through time and memory. His latest album— 'Northern Migrations' —launched in April, and reflects this with its mix of freshly-composed jazz (his own) along with traces of folk and early music. This is his first release on solo piano, and represents a departure for an artist most often seen playing in ensembles.
Francesco’s own family origins in Sicily, the heart of the Mediterranean, resonate through the album, as it looks both east and west. The watery indeterminacy of location (to quote his liner note “I don’t belong where I came from anymore, and I will never fully belong where I go…”), contingent on habit and circumstance, finds its image in the turtle, placed on the CD cover. The idea came from a childhood memory, seeing turtle shells hanging at his grandfather’s home in Sicily, relics from fishing at sea.
“They migrate a lot, and yet one thing that seems to be quite unique to turtles is that they somehow go and lay eggs in the exact same beach where they were born. There’s something quite fascinating with that idea of returning… this sense of being connected and disconnected with everything, both with the place where you come from and where you live.”
Turrisi lives between musical worlds, having trained in both modern jazz and early music, two idioms that nevertheless share the impulse to improvise. This secret network of non-notated music is also invoked in the use of taksim, an improvisational mode in Arabic music—usually used as a prelude to something else—that found its way into ‘Northern Migrations’, with three taksims punctuating the album at beginning, middle, and end.
“The taksim is usually the way of showing the mode in which the actual composed piece is going to be in... The idea was actually a little bit different: I wanted to use one of those little improvisations as an introduction to a piece which never actually made it onto the CD. I did like maybe six or seven takes, completely improvised, and liked them so much I ended up thinking about this idea of trying to use more than one, almost as a narrative throughout the record. There’s a little bit of whatever comes through under my fingers, which is the concept of the whole album I suppose—those musical experiences that come filtered through my ears and my hands.”
Reflecting on his background, he enjoyed finding links between the different kinds of musical styles he engaged with, even as a student.
“I think the big thing I took away [studying jazz] was the mentality behind the jazz musician, behind the improvising musician, behind trying to create your own language from the communication you have when you play jazz with other musicians. And then—not in a conscious way—I basically tried to take that with me approaching different types of music. I approached baroque music with the mentality of a jazz musician—it seems very clear to me that the musicians at that time operated in a similar way to jazz musicians of our day. I just try to use this kind of an approach to music, that I learned from jazz, in different genres, so Arabic music or Eastern music that have certain elements of improvisation, similar ideas let’s say.
“It’s all about connections you make, and in a way that’s the idea of the album, about how we’re all connected, especially in this day and age when the world is trying to tell us that we’re all different and they’re trying to disconnect people from each other.”
There’s something of that in the pleasure of performing for an audience, the energy that comes with that, and the pull of certain pieces. One piece that Francesco finds he keep coming back to is the Italian traditional song ‘Alla Carpinese’…
“Yes, it’s a piece that somehow I’ve never stopped playing! I like it so much, to play it as a piano solo, it brings such a strong, intense moment to a show as well, that I just wanted to put it in; there’s something quite magical and atmospheric about it.”
For someone used to making music as an ensemble player, it must be quite something to put yourself out there as a solo performer. Is this something he’d like to develop further?
“I think so—it’s a completely different energy when I go out on stage and it’s only me, and people seem to react well to it, it’s still a bit new for me. I’ve only done a few piano solo gigs so far, it’s a pretty intense format, but I like it and I’d like to explore it a little bit more.
What was the process of producing and funding this recording project like?
“It took a while. The music was developed a couple of years ago; I had quite clear ideas that I wanted it to be very much my own album, in terms of being able to make all the decisions about it, in terms of production, but also in terms of design and stuff, so I took it one step at a time. I first found a place to record it, and was lucky to find this space in Kilkenny, Castalia Hall (which has been closed down since), with a really good piano—a place you can just go in and record, without also spending a fortune, quite hard to find here!
“I set up the crowd-funding—the album was already recorded by then—to help with the expenses of the recording, but also as a way to reach out to the audience a little bit, you know. It was a bit tough, because it’s a very over-crowded market, and I didn’t realise the amount of work that there is behind it. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it. At the start of the last week I had like 20%, and then in that one week I got to 105%. A lot of people waited until the end and then they donated quite generously, so I managed to finish it.”
This recording is very much a calling card for him now; are there any future plans?
I’m doing a solo tour in New Zealand in June 2019 with Chamber Music New Zealand. I was there a couple of years ago with the group L’Arpeggiata, and I loved it, it was great.
I’ve also just started on a very interesting project with an American musician called Rhiannon Giddens. She lives in Ireland as well, and was founder-member of a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which won a Grammy award a few years ago. They explored early American repertoire from an African-American point of view, so old-time music, stuff that people normally would associate with ‘white’ America. We started working together on a project which looks at all that material alongside all of my stuff from the Mediterranean, this connection with North Africa and Sicily, and realised that nothing felt so good together, we are almost so shocked that nobody has done it so far. She plays banjo (1860s, fret-less, a much larger instrument than modern banjo), so that combined with frame-drum sounds amazing. We’ve done a couple of small gigs, and a few more coming up in the States because she’s well-known there. We’re planning to do a recording in August which hopefully will be released next year."
For more details of ‘Northern Migrations’ see: https://francescoturrisi.bandcamp.com/album/northern-migrations
or visit Francesco’s website: http://www.francescoturrisi.com