PREVIEW / INTERVIEW: Diana Torto (REVOICE! Festival, with John Taylor and Julian Siegel, 12th Oct)

John Taylor, Diana Torto. Photo credit:Roberto Cifarelli

Italian singer Diana Torto will at the Pizza Express Jazz Club with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Julian Siegel on Sunday 12th Oct. in the Revoice! Festival. In this interview with Alison Bentley conducted by email – a few days before the news of Kenny Wheeler’s passing – she writes about working and recording with Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Paolo Fresu, Enrico Rava and Mike Stern, and her approach to improvising: 

Alison Bentley: Have you always sung?

Diana Torto: As far back as I can remember, yes, and even earlier than that, I have been told! I started to sing professionally at the age of 12.

AB: What first got you interested in jazz?

DT: Well, I think, the feeling of freedom, and closely related to this: the chance to improvise.

AB: You’ve said that Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Lady Be Good’ was one of your first inspirations. Which other singers have inspired you since then?

DT: When I first approached the jazz repertoire and tradition, besides Ella Fitzgerald, I was also inspired by Carmen McRae, Jon Hendricks, Anita O’Day, Helen Merrill; later I knew and got inspired by some European vocalists like Urszula Dudziak, Lauren Newton, Norma Winstone. Lena Willemark, etc. Last but not least I would like to mention a great inspiration for me: Bobby McFerrin.

And I would like to add another singer. She is not a jazz singer but she is simply wonderful: Elis Regina.

AB: You mentioned Charlie Parker too. Any other instrumentalists?

DT: Oh yes! Many others! If I have to suggest some names from a long list, I would say Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans or from a younger generation Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Pat Metheny but I should mention a lot of other musicians, since I listen more to instrumentalists than vocalists to get inspiration. Let’s stop here….

AB: You’ve worked with so many of Italy’s great jazz musicians- (bassists) Paolo Damiani and Roberto Bonati, (trumpeters) Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu… What has that been like?

DT: Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu- I worked occasionally with both of them in projects organised by Paolo Damiani. With Paolo and Roberto Bonati the collaboration came about because they are composers who like to include a voice in their projects and bands. In particular, they like my attitude to singing- the voice is like an instrument along with the other instruments, as well as being used more traditionally. Both Paolo and Roberto really emphasize the instrumental role of the voice in their compositions.

AB: You sing chamber jazz with John Taylor (your 2009 Triangoli album) as well as the WDR big band. Your voice can be gentle and breathy, or very powerful. You can move quickly from one to the other with amazing control. Did you train classically?

DT: Yes, I studied classical technique when I was young, and repertoire until I was 24 years old. Then I definitely decided to turn my attention to jazz. Sometimes I still collaborate with classical contemporary composers. The last time was in January, when I sang the world premiere of the new version of an opera by a talented Sicilian composer, Emanuele Casale: Conversazioni con Noam Chomsky. The composer called his work a ‘talk-opera’. It is a kind of opera with musicians, videos, and electronics, based on and inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky, and on this special occasion with Noam Chomsky himself on stage!! That was really a thrilling experience!

AB: Did you study jazz singing? What kinds of things do you teach your students?

DT: I studied jazz singing too, but really just for one year with a regular teacher, then I immediately understood this: in Italy, at that time, what interested me could only have been learned from instrumentalists. And so I started to steal from friends and colleagues: pianists, guitarists, but mainly wind players. So I was asking them about their techniques and the best way to learn how to improvise. I started to practise improvisation, first with the piano and then translating this into my vocal teaching. First for myself and then, later, for my students. But here I have to mention the singer who encouraged me to steal from instrumentalists: Bob Stoloff, with whom I did three masterclasses around twenty years ago. I try to teach my students how to listen and to develop a sort of multi-level listening, i.e., to listen and follow a bass line like a bassist has to do; to get a rhythmic pulse as if you were a drummer; to get harmonic knowledge as if you were a pianist but with the feeling of using this harmonic palette in a melodic line like a saxophone player, and so on.

I also try to teach to my students how to listen to themselves, especially with the aim of avoiding clichés… learning about breathing, the pauses, the rhythms of the words, always remembering where you come from and not trying to do a “cut and paste” of something completely far away from your culture.

I studied and I am still studying improvisation and how to improve it. But with an image: using my ears the way a pianist uses his hands.

AB: You sing jazz standards on the 2009 album With Kenny Wheeler / Colours Jazz Orchestra: Nineteen Plus One. Are standards usually a part of your repertoire?

DT: No, I sang standards when I started singing jazz, but gradually I moved away from them and now I prefer to sing a repertoire based on contemporary jazz composers or something else: modern songs, folk songs, etc. Of course, in my teaching, instead, I still use the standards repertoire a lot.

AB: You’ve written some pieces for the Triangoli album. Do you write a lot?

DT: Not so much, I would like to but I am lazy… when it comes to writing music I need to be obliged to do it!

AB: Has Italian folk music influenced your singing style? Do you think there’s a special tradition of Italian jazz singers?

DT: Yes, of course- it’s like I was saying before, when I was speaking about the importance of cultural roots when I am teaching. I think it is the same with my singing. Those are my real cultural roots and it would be a mistake deny them or, even worse, hide them.

Maybe it would be better to say that an Italian jazz vocal tradition is now growing up between my generation and the next one. As for the difference between Italian and British/American jazz singing, I would say that, once again, there are some aspects peculiar to a culture, to any culture. And they have to be different, of course: like the sounds and the rhythms of your own language. In my opinion, these elements also have an influence on melodic improvisation: phonetic sounds, flexibility, etc.

AB: How did you start working with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler?

DT: I first started with Kenny when he came as a guest with an Italian big band in March 2004: the Colours Big Band. The collaboration continued over the years, first in Italy and then also abroad (with other bands and big bands) more and more frequently. In the meantime I was also starting to collaborate with John Taylor. I think they liked the use of my voice as an instrument as well as the Mediterranean colour of my voice. John was immediately happy and thrilled the first time I sang in my own dialect- some lyrics I wrote for one of his beautiful songs: Ballada. And even before he knew the meaning of what I was singing! He simply liked and likes the sound of Italian language and dialects.

AB: You’ve worked with Americans as well as Europeans. What was it like working with Mike Stern and Steve Coleman?

DT: Well, with Steve Coleman it was hard, but it was such a long time ago that I don’t have so many recollections of this. His musical approach was absolutely a discovery for me. With Mike Stern it was fantastic experience all the time, as far as both the musical side and the human side are concerned. He lives music with an incredible energy and freshness and he is always ready to share this with the other musicians on the stage. He is incredibly generous in this way.

AB: This London gig features some of John Taylor’s arrangements of Paul McCartney songs. I read about the Beatles gigs you did in the past with Nguyên Lê and Uri Caine. Are you particularly drawn to the Beatles’ songs?

DT: I first got deeply into the Beatles’ songs when I did the project with Nguyên Lê and Uri Caine. I knew many of them, of course, but I never listened with much attention. I liked them immediately, and when John suggested to me that I should be part of this new project, I was more than happy to sing these beautiful songs once again.

Alison Bentley: When and how did (saxophonist/ clarinettist) Julian Siegel join you?

Diana Torto: The first time I collaborated with Julian was during the recording session for Kenny Wheeler’s The Long Waiting. Sometimes he replaced (bassist) Anders Jormin in Triangoli and then more recently this project with John happened, based around Paul McCartney songs. That was the moment we started to collaborate on a regular basis. In November we will be in Italy at the Bologna Jazz Festival, and at the beginning of 2015 we will be back for a couple more concerts in the UK.


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