A Conversation With Slivovitz's Pietro Santangelo

Posted September 8, 2011

I must admit that it was a great honor for me to be asked by Leonardo to interview Slivovitz about their upcoming MoonJune Records' release Bani Ahead (MJR039). I had received an advanced copy of the disc several weeks prior, and, in all truth and candidness, it has been a regular part of my listening rotation ever since its' arrival.

Being a relative newcomer to the planet MoonJune, my familiarity with Slivovitz dates back months now -- encompassed by Hubris (MJR026), and a few very choice YouTube videos of theirs. They had already earned my respect in a relatively very short time. There is a wonderful freshness to their delivery, and an inescapably organic, uncontrived nature to their music.

For me, Bani Ahead represents a quantum leap for this band. The album possesses a number of songs that, from a music composition standpoint, qualify as works of sheer genius -- masterpieces. Their sensitive delivery of this material -- ever respectful, dynamically, of one another -- is perhaps even more impressive; there is a wonderful chemistry and warmth that shines through in their music.

... But don't get the wrong impression: they rock hard, and they can funk hard -- while they're jazzin'!

Whatever style or direction they choose to embrace, their arrangements are superb and tightly-executed -- but still always sounding like they're having a blast playing.

So it was in this context I conducted the interview. It would certainly qualify as dishonest for me to even attempt to appear unbiased: this album is just too darn good.

In this wonderful age of digital worldwide communication, one can still communicate with warmth and candidness -- even if the default language of the interview is of a very difficult foreign variety (which the English language is for most everyone to whom it isn't native), and the guy asking the questions is on the other side of the globe! Ever the effective communicator, Pietro Santangelo would certainly not disappoint me in this regard.

Picture: Pietro Santangelo, of Slivovitz
  Pietro Santangelo

Q: First off, I know from what I have read that Slivovitz was originally formed back in 2001. How did the group initially get together, and what were those early years like?

The group formed on September the 27th of 2001, from a spontaneous jam in the streets of Naples.

I'm not one of the sacred founders of Slivovitz, but I joined the band very early on -- just a month and a half later. The first days were crazy: just jamming and freely arranging ideas, and drinking this spirit, Slivovitz, brought in by Geregely (an Hungarian guy who is a very close friend of ours, and who was working as a tourist guide in Naples at the time).

Q: What other artists and styles of music have impacted the band? ... Were there any, in particular, that the band tried to emulate or were a major influence?

At the very beginning everyone was just bringing their musical experience into the band. I remember spending hours listening to music together ... we were just listening and playing literally EVERYTHING. The Miles Davis productions from the middle sixties to the mid-seventies was really something that we all dug.

Q: That was a great time for music. Jazz was thankfully making the transition out of being strictly bebop. (Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Miles.) I notice a similar sort of "openness" to the music of Slivovitz -- where the music seems to give itself room to breathe and develop.

I also notice some ethnic influences and what could be characterized as "world music" stylings present. How did those elements of your style emerge?

After our first trip to Hungary in 2003, we got in touch with the balcanic and gypsy musical tradition through groups like BESH O DROM. Ever since then, the ethnic horizons of our compositions have expanded from the Mediterranean area to Eastern Europe (and beyond).

Q: Had any of the band members played together, prior to the formation of Slivovitz?

Some of us, like Marcello, Domenico, Riccardo and Luca Barassi, were very close friends. Jonathan Favi -- who was the first percussionist of Slivovitz, and showed up with us on our first three gigs -- had a little place in the back of his house in Agnano where we used to jam before the group was actually born.

Derek and Riccardo had also played together when they were in high school, and Riccardo and I both appeared on a Jenny Sorrenti (a Neapolitan folk singer) record from the same year Slivovitz was founded, 2001. The sound engineer of the record was Luca Barassi -- one of the Slivovitz sacred founders, as well as one of the producers of Hubris.

Picture: Marcello Giannini, of Slivovitz
Marcello Giannini

Q: Shortly after the band formed, I'm sure you realized that there was a special chemistry present. What were your collective ambitions? ... Did you ever picture yourselves still going strong 10 years later, and recording on a well-respected international record label?

I think that, initially, each one of us had a different musical ambition! Personally, by the time I realized that our friends and, more generally, people really DID like our music, I was only concerned with writing and arranging more music! We had probably never pictured ourselves in a definitive way, and this is something that I personally consider very important.

Q: After reading a generalized account of the many countries and festivals in which Slivovitz has participated, it is easy to see how you would come to start recording albums and begin making an impact on the progressive music genre. At what point did you realize that those ambitions could be attained, and were there any events that stand out as being instrumental (pardon the pun) in helping you achieve those goals?

In 2003, we took part in the Ethnojazz music competition in Milan.

Inspired, we returned and won first prize the next year (in 2004). Presiding over the judges that year was pianist Dave Kikowski, and Adam Nussbaum was there performing with the Miroslav Vitous Quartet ... a fabulous event.

That same year, we appeared in the Sziget Festival for the first time, and; we opened the Buju Banton concert during a festival in Naples.

I think that those experiences were very important for the band in achieving a professional outlook about making music, and it presented a very good opportunity to "test our faith" and try to achieve a career in music.

Q: How many countries has Slivovitz performed in, and, of those, where have been your favorite venues in which to perform?

Other than Italy, we have played in Hungary (Budapest Sziget Festival, Debrecem, Veszprem, Ocs...), Spain (Barcelona) , Serbia (Nisville Jazz Festival, Belgrade) Croatia (Zagreb) and Austria (Mumyuha Festival Hochneukirchen).

The Sziget festival of 2004 is an experience that we will never forget. Playing in such a festival full of such diverse musical talent allowed us to discover many other groups and musical cultures that the mainstream doesn't expose you to.

The same can be said for being in the Nisville Jazz Festival, in 2010. We performed just before the Roy Hargrove Quintet, in front of 5000 people; it was a very exciting venue.

Q: During the course of the years of touring and performing, I'm sure there has been a lot of unexpected and/or surprising things happen. Are there any 'unforgettable stories that have happened on the road you would care to share?

On this subject, I could write a book! Anyway, I remember spending three days off on Balaton Lake, waiting to perform in Ocs and Sziget. We were hanging out, drinking beer and cooking, and the picture of Riccardo being chased by a male Swan who was protecting his children will never be erased from my mind!!

Q: Most of the people reading this will probably already be familiar with your first release for MoonJune Records, Hubris. It is my understanding that it was released previously, and that MoonJune picked it up and re-released it -- is that correct?

That is partially correct. The first part of the record was previously-unreleased new material; the last three tracks were, indeed, previously released on our first album, "Slivovitz". (Recorded in 2004, and distributed by an Italian label based in Milan. The record is quite difficult to find, but some tracks are actually posted on YouTube.)

Q: How did you meet Leonardo Pavkovic (head of MoonJune Records), and what has that relationship been like for Slivovitz?

Leonardo actually found us on MySpace, while we were doing the preproduction recording of Hubris, in 2007. It took us a long time to mix the record because Luca was living in London and we did everything offline.

About that time we received an offer from an Italian record company who were principally involved in producing jazz music, but we decided to go further -- with Leonardo, and Moonjune. I remember the day when I called him back; we had a deal in just a few days. Dealing with New York was much easier than dealing with Italy!

Q: I know the lineup of musicians has changed, somewhat, since Slivovitz originally formed. Can you tell us about the personnel changes, and how this has impacted the evolution of the band's sound and the direction of your music?

The line up has changed a dozen times or so, but the group's core -- Derek di Perri, Domenico Angarano, Marcello Giannini, and myself -- hasn't changed since November 2001.

Riccardo Villari, from the group SSF, left for a couple of years (2005 & 2006), but, as a person and as a friend, his spirit never left the band. We chose Ludovica Manzo as a substitute, as she has one of the most interesting and creative voices around. She added a special taste to all compositions in Hubris (check out the vocal extravaganza in the background of Mangiare), but dealing with a voice was not an easy task, so we decided to add Ciro Riccardi on the trumpet to have a strong horn section.

With this new line up -- including Salvatore Rainone on drums, replacing Stefano Costanzo -- we turned to a slightly more rock-influenced sound. Bani Ahead was entirely conceived with this line up, with the exception of Egiziaca (which was first played with Stefano still with us on drums).

Picture: MoonJune Records' recording artists, Slivovitz, performing live in Europe.
MoonJune Records' recording artists, Slivovitz Photos Courtesy of Sabrina Cirillo

Q: That's ironic that you would do away with vocals, add a trumpet and come away with a more rock-influenced direction (!) -- but that is indeed the case with Bani Ahead.

Let's talk about the new album. Having listened to Hubris many times and having seen a number of Slivovitz's YouTube video clips, Bani Ahead seems to represent a real departure for the band. Certainly there does seem to be more rock influence, but there is also other new directions, stylistically, for the band and, to my ears, a more mature and polished group sound. Was this something you purposely set out to do?

Rock has always been a main influence for everybody in the band, and during the concerts we always jam a lot and we do rock a lot. In some sense we were not completely satisfied by the sound of Hubris because it was not what we used to do on stage. Personally I love Hubris but I think that its major quality, eclecticism, could be perceived as a lack of clarity in the artistic direction of the group. So when Leonardo asked us for a new release, we started to look for something that was more internally coherent, stylistically speaking.

Q: Perhaps you can tell us a little about the process of putting together the new album's songs and arrangements. A number of these songs develop so organically -- such as "Cleopatra Through", "Opus Focus" and "Pocho" -- they left me wondering whether I had just listened to a great composition or a brilliant, intuitive group improvisation (a reaction which, for my tastes, is as good as it gets!).

Were any of the songs on Bani Ahead actually spontaneous creations in the studio?

The process was quite the same for every song: Marcello, Domenico or I bring a tune in, more or less arranged, and then everyone in the band works on it. Collectiveness as always been our secret weapon.

"Opus Focus" is a little exception to this: I wrote the themes and the main structure of the track, then Marcello added some excellent counterpoint in the central theme. I did a small final adjustment to Marcello's work and it was ready.

The collective improvisation was a particular Marcello issue (especially "02-09" and "Pocho") that reflect his huge interest in the free jazz/rock avant-garde explorations of artists like Marc Ducret and Tim Berne. On "Cleopatra", I was more interested in building improvised rhythmic counterpoint, based on a polyrhythmic figure. But in the end it's not just me or Marcello, it's EVERYONE playing -- so we just go with the flow.

Every tune, apart from "Opus", was arranged together; the final part of "Pocho" was written by Marcello during a rehearsal, and; the "Bani Ahead" central riff (that's a typical 6+5 Slivovitz pattern -- a trademark of Marcello!) was something that I requested on purpose to be built together. ('Ok, that's the main theme, and then I'll take a solo on a burning Marcello riff ...' -- this was more or less the way it went.)

Q: Which songs really stand out to you, and why?

"Fat", "Cleopatra" and "Vascello" are my favorites. Vascello is a brilliant composition which flows like a fresh wind; Fat has a beautiful harmonic structure that reminds me of Radiohead, and a wonderful solo duet between Derek and Marcello; on Cleopatra I LOVE Riccardo's solo and Salvatore's groove.

Anyway the award for the best solo, in my opinion, goes to Ciro -- the mood on "Egiziaca" really thrills me!

Q: I found Bani Ahead to be a very satisfying listen -- filled with excellent compositions, great interplay, inituitive solos and many surprises. How satisfied is the band with this release? ... Is there a sense among you that you've delivered "the ultimate Slivovitz masterpiece"?

I don't know ... maybe it simply deals with the reality of growing as men and musicians, but I find "Bani" really reflecting us in this moment. "Hubris" (previous release) and "Slivovitz" (debut album) had some freshness and restlessness, but Bani to us represents being here and now -- looking forward.

Q: After ten years of being together, does Bani Ahead signal a new direction, musically, for the band? Will the band continue writing strictly instrumental music, or do you picture a return to incorporating vocals? ... Where do you envision the music of Slivovitz going from this point?

With Slivovitz, we continue to explore new directions. As for where the music will go, I can only say that it will continue to grow!

Q: Does the band have any plans to tour in support of the new release? ... Will you ever make it to the other side of the globe?

We do have some big plans taking shape for not too far in the future -- in the USA, Mexico and Brazil. In the meantime, we will continue playing in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as opportunities present themselves. We love traveling and performing, but Italy can be a difficult place for instrumental groups who don't play straight jazz.

Q: In closing, is there anything you would like to say to fans of Slivovitz reading this interview?

I hope everyone enjoys Bani Ahead as much we enjoyed writing and playing it!

Thank you, Pietro. I appreciate your time and effort, and wish you and the guys the best of success with "Bani Ahead".

To all who may be reading this, I cannot recommend this album enough ... it really IS some of the freshest progressive music I've heard in years.

To any who might wish to have this phenomenal group of musicians perform at an event, they can be booked through (for more information, simply click to email).

Interview by John M.