IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 90

INTERVIEW with Matt Criscuolo

We reviewed a wonderful CD (couple issues back, issue #88) from Matt called MELANCHOLIA... later on, I read an article someone sent or posted (I think on FB) about him being the owner of a couple of pizza restaurants... just couldn't resist asking him what that was all about, & here's the series of Q&A we did.  THANKS for taking time out of your schedule, Matt!


Zzaj: Based on reading the bio at your site & a couple of articles about you, I get the impression that though you're a "player", you also have a rich family history that remains a part of who you are as (both) a person & a player. Give us as much insight into where you "come from", "are" & "expect to be" in the next 2 or 3 years, so our readers can get a sense of who "you are", as well as "who your friends are", please.

Matt: My dad, who arrived from Italy as a young 14 year old in 1958, opened a pizzeria in Connecticut in 1975 which is still there. I grew up in that pizzeria. I worked in it, hung out there, and watched my dad do his thing for many years. I used to stand on a crate and make pizzas. I didn't hang out with friends on weekends. I worked at the pizzeria - had fun there too. Maybe too much fun. Back then, things were different. Dad would write on a paper plate "be back at 5" and dad, myself and my brother would walk across the street from the pizzeria, hop on my dad's boat, and go fishing. can't really do that anymore because of fear of losing customers to increased competition.  When back at the shop, I listened to my father's music all the time. Wasn't nuts about it, but those old Neapolitan songs, which are basically bluesy as can be, etched a place in my heart and soul. It brings tears to my eyes as I write this because I feel that I owe just about everything to my dad. he's like my "giving tree".

I became interested in the sax in 4th grade when some dude told us at assembly "boys and girls, you can choose an instrument today, so I will a bunch.  Pick one and tell your music teacher." I picked the alto sax. I spent hours a day playing along to 8 track tapes that my dad bought for me of an Italian sax player named Fausto Papetti. Again, Fausto's sound had a real impression on me. the first and only impression I had at that time. It was a pretty sound. not burnin', but pretty.

I played throughout elementary school, was offered my first gig by a dirty blues band at age of 13, as I was by that time into David Sanborn.  In high school, became a big fish in a small pond winning McDonalds Jazz festival awards, and just about every award possible. Things really changed when I went to Manhattan school of music. Small fish in a big pond. my classmates were Chris potter, Joel Frahm, Myron Walden.
after starving in Europe as a musician, I came back, opened a restaurant at 21, own 3 at the moment. Have managers set in place to allow me to play. Have my 3rd cd out and working on a fourth with Jimmy Cobb, Larry Willis, and others. I'm not your average nyc hustler and mover. I live in Ct, an hour from nyc. I go in as much as I can; but I'm doing my thing, the best way I can, at my own pace and realize for the first time, that when I look behind me, there aren't any jazz police chasing. As my friend and old teacher Dick Oatts told me " it's just music, man"

Zzaj: How has the family/heritage you gave us above influenced your own playing? Are you more influenced by family & friends than by other jazz players, or is it the other way around when it comes to your artistry?

Matt: I am influenced by certain great musicians like Bunky Green or Gary Bartz, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman. More than anything, however, I am seeking to be authentic. I've learned, like so many, a certain style, identity, approach. but I feel that the best approach for me is to search within myself for authenticity. Ornette was passionate about his music, he didn't please everyone, but he was true and steadfast to authenticity. I've got my whole life to play like "Matt Criscuolo". when Michelangelo was asked how he made the statue of David, he replied " the statue was already there in a big piece of stone. I just removed the stuff that was encasing it"

Zzaj: The aspect of your playing that most impressed me was the "power" you project through your instrument... do you agree, or is there another part of you as an artist that you feel more comfortable with?

Matt: I'm glad you felt "power" coming through. that's interesting. i'm happy that you sensed that. you're intuitive. As a musician, I'd say that my strongest asset is transmitting emotion through music. I'm not theoretically brilliant, or technically amazing. I am trying to capitalize on the things I have. I like to transmit a certain pathos, but with a strong undertone of power at the same time.

Zzaj: In these days of online music, folks often believe that there is no "music business" any more... since you're playing in/around the city (NYC, to be specific), do you think live performance "is the business" we should all be in... or is there room for both?

Matt: The music business is a different experience for me nowadays. In the past, live performance was how I made a living. I made the choice to get a day job, so my income from the restaurants allows me to take gigs I want vs. gigs I have to do for $. I sell music online too, but not enough to make a living. So I would say that live performance is still important, but it would be great to make enough money online to float the rough times when gigs are slim.

Zzaj: In checking out your performance schedule, noticed that you play in (your own) restaurant (Wilton Pizza, in Wilton, CT) regularly. How does that go over? Also, will you be touring anytime soon?

Matt: Playing at Wilton pizza is great because I bring in guest artists like my friends Bob Mover and Steve Slagle to accompany me in "alto madness". It is also nice that i'm the boss at the restaurant, so I don't have to worry about making anybody except patrons happy. I'm proud to bring great music to Wilton, Ct and to play with the fine musicians I put together. It's a challenge to play jazz for a crowd who's ears are just about detuned from jazz, but I think that when we play from the heart and believe our own selves when we play, that transmits to a good chunk of people.  I don't have a tour booked yet, but I wish I did. I'd love to do that anytime soon.

Zzaj: I'm sure you have many (as do I), but give us a little insight into who your musical heroes are, please.

Matt: My musical heroes are many. some include Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Monk, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Charlie Parker, Larry Willis. I revere their integrity, vision, guts, passion, confidence, and intelligence. i almost forgot 'the prez"

Zzaj: Do you hire a studio pro for all your recordings, or do you do some home studio work, too? If you do some at home, let us know what kind of gear you use.

Matt: I record in a studio. never at home as I don't know how. I would like to do one at my house as I have a killer piano.

Zzaj: The CD I reviewed (issue #88), "Melancholia", had a lot of wonderful strings integrated in the mix... do you prefer strings backing you, or do you also enjoy small group (quartet, quintet) work? Which is your preference?

Matt: I usually play trio to quintet. I did the record with strings because my friend Larry Willis did an album with strings of his own first called "sanctuary" which I absolutely love. Larry's compositions resonate deeply with me. I heard his record and imagined my sax over his string arrangements and his piano work. then I thought to commission him to help my dream come true. he's a bad dude.  I prefer bass, drums, and sax or quartet with piano. guitar is not my preference and I doubt I'll make a record soon with guitar.

Zzaj: I especially enjoy original tunes by an artist. Do you spend a lot of time composing, or are you more into playing whatever strikes you at the moment (including other players work)?

Matt: I like composing. It's so great. I can't believe most of the stuff I write because it feels so good to hear it while I play it on the piano.  Of course, what's most important , I think, is that I enjoy it. It's great when others like it, or not, but composing is fun because I haven't sabotaged myself as a composer. I, more in the past, judged my sax playing a lot. but not my composition. Hearing it played by a band could yield different results. Sometimes I don't like the way my songs are played by a band.  Not because they do it wrong, but just because it felt better when I was sitting at the piano. Sometimes I like to write tunes that don't require a solo section. Just a nice melody without solos, but I always like to play standards. They're familiar and there are so many great tunes out there to paint on

Zzaj: Today's musical "scene" is surely different than when I was in my 20's (some 40 years ago); how do you perceive the environment for a player just starting out... is it harder these days or easier for a player to "make it"? Please give all those young aspiring musicians out there any words of wisdom you may have about how to do that.

Matt: I really don't know exactly how the "scene" is to make a living. I see my peers around me and I see some cats teaching to make the rent. I see some guys on the road often. I see some cats twiddling their thumbs waiting for the phone to ring. Eddie Henderson is booked out 10 months in advance.  He's well established. I think that if you're willing to travel and hustle gigs, you could make a living and even more. I hesitate to give advice on this subject. I'm more concerned with other aspects of music. One thing I could tell younger musicians is to try to love the notes you play. In conclusion, I'm grateful to Zzaj Rotcod for giving me this opportunity for an interview. It was fun. Zzaj "Is"!





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