BY Frank Bender


    Alessio Riccio is one of the most refreshing fruits in the avant-garde jazz des(s)ert. A visit of his website (www.alessioriccio.com) shows a man with a distinguished taste for visual concepts and his drumming is at least as tasteful as his sense for fine arts. Even his drum set, the so-called The Metalanguage Unit, looks like a sculpture. So it is high time to communicate with this human being on an ortholanguage level.

    Q - Under what circumstances did you develop The Metalanguage Unit?

    A - It was a very long process, which is still in motion. It was based on two different dimensions: an instinctual one – the vision of the instrument/sonorous sculpture/living machine, and a logical one – asking myself why I had to play using the same set up that everyone was using. And these questions were regarding not just the drums and cymbal positioning BUT also (and most importantly) the construction philosophy, which is of course directly connected with the primary (and the most crucial to me) elements of music: SOUND and TIMBRE, which for us are so deeply connected with ergonomics. So, I started to experiment, day by day, and at this moment I’m pretty close to the final stage of TMU, the one I had in mind from the very beginning.

    Q - Did you develop The Metalanguage Unit all alone or did you have some partners?

    A - I totally conceived any single idea: set up changements, the introduction of prototypes, the alteration of the basic conditions of sound production. I worked in a very close way with Massimo Conti, TMU’s technical designer: he was absolutely great in translating my ideas in a concrete form. And, of course, I got the support of two great Italian musical instrument brands, Drumsound (for drums) and Ufip (for cymbals and metallic percussion).

    Q - Do you endorse their products?

    A - Yes, I do. I’ve collaborated with Ufip since 1990.  They are like a family for me, always supporting. Luigi Tronci (Ufip’s president) is a very special human being: sensitive, passionate, honest. It’s been a blessing to cross my life and musical path with him. I’ve collaborated with Drumsound since 1994, and they’ve been producing better drums year by year.

    Q - What is the concept behind The Metalanguage Unit?

    A - Uniqueness, most of all. And the (utopistic?) desire to go beyond the human possibilities in terms of limbs interaction, using this concept to create a new rhythmic language.

    Q - In my opinion, many drummers do not care about and respectively are not aware of ergonomics. Can you give them some advice to ameliorate their own drumming by playing ergonomically?

    A - From a certain point of view it’s very simple: just look at yourself, outside and inside. The way your body is shaped is very important in the way you’ll sound on your instrument. And, more importantly: what meaning does music have for you? What do you think you can add to a certain piece of music? I firmly believe that we play the way we are, so at a certain point it’s crucial to try to abandon all the “correct” inputs we’ve been through during our musical education and try to put every single aspect of ourselves as human beings in the relationship with our instrument. Of course this takes a lot of work, but it’s a very fascinating path, something that gets us much closer to music.

    Q - You produced some cymbal prototypes together with UFIP; how did you get your own ideas for special sounds and were these sounds totally new?

    A - The influences that lie behind a sonic idea are very complex. I listen to a lot of different music and I think that a sound which could resonate in my head could really come from everywhere. Generally, Ufip instruments sound really different from every other cymbal/metallic percussion brand, and this helps a lot. To say that my prototypes sound “new”, well, could be a little bit arrogant if you think how big the world is and how many people are making music at this precise moment. My goal is to develop my own and recognizable sound through the combination of the sonic elements that form TMU.

    Q - Are these prototype cymbals officially available at Ufip?

    A - Sadly, they’re not. It would be very difficult to create an official line of particular sounding instruments. Today’s market is still very conservative, even if I saw that some brands are creating interesting cymbals and sounds effects. And, to be totally honest, I like the idea a lot that I have my own sounding cymbals, in the sense that they are really “my own” sounding instruments, that I literally built them.

    Q - Is it possible for any drummer who has ideas for new cymbal sounds to contact Ufip and ask them to produce some prototypes?

    A - Maybe, Ufip people are always very open to ideas and feedback. They love their job so much…

    Q - Did you develop drum prototypes too?

    A - I worked a lot on the idea of preparation. I’ve always been a huge fan of John Cage. His work is simply outstanding. I’ve been deeply inspired by his writings. At the same time, if we listen closely to African percussion instruments, we can find the idea of preparation also in ethnic percussion. This is something I’m really into: the latest version of The Metalanguage Unit I’m currently working on will feature a lot of this kind of sound alterations.

    Q - You experiment with electronic sounds; playing with a digital orchestra may have some advantages but is it a real challenge for you?

    A - I work with electronics to compose my music and to design my idea of (new) rhythm in my new compositional cycle, the one I’m currently working on. But I play totally acoustic drums. Maybe I will introduce some midi controlled pads, but they will control sampled acoustic sounds.

    Q - In my opinion electronics kill spirituality. How can a spiritually oriented person like you handle with such an antagonism?

    A - Electronic music can really help to create a perceptional environment that is unique. My idea of music is deeply rooted in intensity, in the idea of trance. There is a strong idea of rituality, but it’s an “urban” rituality, and for this purpose electronic environments are perfect: they help me to shape the sounds I need to create the alternative paths I want to explore.

    Q - Which spiritual background do you have exactly?

    A - It is very interesting that a lot of people see me as a spiritual person. But I get all this spirituality from music and art in general! I’m not at all a religious person. I see religion in general as a very big way to control people’s mind and behavior and a big factor of division between people. I love philosophy, psychology, esthetics, and I think that’s so sad that we tend to associate the idea of spirituality with religion only.

    Q - Do you use electronic sounds as a basis for improvising?

    A - Yes. But I don’t have a strict approach to electronics. The only thing that I’m really searching for is detail: I really want to shape electronic sounds and rhythms in a very accurate way.

    Q - Do you have a “general plan” or do you improvise only led by your intuition?

    A - Both. My first five CDs are very improvisation-oriented. The music I’m currently working on is very pre-determined and hyper-detailed but still open to improvisational sections.

    Q - Have you experimented with drum sounds as a way for getting in states of trance?

    A - I found that, for me, playing drums has always been a sort of meditation. One of the reasons that lie behind the creation of TMU is to go deeper in this direction, to totally access a parallel dimension through the introduction of alternative ergonomical approaches. So it’s not the sound of a singular drum or cymbal but more the combination of the timbres that forms my instrument, linked to the ergonomics and to the electronic environment which I’m playing on.

    Q - Music is the only drug without any side effects; what do you think of this remark?

    A - It’s not really true: music HAS side effects, both in bad and good sense. I live a pretty intense and deep relationship with music: my artistic choices have always been pretty radical, and this wasn’t something that I chose rationally. I simply played, composed and produced what I am, as a human being, with my good and my bad aspects. So called “side effects” can reside in the fact that the music that someone is playing could be considered as too “weird” or too “radical” to be fruited without preconceptions.

    Q - Besides being a musician, you are a respected drum instructor; what concepts do you teach your disciples apart from drumming techniques?

    A - When I meet someone who is talented AND motivated I simply try to not interfere too much with his/her personality. I just suggest to listen to a lot of different music, to be open minded, to respect the greatness of music and art in general, and to do whatever he or she can to find his or her own path.

    Q - Did teaching influence the way you play the drums?

    A - Not really. I don’t get so many chances to teach the things I play and compose. Recently I got the honor to be the subject of two theses about my music [here], and one of them will be published as a book: it was such a huge privilege and at the same time a joy to learn that there are people who study the work of performers/composers who are still alive!

    Q - Please tell us something about your collaboration with the video-maker Graziano Staino.

    A - Everything started because I had a conference about my music and wanted to add an extra media, just to make things more intense. Graziano’s work is beautiful and very original: he was so kind to adapt some of his videos to four compositions of mine and the result I think is pretty good. I really hope to collaborate with him again in the future. He’s one of my favorites.

    Q - Your CD “Drawing/Opus 2: Paul Klee” was reviewed as CD of the Month in the Modern Drummer magazine; did this increase your awareness level outside of Italy?

    A - I really don’t know. To be reviewed as CD Of The Month in Modern Drummer is such a great honor that it’s rewarding in itself. During these months they were putting an eye on so-called “up-and-coming” players and reviewed great musicians like Glenn Kotche, Dan Weiss and John Theodore with The Mars Volta. It was simply stunning for me to be in their company, especially with an Italian self produced record!

    Q - What relationships do you have to the fine arts and do you plan to record other CDs that deal with paintings or painters?

    A - I simply love every form of art. I think the most inspiration I got within recent years came from outside music: the works of Francis Bacon, Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, H.R. Giger, William Blake and so many others were so important to me, so were the writings of Gilles Deleuze, James Hillman, Marius Schneider, Edoardo Sanguineti and Mario Perniola. At the moment I don’t plan to release another CD inspired to paintings: I’m planning to dedicate one of my new CDs to Richard Buckminster Fuller and his stunning works.

    Q - You run your own record label Unorthodox Recordings; what reasons led you to founding your own company?

    A - I’ve always been the kind of independent guy, fascinated by everything based on the idea of independence. My label has been founded with a very specific idea: put together creation AND action. On a practical side I like to follow every little step in the making of a project, and this way I can count on a permanent catalog, in the sense that my music will never be out of print (or it will be if I take that kind of decision). I firmly believe that for certain kinds of music the so called “independent” process of music making and issuing gives to the music itself so much strength and deepness: if you take the same music and publish it for an “official” (and maybe well known) label there is a pretty high risk of losing the strength I was talking about because you have to adapt to some standards that make that specific label recognizable. Most of the music I’m listening to at the moment is done with this “independent” approach. Of course behind the practical field lies a lot of ideological, philosophical and political reasons…

    Q - Your CDs are not available in most record stores. Did you ever think of having them distributed by CD Baby?

    A - It’s very sad but I think that record stores are in a very difficult situation. The main problem, of course, is distribution. Last time I was in NYC I went to the Downtown Music Gallery to leave my CDs and the guys loved my music. Here in Italy, it’s almost impossible to find good record stores, places in which we can find the music we like. So I try to be well organized with my website, in which it’s possible to buy every single tune of my repertory.

    Q - Can you tell us the most memorable moments on stage and in the studio?

    A - Playing on stage with the likes of Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Steve Coleman, Claude Barthélémy will be of course unforgettable. In the studio I had the opportunity to have great musicians like Tim Berne, David Shea, Ellery Eskelin, Elliott Sharp, Ernst Reijsiger, Michel Godard, Stefano Battaglia, Dominique Pifarély playing my music: any single instant spent trying to share my ideas with them is memorable.

    Q - What is your understanding of the term “jazz” and which way would you explain it to children? Many music teachers say that children cannot understand the concept behind jazz; do you agree?

    A - I firmly believe (and hope) that we, as musicians and teachers, leave as much room as possible to give people (especially youngsters) the chance to interpretate music the way they want. Music doesn’t need so many answers, most of the time it answers us back with questions. The concept of jazz is one of a multi-interpretative concept, and I think that the greatness of this style of music resides also in this multiplicity of interpretation. To me Fletcher Henderson is “Jazz” so as Henry Threadgill; Jelly Roll Morton is “Jazz” so as Dave Fiuczynski.

    Q - Please comment the following keywords: “Dadadang”

    A - A band I’ve played in since 1995. When I decided to audition for them I was intrigued by the fact that they asked for a theatrical approach to playing drums, but at the same time they wear costumes and act, inside a very precise choreography. Normally, as drummers, we play seated and never use our whole body as actors or dancers do. We toured a lot around Europe. There are lots of nice memories.

    Q - “Time Escape”

    A - My first band! A progressive-rock quartet, with some fusion flavor here and there. We were listening to a lot of different music: Zappa, Holdsworth, Rush, The Beatles, and the result was very original: our music was technical and rich; we were self-producing and as a matter of fact we were considered as one of the best Italian bands, even though we were still in our teens. You can read some of the articles in the Press section of my website [here]

    Q - “Theatrum”

    A - It was a project led by Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia and featured some of the best Italian young talents of my generation. It was a large ensemble with three drummers/percussionists. The music was great, as were the musicians. We did three records and a bunch of concerts. A great moment of my grown-up life as a player and a musician in general.

    Q - “Ars Nova”

    A - I began to collaborate with the French ensemble Ars Nova when I was playing with French guitarist and composer Claude Barthélémy. He composes really great music. He’s one of my favorite jazz composers of today. With Ars Nova we did some projects which blended a jazz quartet with a contemporary classical music ensemble. They were great musicians and very good improvisers too. As a drummer I remember, with particular joy, the musical relationship that grew with the conductor, Philippe Nahon: as drummers we don’t play so often with a conductor (especially avant-garde jazz music!), and for him it was the first time he was conducting a drummer. Really nice and deep musical experience (and a good chance to speak French too).

    Q - “Homage To A Dream”

    A - It was a quartet I founded with alto sax, trombone and vocals. The music was inspired by Italian movie soundtracks and was pretty intense and dialoguing. We played a lot of concerts; it was a great band.

    Q - “Orchestra Giovanile Italiana Di Jazz”

    A - A lot of my background as a drummer came from playing in big bands. I really loved to play in big bands when I was younger. I firmly believe that it’s one the most difficult and rewarding experiences for a drummer. Orchestra Giovanile Italiana di Jazz was one of these big bands, which reunited some of the best young talents in the Italian jazz scene. I had the chance to play with great Italian musicians, both very well known artists and young and promising players.

    Q - Which projects are you working on at the moment?

    A - I’m currently working on the music resulting from my Third Creative Cycle. It will be featured on five CDs which I would like to release with my own label, Unorthodox Recordings. The music is pretty intense, very electro-acoustic oriented and based a lot on a concept I call NDM (New Drum Music): an idea of semi-artificial (or, if you prefer, semi-natural) rhythm which sounds organic, unusual and imaginative.