Jazz's Mario Pavone Draws On Boyhood Memories For His Sounds

With his latest work, he has memorialized a vintage slice of Waterbury's urban and ethnic culture through the art of his signature, cutting-edge style, showcasing his original voice by performing with and writing for his own distinctive ensembles.

For the studio recording, Pavone leads a sextet whose offbeat instrumentation features the expressive Adam Matlock on accordion. And, in another step off the beaten path, the CD features not just one double bass, as you might ordinarily expect in a jazz group, but two, with Pavone joined by double bassist Carl Testa. It's a piece of Pavoneian string theory that doubles your pleasure by giving you twice as many double bass lines to contemplate.

"Street Songs," which is yet another landmark recording for Pavone on the progressive Playscape label, features nine of his original compositions with the maestro leading his sextet featuring himself and Testa on double bass; Dave Ballou, trumpet and flugelhorn; Peter Madsen, piano; Matlock, accordion; and Steve Johns, drums.

Pavone wrote the arrangements for five of the compositions, including an affecting piece called "The Dom," which, through his employment of dynamics and ascending and descending figures uses sound to stimulate memory. With its poetic play with the dreamy effects of approaching or receding sound, it's Pavone's well-seasoned, Proustian piece of a musical madeleine concocted to evoke rembrances of things past.

Pavone's pieces are witty dialogues crackling with fresh, mercurial ideas twisting and turning, starting and stopping, seasoned with lots of interplay and the serendipitous spirit of dance mixed with tension and release. Sometimes edgy, sometimes hypnotic, always very much alive, alternately mellow and upbeat, often mysterious, always wending down a dreamy garden path where surprises are guaranteed.

His total conversion to jazz at age 24, occurred at John Coltrane's funeral on a steamy summer's day in 1967 at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. Emotionally, spiritually and musically charged, the funeral service has been called one of the most cosmically moving events in jazz history. It's what Pavone calls "a transformative experience."

"It was just this most moving thing. Everybody in the world was there. It was packed. Behind me were Albert Ayler playing and Ornette Coleman playing up in the balcony section. And up on the stage… you really couldn't get close to the altar because there were so many people packed in the church. It was so hot, and I believe it was an open casket.

"There definitely was the heat and an aura… The whole event seems very blurry and chaotic. Yet it's very spiritual in my mind and was deeply transforming. And that was it for me. I had left my brief case on the social service desk office. I never went back. There was no notice. I just said I quit."

A New Chapter Begins

Like being reborn, Pavone entered the jazz life, a kind of instant and total immersion followed by a life-long commitment.

"Within six months, I was touring in Europe with pianist Paul Bley…I didn't even know where C was on the A string. It was phenomenal, but I had great ears. Paul just said, 'You've got to come to Europe.' And that was it," says Pavone, a deeply modest man, especially so as his artistry becomes increasingly recognized.

Multi-faceted, Pavone is also a photographer and a painter. Over the years, he's designed a couple dozen album covers for Playscape, a much-respected Indie label founded by one of his many collaborators, the noted guitarist/composer Michael Musillami.

So for the Litchfield performance—or what Pavone calls the final incarnation of his living, breathing, evolving accordion project — he fields this starting nine: himself and Testa on double bass; Matlock, accordion; Matt Mitchell, piano; Steve Johns, drums; plus the four brass players, Dave Ballou, cornet and flugelhorn; Leise Ballou (Dave Ballou's wife), French horn; Peter McEachern, trombone; and Gary Buttery, tuba.

For all his challenging works' abstract qualities, plain, old-fashioned human emotion is still a crucial element in Pavone's artistry.

"It's virtually the raison d'etre for me. To me, the work starts with a feeling. So it's all feeling for me. I'm a modern composer, but everything is still measured for me against all my love and my experience in hearing that great era of music, say from 1955 to 1965, that I loved.

"I'm just one of those blessed, lucky persons in the world to have discovered jazz, and starting at a late age back then, to still think that I could do it. I'm humbled by the fact that I have been able to do it. And, with the support of my wife Mary, and being aggressive and ambitious myself, I'm just trying to keep it going."

For the Litchfield Jazz Festival's schedule, tickets and ticket prices go to litchfieldjazzfest.com or call 860-361-6285.