Interview: Pianist-Composer Vito Tommaso on Quartetto di Lucca, the Green Guitar Group, and Making Music with Stefano Torossi

Pianist-composer Vito Tommaso’s musical career began in his hometown of Lucca, Italy when he joined younger brother bassist-composer Giovanni Tommaso, drummer Giampiero Giusti, guitarist Gaetano Mariani, and vibraphonist Antonello Vannucchi to found Quintetto di Lucca in 1957. Within two years the quintet had released an EP on RCA, Quintetto di Lucca, and were chosen to support Chet Baker on his second tour of Italy before playing together in the United States. After Mariani departed in 1961, Quartteto di Lucca was born, releasing their debut album Quartetto for RCA in 1961. The foursome stayed together through 1967, including radio and TV appearances with jazz heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Toots Thielemans. After the group disbanded, Tommaso has gone on to compose and perform music for numerous film and television productions in addition to releasing albums as a solo artist for RCA, Fly, Jubal, and Rai Trade, and one with Stefano Torossi for Constanza Records in 1969, Musica per commenti sonori, that was reissued as a digital download by Deneb Records in 2013 under the title Vintage Jazz, Pop & Rock: 1960s – 1970s – Easy Listening. Tommaso was also the conductor of the RAI National Symphony through the mid-1990s.

Vito Tommaso around 1960 (photo crop from Quartetto (1961) back cover)

Vito Tommaso around 1960 (photo crop from Quartetto (1961) back cover)

Q: Whose idea was it to form Quintetto di Lucca? What can you share from this pivotal period in the development of jazz in Italy?

A: At that time jazz music in Italy was considered “outside the law,” to the point that students practicing this kind of music were threatened with expulsion from the Conservatory. Since the beginning of my approach to music, I was already a great admirer of the music of George Gershwin, but after discovering Charlie Parker, whom I consider the Mozart of Jazz, I could not help but oppose this way of thinking.

I was lucky enough to know Mo Carlo Ardissone, a professor of piano at the Conservatory who came from Turin. He was a musician who played classical music yet did not disdain Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, so I relied on him to teach me through individual lessons.

This aversion to conservative musical institutions was shared by Giampiero Giusti, Antonello Vannucchi (who played the vibraphone with us and risked being expelled from the Conservatory–while I could play the piano because I studied privately), Gaetano Mariani, and other dear friends like Mario Cappetta and Carlo Cioni, who went on to become a university teacher. As I soon discovered many other like-minded musicians in Lucca, open to this new direction, I was determined to found a proper jazz club in Lucca.

Quintetto di Lucca in the late 1950s (photo from discogs.com)

Quintetto di Lucca in the late 1950s (photo from discogs.com)

Imagine a team of students getting together to do the clearing, cleaning and setting up for a venue, all with the desire to do something for us and only us! The location was a fabulous cellar where every night we had a chance to perform our beloved jazz.

As renting the club was not free, we often had small parties in which a ticket and entry fee were required. With the proceeds, we managed to bring to Lucca soloists such as Lee Konitz. On these occasions, there sometimes was a bit of artistic compromise when compared to our normal approach and training. Part of the repertoire was from the likes of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra and some concessions were made for American hits of the moment. 

I vividly recall doing one song after another, experimenting with different arrangements across many nights at the club. Perhaps, what I wrote and Antonello Vannucchi wrote was extra challenging for us because we were basically self-taught jazz men who had learned mostly from listening to records. In 1957, I wrote my first song titled “Hot Club 57,” and with that we struck the first blow in the search for originality.

Quintteto di Lucca - "Carnival In Grenada" / "La Luna" (1960) RCA (45N 1090) cover

Quintetto di Lucca – “Carnival In Grenada” / “La Luna” (1960) RCA

Q: Any favorite memories from cutting your first record for RCA in 1959?

A: Our first recording was made at the Cinefonico studio. We traveled from from Lucca to Rome, and in those days, it was not a walk. On that occasion we recorded “Summer 58,” a small suite that was my first composition to appear in vinyl.

I remember when our first record was released in Lucca, I did a crazy bike ride to the store but the seller did not want to give it to me ’cause it was the first and the only one and he wanted to keep in the window! After a long struggle, I finally managed to get it, and, yes, I had to pay for it!

Q: The same year you also supported Chet Baker on his second tour of Italy as well as playing with him in the United States. Does anything stick out from this eventful period?

A: The memories of touring with the great Chet Baker are not so pleasant, to be honest. At the beginning of the tour, when we moved around by bus, Baker’s girlfriend at the time had a baby with her that always seemed to be crying… Baker often showed up late, we were never sure when he would arrive.


Chet Baker with Quartetto Di Lucca in the early 1960s

Chet Baker with Quartetto di Lucca in the early 1960s

Q: Did you already have a sense music was your calling?

A: Through my third year of university studies in the field of engineering, music remained a hobby. Slowly, the passion subsumed me, however, and by the fifth year, engineering was cast aside … but I am happy that this has been my destiny.

Q: Do you recall any details about the writing or inspiration for compositions like “Quartetto” and “Estate ’61”?

A: For the song “Quartetto,” I remember being quite busy.  I was able to introduce a piece using 5/4 time, I think a  first in jazz composition. Of course, [Dave] Brubeck did much better than me later on. “Estate ’58” and “Estate ’61” are my two short compositions written in the years indicated.

A selection of tracks from Quartetto Di Lucca’s Quartetto album including “Night In Tunesia,” “Like Someone In Love,” “Lullaby Of Birdland,” and “Estate ’61,” plus “Lo Svanito” from the 1970 RCA album Ballabili 1 by Vito Tommaso and Quartetto di Lucca, are on YouTube. Unfortunately, Vito Tommaso’s composition, “Estate ’61” is not viewable in all regions:

In 1969, Vito Tommaso and Stefano Torossi made their Musica per commenti sonori LP for Italy’s Constanza Records. Ten of the tracks on that initial album by Tommaso and Torossi have been reissued again, first in 1998 on Musica per commenti sonori: The Seventies, a CD release by Costanza Records that also added tracks from the Sandro Brugnolini and Stefano Torossi Musica per commenti sonori LP from 1969.

Musica per commenti sonori (1969) (CO 1004)

Vito Tommaso and Stefano Torossi – Musica per commenti sonori (1969) Costanza Records (CO 1004)

In 2013, the same album was reissued as a download by Flippermusic’s Deneb Records under the title Vintage Jazz, Pop & Rock: 1960s – 1970s – Easy Listening, retaining the original running order of the 24 tracks but changing half of the titles.

Q: How did you meet Stefano Torossi? And new projects coming up?

A: Stefano Torossi is a dear friend who I met through my brother Giovanni.  I have not done any other musical projects with Stefano [other than recording their 1969 Musica per commenti sonori LP for Costanza Records] and, at the moment, I have no plans in sight.

Vintage Jazz, Pop & Rock (2013)

Sandro Brugnolini, Vito Tommaso, and Stefano Torossi – Vintage Jazz, Pop & Rock (2013) Deneb Records

An article on Vito Tommaso and Stefano Torossi’s 1969 Musica per commenti sonori album, which includes all available tracks currently found online, is HERE.

Q: Do you know if there is any chance your Vito Tommaso LP released by RCA in 1970 will ever get a proper reissue?

A: I believe plans to reprint the LP are under discussion. With regard to the song “Youth of Today” from that album, if I remember correctly, it came from Lee Konitz during a recording session for RCA Italian in 1968.

Three tracks from the Vito Tommaso self-titled album released by RCA in 1970 are currently available online, including “Pochi sorrisi,” “Viaggio a Detroit,” and “I Giovanni d’oggi”:

The same year, Vito Tommaso also wrote the soundtrack for the film Lacrime d’amore and the drama Dello sceneggiato I racconti di Padre Brown.  In 1972, Tommaso and Renato Rascel composed the soundtrack for the animated film Un burattino di nome Pinocchio di Giuliano Cenc, and two years later RCA released the single “Sabato sera dalle 9 alle 10” / “Il giorno del karate” featuring Tommaso compositions from the soundtrack for an RAI television program broadcast in Italy.

Besides soundtracks, Tommaso has also done some classic library albums including Mood Food And… for Jubal, released under the name Green Guitar Group sometime in 1975 and Primo Appuntamento for Fly Records.

Green Guitar Group - Mood Food And …. (1975) Jubal cover

Green Guitar Group – Mood Food And …. (1975) Jubal

Q: What is the story behind the Green Guitar Group? Is this all your creation?

A: I used Tony Sidney, the guitarist with my brother Giovanni in Perigeo. But the rest, for the most part, was me playing keyboards without any other musicians.

NOTE: Perigeo, including bass player Giovanni Tommaso, is scheduled for a series of reunion concerts in Rome in April. Stay tuned for a closer look including specific venue details and dates.

“Black Is Beaty” by Vito Tommaso’s Green Guitar Group, a tune that continues to be one of this correspondent’s favorites since first discovering it at the excellent Starving Daughters Vinyl Impressions website (their original post is HERE), is on YouTube:

Q: Where did your interest in composing music for cartoons come from?

A: Renato Rascel, the artistic producer, and I had a productive relationship in those years, doing soundtracks for productions like “Padre Brown” and “Pinocchio.”

Vito Tommaso - Le sigle di Papa (2006) Rai Trade cover

Vito Tommaso – Le sigle di Papa (2006) Rai Trade

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Vito Tommaso was responsible for composing music for a number of popular cartoon themes including Gackeen Magnetico Robot, Jet Robot, George of the Jungle, Kum Kum, Peline Story, Ken Falco, Grand Prix, and many more. Tommaso often wrote the music and performed with the Superobots and I Mini Robots.

I Mini Robots - "Jet Robot" / "George" (1980) Regal

I Mini Robots – “Jet Robot” / “George” (1980) Regal

Vito Tommaso’s “Jet Robot” from the TV series “Getta Robot G.” was performed live in Tommaso’s hometown in 2009. The spirited take features a large group of musicians and singers including the theme’s composer, arranger, and director himself:

Q: Did any of your own children or relatives participate in the choirs of young singers?

A: My children, together with those of many of my colleagues, participated in the chorus. I also played keyboards on the theme songs of a number of cartoons.

Vito Tommaso - Stati d'animo: Musiche di Vito Tommaso (2008) Rai Trade

Vito Tommaso – Stati d’animo: Musiche di Vito Tommaso (2008) Rai Trade

Q: How did the Stati d’animo album for Rai Trade happen?

A: This record is particularly close to the heart. It was made with the help of the then director of RAI Trade, Dino Piretti, an excellent professional and a good friend. I tried to capture particular aspects of the human striving, to delve deep into the “Stati d’animo” (or “Moods” in English) like the title says. There are songs, I believe, that fully reflect the state of mind that I intended to express.

Q: What have you been working on lately?

A: Gino Landi and I wrote a musical work that is modern take on West Side Story that also draws inspiration from composer Giacomo Puccini. We would like to see a major, full scale production but until now we have been able to only stage it locally in Lucca. Fortunately, we have a fantastic cast of enthusiastic and passionate players, so it is our great desire is to be able to fully realize this vision as intended before it’s too late.

Q: Are there any live performance plans for 2015?

A: Along with Stefano Vacca and the same Gino Landi, I am working on a musical
 entitled “It’s All Your Fault.” We hope to bring it to the stage soon.

More Music from Vito Tommaso

Many of the more than one hundred LPs, CDs, and now digital albums of Vito Tommaso performing, composing, arranging, and conducting music can be found at Discogs among other sites specializing in jazz, library, and soundtrack music.

Vito Tommaso - A Day in Rome: Romantic Music for a Love Date (2014 Reissue) Rekon

Vito Tommaso – A Day in Rome: Romantic Music for a Love Date (2014 Reissue) Rekon

In the 1970s, Vito Tommaso released the full length album Primo appuntamento on Italy’s Fly Records. This rare, out of print vinyl album was reissued by Rekon in 2014 under the title A Day in Rome: Romantic Music for a Love Date and is now available in digital format for the first time from iTunes, Google Play, and others.

Vito Tommaso - Primo Appuntamento (1970s) Fly cover

Vito Tommaso – Primo Appuntamento (1970s) Fly

Vito Tommaso’s title track, “Primo appuntamento” was uploaded to the Internet in early 2015:

And one more track, from the 1968 film La ragazza con la pistola (Girl with a Pistol), directed by Mario Monicelli and starring the lovely Monica Vitti.

La ragazza con  la pistola (1968) film poster

La ragazza con la pistola (1968) film poster

“Shake balera,” a composition by Peppino De Luca from the original soundtrack for La ragazza con la pistola, directed by Vito Tomasso, is on YouTube:

Click the 6D icon below to access an earlier version of this interview that uses a number of different videos, audio files, and photos from the extensive and varied musical career of Vito Tommaso.

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