Back to list

#WomenToTheFore 4: Rita Marcotulli

We talk to Rita Marcotulli, award-winning Italian pianist and composer, about her successful career and her advice for young artists.

How did you first become interested in music - and jazz & improvised music in particular?
I started to play the piano when I was five years old. When I started, I liked to invent stories with the notes. So for me, it was playing, it was a game, and I never really liked to read music. 

I remember that when I used to go to my piano lessons, my teacher would want me to study some tunes, and I would ask her, “Please, can you play it for me?” And since I have a good ear, I would remember what she played. When I came back for the next lesson I would play and she said, “But you’re not reading it, right? You just remember?” 

I always had problems reading music. So that's probably why I started to play jazz -  because I like to play, to improvise.

Who were your earliest mentors and influences?
I started to listen to different music, starting with pop during that period. We’re speaking about the 1970s, the middle of the 70s, and then listening to friends who already played jazz. The first time I heard Thelonious Monk’s Criss-Cross, it blew me away. 

And then at that time there were lots of festivals, the Umbria jazz festival, for example. So I used to go along with many people, sleeping in the square, listening to the music!

I was listening to so much music. And of course to piano players, starting with Oscar Peterson. But then I fell in love with Bill Evans, because I liked the harmonies very much. And then Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, all the masters. They are so inventive, so original, you can recognise their individual styles. I was very interested in their originality. So Monk, McCoy, Herbie, and then of course Keith Jarrett, whose music I love. For me he’s one of the master piano players. 

But I didn’t just listen to piano players. I like to listen to a lot of good music without saying if it's jazz, African, or pop. I listen to everything so I can describe and understand the concept of the music.

What led you to pursue a professional career in music?
Actually, I didn't think that music would become my job, my career, you know? But I could not live without music because this had been an integral part of me since I was five years old. 

I had the opportunity to play with some interesting musicians. My first experience was when I was 17 and I met a percussion player called Ivanir Do Nascimento, also known here as Mandrake, who played the percussion with the singer Elza Soares. I played Brazilian music with Mandrake in a club in Rome. This was my first experience with Brazilian music, which I love, for the melody and for the harmony. And then more and more other musicians called me, and then that was it. I had become a professional musician. I could not think about anything else!

How would you describe your music and your musical influences? And what does music mean to you?
My music is influenced by many different kinds of music and I'm particularly interested in rhythm. So, for example, Indian music is very polyrhythmic, and it was interesting for me to develop new ideas about how to have a beat. The piano is in fact a percussion instrument, although you can also explore melody and harmony and so on.

So my music is a bit influenced by Brazil and sometimes by different Indian modes, and jazz of course, but also classical. Let's just say that I love to play music that I like. I don't know if my music is jazz or not, because it's not the swing or bebop that people identify as real jazz.

However, I also play jazz in that style because I was invited to play with fantastic American musicians like Sal Nistico, and Dewey Redman, who was an incredible saxophone player who played with the Ornette Coleman Quartet, who I worked with for 15 years. 

So I had the opportunity to do a lot of international tours. For example, in the 1980s I toured for a year with Billy Cobham, which was a totally different approach and music from Dewey Redman. And that was a very good schooling for me because it was much more about developing the rhythm.

So all these experiences are reflected in my own music too.

Can you describe what projects you're working on at the moment?
Well I have many different projects on the go! I play piano solo a lot, but also in a duo with Israel Varela, a very interesting Mexican guy who plays drums and uses flamenco rhythms over the drum. So it's very distinctive and very original. 

That's what I always look for  - I want to work with musicians who have something unique to say. Not only very good musicians in terms of style and the language of jazz - because there are so many good musicians - but for me, I’m impressed when I hear a musician that has some original touch, even if they don’t yet have all the technique. In this case he also has a lot of technique! And we play in a trio together with a bass player called Ares Tavolazzi.

I also like to perform with contemporary dancers and flamenco dancers. I compose for the movies and recently I did a new project inspired by Caravaggio’s paintings. So I wrote the music for the painting, for the concept of what a Caravaggio painting is like -  the dark and the light. I love composing. I always have to find a new ingredient for my next project. 

I’ve played with my friend and family Andy Sheppard for years. Now we’re in a trio, and we’re going to be recording an album - with Anders Jormin on bass. I also play a lot with an all-woman European band called Sisters in Jazz, with vocalist Cæcilie Norby, a very good singer from Denmark and other musicians from northern Europe. 

So it’s all very interesting, with many different projects - I don’t like to get bored!

Can you tell us about one of your most memorable moments of music making?
Well, I have had so many since I started when I was 17 or so. There are a lot of things that are of course memorable in a way, especially with the people that I play with the most. It was very memorable playing with Dewey Redman for the first time, and also a highlight to perform with Pat Metheny. Other memorable experiences have been in a trio with Peter Erskine, and Palle Danielsson, a bass player from Scandinavia.

I lived in Scandinavia for about six years during the 1980s because I love the Scandinavian approach to this kind of music too. It’s very European, open, and visionary music, with space. The motto less is more is apt - this is the music I really like. Living there, I had the chance to meet Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen, Nils Petter Molvær, and Marilyn Mazur, who is a fantastic drummer from Copenhagen. She'd played with the masters, like Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and Wayne Shorter. So when I had the chance to play with her, this was always a very nice feeling. 


You have collaborated with many jazz artists including Chet Baker, Dewey Redman, Enrico Rava. How do you approach collaboration with other musicians? What do you look for in a musical partner?
Well, I’ve already talked about the things that I look for in a musical partner. There are so many fantastic musicians. Sometimes people call me, and say, “Do you want to play with this musician? They are very, very good”. And I say, yes, for sure. 

But there are so many. So then you have to understand which kind of painting you want to do. For example, if I like to paint like Picasso and the other person is Caravaggio, both are fantastic. You know it's art, but maybe you cannot combine? That's what I mean with all the good musicians. Sometimes they are characterised by different moods, so it's not always easy to play your music with everybody, you know? 

For example, now I have my huge European and also American family, who I've been playing with for a while and I know that if I compose music for them, I don't have to speak. They just play exactly what I meant, that's the most important thing for me.

Who are the women you work with who inspire you the most, and which female artists are you most excited about at the moment?
Well before, when I started out, there were not so many women instrumentalists. But now there are a lot more women, and this is because times have changed. Fortunately women no longer have to focus only on family and staying at home. 

It's a cultural change. During history, many women could not work and suffered from discrimination. I'm thinking about Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian baroque painter. She was able to express herself as a painter as she was the daughter of a well-known artist, but she still faced so many restrictions. And most women of the time didn’t have these opportunities. To this day, there are still places in the world where women don’t even have the opportunity to study. This is one of the reasons why there are fewer women artists. It's a cultural problem, women have always been seen in the role of the mother, dedicated to the family.

Fortunately, there are now many more women artists and very good ones. As I said, Marilyn Mazur, for me, is one of the best musicians. And of course the great Carla Bley. I don't say a female or male musician, because these things are stupid to me, because music doesn't have any sex. 

Music is a way to express what you have inside, you know? And if you are gentle, you will play gently. If you are more aggressive, you will play like that. Your gender is not the difference. The difference is that of the human being, how you are inside. I always say to people, put on a CD and tell me if it’s a woman or a man who plays. How do you recognise if it's a woman or a man? I’m sure nobody can do that. People might think women will be more romantic and gentle. In that case Chopin could be a woman!

I’ve already talked about how much I am inspired by Marilyn Mazur. I also am excited by two very very young artists, their music has a totally different mood. Domi is a piano player originally from France and JD Beck is an American drummer. She’s 22 and he’s 18 or 19 and they have a duo. They are really interesting and have created their own world, which I like very much. 

There are lots of fine women musicians around at the moment, but I always come back to Shirley Horn. She kicks me out, always. How she plays the piano, how she sings, the way she does it.


You are a successful international artist, and have been touring and performing since the 1980s. Have there been particular challenges for you as a female artist and composer? And what positive changes have you seen?
When I started to play, there were not so many women performers. In fact, I was always in a man’s world. Sometimes they would write that I was very good, that I sounded like a man, for example, because there is this stupid approach sometimes.  

But, at the same time, they always respected me as a musician. You know, the important thing is that you know what you're speaking about. That's especially important in the man’s world, you know, and this was a very good lesson from Billy Cobham. I remember during 1989, after a long European tour, I was touring in the US with him and with three fantastic American musicians. And he told me, when you go up there, remember you always have to show that you are strong and you know exactly what you want. Because if they feel that you are insecure, even a little. then they’re going to kill you, in a way!

So this was a good lesson because you always have to be very well prepared to speak to people who may show a little discrimination. So I always survived in these things and there were also a lot of musicians who helped me. 

What advice would you give young people thinking about embarking on a career in this sector? Any specific advice for young women?
Well my advice for women is just as I said before. To be prepared. That's the important thing. To know what you are talking about and to know what you play. And know what you want to say and then always play what you really feel. That’s important. And play everything! Because there shouldn’t be any discrimination of music genres. For example, I had a period where I worked with pop musicians like Pino Daniele. Pino loved jazz and playing guitar with other jazz musicians, for example with Chick Corea, Mino Cinélu, Wayne Shorter etc.

And sometimes jazz musicians didn't like that I did this. And that’s very wrong because pop music taught me a lot. For example, in jazz we have the opportunity to play a solo that might be five minutes long. But if you are accompanying a pop singer, you have to say the same things in eight bars. That’s a skill. Try to play everything well, always good music, and the good music is everywhere.

What are your aspirations for the future, what ambitions do you still want to fulfil?
Well, my ambition is that the creative process goes on, you know? I always have to study and learn more. That's the important thing in music, you never arrive. The more you play, the more you know that you don't know anything. Because it's infinite and it’s incredible. 

I should also say that the approach after a while, when you don't have to show any more if you are good or not, is to play what you really feel. It's not like you play to show your virtuosity or how fast you are. No, your virtuosity is needed so you can say something else. Virtuosity is not the final sentence, its meaning is to give something. To give emotion and to share what you really feel inside. The music is connected with some kind of energy, which is present when you are connected and inspired and very into the music. It’s a process at another kind of level. It’s a spirituality, which gives the meaning of life in a way. So music for me is the meaning of life because it helps me learn and understand all sorts of things, including how to communicate with other people.

It doesn't matter if you are yellow, black, white or whatever. We are all human beings and we like to share diversity because that's the really important thing. Sometimes people are afraid of diversity and difference, but this is really stupid. Without this, we could not learn more.

You know, I always ask people to imagine if there was only one kind of flower or one kind of tree, or just one colour in the world. How boring would it be? Music, I think, is the only language that makes people and the universe feel at peace. And it gives love, which is the most important thing to me. To live in happiness and to live this gift that we have of life which is not forever. We have to be conscious that it's not forever. So I try to live it with more love. And I hope you can too. That's my message to everybody. 

Photographer credits:

1) Paolo Soriani

2) Estella Marcheggiano

Case studies

An interview with Nadin Deventer, artistic director of Jazzfest Berlin
An interview with Malwina Witkowska, booking agent and founder of No Earplugs
An interview with Amélie Salembier, manager and booking agent and founder of Molpe Music