The accomplished and swinging jazz pianist Roberto Magris has created a discography that many would consider diverse and impressive. Born in Trieste, Italy in 1959, the now sixty-two-year-old musician started playing at the age of four. It was a classical education before in 1977, the then eighteen-year-old pianist was exposed to The Way I Play by the pianist Oscar Peterson and his infatuation with jazz would start and never release its grip on this pianist.
Living in Trieste, a city that is often referred to as a link to the Mitteleuropa or Middle Europe, Magris was exposed to a diverse cornucopia of ethnicities and cultures. The Italian port city is bordered by mainland Italy on its North and West, Slovenia on its Northeast and Croatia on its Southern border. Besides Italian links, the area boasts diversity, melding Latin, Slavic, Germanic and Greek cultural roots to the city’s historical fabric.
Along the way, this artist has assimilated influences from a variety of pianistic sources. In addition to Peterson, Magris was touched by the works of Eubie Blake, Bud Powell, Bobby Timmons, Elmo Hope, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Paul Bley, and Andrew Hill. With these varied influences being absorbed into the man’s playing DNA, his playing is always his own and can always be counted on to swing and often evoke an emotional connection with the listener.
Roberto Magris, a bit of a one-man historian of the music, has recorded over thirty albums to date. This pianist/composer always sought out collaborations with other notable, although somewhat obscure artists, using the chance to document these legend’s work with his own. He organized, played, arranged, and managed to record: Check-In 2005 with Hungarian saxophone talent Tony Lakatos; Kansas City Outbound 2006 with bassist Art Davis and drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson; Il Bello del Jazz 2006 with saxophonist Herb Geller; Mating Call 2010 with the drummer Idris Muhammad; tributes to trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Elmo Hope with drummer legend Albert “Tootie” Heath and Sun Stone 2019 with trumpeter Ira Sullivan to name just a few.
Magris met the accomplished bassist Eric Hochberg at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and later recorded Suite with him in 2019. Hochberg’s name is not known to everyone, an under-the-radar talent whose work with one-time Pat Metheny drummer Paul Wertico and Bella Fleck harmonica master/pianist Howard Levy speaks for itself. Hochberg is the perfect foil for Magris. The Italian pianist finds bright possibilities in working with artists like Hochberg who have all the talent and little chance to shine in the spotlight. The latest release, Shuffling Ivories, is a beautiful matching of these two artists in an intimate duo setting.
There is a noticeable simpatico between these two and together they create a delightful record that is easy to sit back with, listen to and enjoy. Magris records eleven songs and they include tributes to some of his pianistic heroes. The opening and title cut “Shuffling Ivories” is a homage-like reference to Eubie Blake who with Noble Sissel wrote “Shuffle Along” in the twenties. Magris is joyous on this blues-tinged swinger as Hochberg walks defiantly and then produces a rousing bass solo that punctuates things. There is fun in the air.
Mining Clarence Williams 1926 “I’ve Found a New Baby,” Magris opens with some jaunty piano work and Hochberg’s playful response. Magris' piano is minimal at times to let Hochberg’s responses be the more featured.
Magris’s “Clef Club Club,” a reference to a Harlem Social club for black Americans from back in 1910, opens up with a boisterous piano and some urgent bow work by Hochberg. These two create a sense of cinematic urgency.
Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” is given a more embellished treatment by the talented Magris. You can hear the reverence in Magris’ playing and Hochberg offers a deep-toned pizzicato bass solo that emphasizes the moving melody with some fluttering accents. Despite being faithful to Blake’s sensibilities the pianist often embroiders the music with more modern approaches. Later in the album Blake’s The Chevy Chase” is played by the duet and the tact here is more stride-like by Magris. There is a bouncy buoyancy, a ragtime tradition seeping into the music and Hochberg follows suit. The music reminds me of music played in old silent music as accompaniment.
One of my favorites from the album is from the obscure pianist Billy Gault titled “The Time of this World Is at Hand.” Magris revels in this minor-keyed, dark but surprisingly moving melody. The music hooks you in its sway and Magris captures it wonderfully with a fluid verve and poignancy. Hochberg lays down the solid beat and offers some creative counterpoint.
The saxophonist Archie Shepp’s 1972 Attica Blues album featured the song “Quiet Dawn” from Cal Massey and here Magris and Hochberg do a moving rendition of this melancholic composition. Hochberg’s emotive bowing in the opening is a sonic treat. Magris’s superb accompaniment is subtle and tight. The pianist is most animated in his playing which he gets modernistic here when they expand the melody and Hochberg reverts to his astute plucking. Listen closely as Magris inserts a reference in his playing from Charlie Parker’s “Cool Blues” and as Hochberg’s impressive pizzicato soloing is featured around the 5:31 mark.
Just marvel at how much musical magic two instruments under the control of two talented players can produce.
In keeping with a dedication to his influences, Magris chooses one of Andrew Hills' more sensitive tunes “La Verne.” The slow-paced ballad features some of Magris’ most aggressive embellishments and Hochberg’s bass work compliments with aplomb. The duet has included two versions of this song. The reprise that closes the album is more romantic in its approach and Magris and Hochberg enjoyed rethinking this originally angular song into a 4/4 ballad that feels more true to the pianist’s idea of being a love song that Hill dedicated to his first wife. Magris’s piano work is splendid and Hochberg’s solo is pointedly clear and moving.
“Anysha” is a composition by Philadelphia soul and jazz keyboard artist Trudy Pitts and was first heard by Magris on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s album Other Folks Music. Magris and Hochberg set the music to a light bounce that has a nice flow to it. Hochberg offers an agile solo that dances along with the music like a wood sprite in a magical forest. Magris subtly accompanies leaving some marvelous space to allow the bassist to shine.
“Italy” is a tribute to Magris’ birth country and at the same time is a musical memorial to Italian American musicians that have one way or another influenced or touched the pianist. In the liner notes Magris mentions Lennie Tristano, George Wallington, Vido Musso, The Candoli Brothers, Sal Mosca Carl Fontana and singer Tony Bennett all as having impacted the music he loves. The music has been compared as a musical “postcard from Italy” to the audiences who hear it. I’ll leave you to experience this for yourselves.