Ennio Morricone: The Jazz Connection

A Reflection with Enrico Pieranunzi.

The movie business, which seems to float on a cushion of hyperbole, long ago rendered terms like ‘the greatest’ or ‘the best’ meaningless. It’s a shame, because when it’s necessary to reach for such superlatives, they seem little more than showbiz tinsel. Not so when ‘the greatest’ is associated with Ennio Morricone. That’s because to movie fans and music fans alike, he really is the world’s greatest living film composer. Yet even that term seems somehow limiting, since Morricone’s music stands in its own right, without the need for the visual correlation of the cinema screen. As Giuseppe Tornatore, director of Cinema Paradiso, observed, ‘He is not just a great film composer, he’s a great composer,’ which was acknowledged by the remarkable adulation he received in 2013 when he embarked on a world tour performing his music with some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras. In May and June 2019 he embarks on a  short tour of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. Since critics frequently allude to jazz influences that often swim through Morricone’s writing, the time seemed right to reflect on this and who better to turn to than his fellow countryman Enrico Pieranunzi, himself one of the the greatest living jazz pianists.

Enrico Pieranunzi (With Permission)

‘He is one of the greatest musicians — ever,’ says Pieranunzi, who got to know Morricone during what was the composer’s most prolific period in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s following the huge success of his soundtrack music for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) when, as director Bernardo Bertolucci once joked, ‘You barely saw a major Italian movie without music by Ennio’. At this time, Pieranunzi was Professor of Piano in academe, teaching classical piano students by day and a jazz pianist by night on the Rome jazz scene. His reputation was such that he  was invited to become what he calls ‘A studio man’ — a member of a select band of top musicians used to record movie music on the Rome studio soundstages. ‘It meant I had the privilege to be part of the soundtrack music of many movies that were composed and conducted by Ennio [Morricone],’ he says.

It lead to a long and enduring friendship with Morricone which lasts to this day, ‘We established  a strong friendship in those years because of this studio collaboration,’ continues Pieranunzi. ‘We were really close, we spoke many times, we also spoke about jazz — he’s not very fond of jazz, generally. The story is that he graduated in trumpet, then he graduated in composition but to my knowledge the only musician in jazz he really liked was Chet Baker, because he played trumpet — and whatever [Morricone] says about himself he’s is not a very good jazz trumpet player but he’s very fond of Chet Baker! But beside Chet generally, when I spoke with him about improvisation, he really feels that — he’s a great friend of mine, a great supporter and admirer — I remember one time I asked him, “So, Ennio, what do you think about jazz?” He say, “You know sometimes I’m sceptical about improvisation because I like to compose, and to structure music.” He actually said, “I don’t believe much in improvisation”. “Okay”, I said, “Sometimes you’re right.” I answer him that way because improvisation can also be bla, bla, bla. But also many times it’s not bla, bla at all. We used to talk about improvisation, and he seemed not completely into that. On the other hand, in his personal relationship with me he was so good. I can, for instance, mention that one time in 1983 I invited him to a concert with [guitarist] Jim Hall, in duo in Rome, and surprisingly he came to listen to us. I say “surprising” because in everyday life his life is very disciplined: he goes to bed and 9.30pm every day and he wakes up at 5.30am every day, and so this why he also composes a lot, he has composed a lot of music, at my knowledge more than 600 [pieces], it’s unbelievable, this is why he is so very much disciplined’.

Pieranunzi was on call from the movie studios from the early 1970s until around 1985, and although he did respond to occasional requests to perform on soundtracks for a little longer, he effectively dropped all his musical commitments to concentrate on his jazz career, which had begun to take off at this time. Asked what Morricone soundtracks he played on he hesitates, explaining that in all, he appeared on more than 50 soundtracks, ‘For sure I played Once Upon a Time in America (1984), for sure I played Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988), for sure I played Novcento (1976) by Bernardo Bertolucci, also some comedies because Morricone was very eclectic, in 1981-2 I played in two comedies, they are well known in Italy, probably unknown outside, directed by Carlo Verdone, and I played in two movies that were very successful at the time, one was called Bianco Rosso e Verdone (1981), I was the pianist and also played electric piano and for that movie Morricone wrote a fantastic soundtrack. I played on — in French it was La Cage Aux Folles — in Italian it is Il Vizietto (1978), I was part of that, many more, sometimes with a very good director, sometimes a less good director! But for me it was a greatest period — another fantastic movie I played was by a very good director, his name was Valerio Zurlini and the title of the movie The Desert of the Tartars (1976). That was a great soundtrack. The film was based on a novel by an Italian writer, very good, Dino Buzzati, and the movie and the soundtrack were great, I was absolutely touched when playing on that because Morricone on that occasion used a big orchestra, with trumpets and stuff, counterpoint, tubas, canons — he really for me is one of the greatest composers ever, beyond movie soundtracks really.’

But the Morricone connection did not end when Pieranunzi withdrew from studio work to concentrate on his career in jazz. As he recalls, he was preparing to go to bed one night in 2000 and the phone rang. ‘It was CamJazz, my record company at the time, and they said they had just got  the rights for 60 movies by Ennio Morricone and they told me, “You can arrange whatever you want within the 60 movies.” So I received the music at home, the scores, and also the soundtrack CDs, and selected the tunes I wanted to record. I didn’t have a chance to record Spaghetti Western stuff, I just was able to select the ones that the publishing company had sent me. So I had the chance to have in my hand his scores and I was crying, because I had the score, and at the same time I was listening to the CD with the soundtrack music, so I could really understand, deeply, what he writes and for me it was extremely moving because for me he was really a maestro — he is a big maestro, I am a piccolo maestro, a small maestro, but he is a big one — he knows a lot!’

Pieranunzi spent several months selecting some of Morricone’s most enchanting themes, most unplayed other than for the movie soundtrack for which they were written, and on 15 and 16 February 2001, at the Sonic Studios in Rome he recorded enough to fill two CDs that were released as Morricone One and Morricone 2. With him were Marc Johnson on bass and Joey Baron on drums, an association that dated back to 1984, when they first played together at the Music Inn, a jazz club in Rome. ‘I really like to play with them, the interaction, the feeling is great. The nice thing is that I called Morricone after the recording, saying “Maestro, I am very pleased to say that we recorded jazz versions of your tunes,” and he said, “Okay, good, thank-you,” and I invited him to come to the studio. He came and he accepted to write the liner notes, he was very happy. He was very happy for the arranging, for the performing and there is a small thing I would like to tell you, he told me “I like very much the way you treated my music, because I can recognise it!” Because I really took care to keep the melodies, it’s very personal — I mean I think he has a great, great sense of melody.’

Morricone One was released in 2002, complete with  Ennio Morricone’s  liner notes, which read: ‘Surprised! Very surprised when I listened to the beautiful elaborations of my dear and esteemed friend Enrico Pieranunzi, and of Marc Johnson and Joey Baron. Surprised, in admiration, euphoric for the positive performances where the original pieces, rediscovered and respected, have a new physiognomy, and the jazz interpretations of the three great soloists doesn’t destroy the pieces but value them.’ Perhaps part of the reason that Morricone was so surprised and delighted at what he heard goes beyond the exemplary musicianship and creativity of these recordings. As Pieranunzi observes, ‘He told me on that occasion that he hadn’t been happy with John Zorn, because he thinks that before my CDs, John Zorn had also done a CD of his music [The Big Gundown (1985)], but maestro Morricone told me, “I couldn’t recognise my music, who is this John Zorn?” I said, “A very good jazz player.” “Maybe” he said, “But I couldn’t recognise my music, he used my name but I couldn’t recognise my melodies.” I didn’t know what to say! On the other hand, my CDs made him happy because he can recognise clearly the melodies and I really tried to focus on the melodies of his tunes.’

Enrico Pieranunzi (With Permission)

In November 2001, Pieranunzi’s trio presented Morricone One in live performance at the Alexanderplatz Jazz Club in Rome, ‘He [Morricone]  came, he joined us in the club,’ said Pieranunzi.  ’At the end we were toasting and I asked  him in public, “Please Ennio can you tell us how many tunes you have written so far?” He told us, in 2001, “600!” So I guess there are now many more…years have passed, you know. He’s really a fantastic writer, he’s a great, great composer, not just for the amount, but for the quality of his work. Sometimes I remember in some movies I not only had to play piano, but also the bells, or celeste, but whatever he writes in music, for me it was a great experience to share.’

Indispensible Enrico Pieranunzi Discography :

Enrico Pieranunzi Live in Paris (Challenge Jazz)

Enrico Pieranunzi Yesterdays (Stunt Records)

Enrico Pieranunzi Morricone 1 & 2 (Cam Jazz)

Indispensible Ennio Morricone Discography:

Ennio Morricone The Essential Ennio Morricone (Decca)