Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blue Note Milano

10:30AM May 10 (EST)

On Thursday we had our last quiz in Italian class, which was essentially a practice run for the final exam. This was comforting, as I felt really good about the whole test. There have been times this semester when we've crammed in a new concept or load of vocabulary right in before the quiz, and that has made it difficult, but this one went really smoothly. I'm feeling really confident with my Italian now.

Most of the Italian classes had gone out for gelato at least once this semester, but given all the singing we'd been doing, the gelato field-trip slipped right by. For the past few weeks we'd been trying to get our teacher to take us somewhere for gelato, and she finally gave in, saying we could do it after the quiz, a point when she rarely wants to teach anyways. We went down the hill on the backside of La Pietra, following Via de' Bruni past the elementary school our teacher's daughter attends. We waved and called out her name, Amanda, as we passed, as it seemed she was outside at choice time.

This gelateria which we went to would be out of the way for me if I were walking from home, it's very near to the recording studio where we played for the film scores, but I'd heard great things about it for a while. I hadn't been to many gelato places in Italy that I felt were better than gelato I could get in America, but this was definitely one of those rare cases that stood out. I'm not sure it was the best gelato, but it was completely different than any other I'd had before. The flavors were richer, and the cioccolato peperoncino which I got had a spicy kick to it that I was still feeling after I'd thrown my cup away. The key was the texture though, this gelato was much softer and creamier than any other I'd had. It was definitely great to get a different spin on the Tuscan tradition.

Following gelato, Isamu, John Bishop, and I all walked back towards our apartments together, as we had to get ready for our gig at the Blue Note in Milan that night. I met Antonio, his girlfriend, Domenico (the camera man for our youtube videos), Andy, and my fellow peers in the jazz department at the train station a few minutes after 2:00. At times the school may skimp on providing us transportation and hotels, but that was not at all the case this time, for the prestige event of the season. Apparently we were even listed as significant news on the NYU website for playing at Italy's biggest club. To get there, we were taking the Eurostar on NYU's treat, and we then stayed at the ultra-snazzy four-star AC Milano Hotel—it has no relation to the soccer team owned by Prime Minister Berlusconi, but the AC hotel brand had the unfortunate luck of inhabiting the same name.

I tried to work on my politics paper, due the following Tuesday, on the train, but it wasn't the best environment to work, around all of my friends in the jazz department. Before long, I did get into a discussion with Antonio about the subject of my essay, Lega Nord, the radical populist party that wants to break off, or at least gain more federalist power for their northern nation of "Padania." I find the whole concept of a secessionist party in such a prosperous country fascinating, but the party is extremely divisive in their political tactics, stirring up strong sentiments on both sides of the issue. I have had a great time talking about it with Italians, who, in Tuscany, see them as crazy racists in the north. I believe that in coming from abroad, I've been able to look at the whole situation more objectively though, and I was even able to challenge Antonio's preconceptions of the party while talking to him. Yes, I believe they are crazy racists in the north too, but they take this position in order to draw votes and play with peoples' emotions. I'm not sure just how racist they actually are, but they pull on divisive issues like immigration, much in the same way as Karl Rove, cultivating an immobilized voting population and transforming the general electorate to their advantage—their polling as the third strongest Italian party for the upcoming EU elections. Also, Italy was never a unified state between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1861, and it has always been a collection of nations that share a language. I don't think federalism would be such a bad thing, as currently, the various regions have essentially no power.

John having fun on the train

Antonio and I discuss politics over Jeff (above right) and Domenico (below left).

They soon got tired of political discussion and retreated into traditional Italian sleeping-on-train pose.

The gorgeous sights of northern Italy and the Apennines

To give you an idea, this is one of Lega Nord's posters. It depicts the north of Italy, "Padania," creating all the wealth, laying the golden eggs, and sending that wealth down to Rome and the lazy south, never to return.

This one shows a very caricatured Asian man, a gypsy woman, an African man (brandishing a sword no less), and a Muslim, physically getting in the way and holding back a poor elderly Italian man.

When we got to Milano Centrale, we immediately departed for the subway. Two stops later, we were outside another big train station, but Antonio didn't really know where to go from there. Antonio has proven time and again that he's not good with directions, and we waited around for ten minutes as he tried to find which way we needed to go. This perpetual state of confusion makes trusting Antonio ever more difficult, but he rarely leaves us with another option. With little help from Antonio, we eventually turned the corner and noticed an 18-story building with large sign saying "AC Hotels" at the top.

We spent about half-an-hour at the hotel, dropping off our belongings and getting changed before heading off to the gig. It did seem that Antonio knew the way to the Blue Note though, as we walked right over without getting lost.

Milano Centrale

Approaching our swanky hotel

Looking up the side of the hotel

In our room

Entering the club was quite an experience, as we encountered a giant two-story room full of tables and a bar, three HD cameras set up on podiums to film us, and a grand stage at the center of it all. Our group was on second, so we sound-checked first, working in particular on one of my tunes, "What Now?," which had been a staple of our practices early in the semester, but we'd never gotten to perform. It was pretty special to be up there, and we just let it all soak in before the performance.

Walking through Milan to the Blue Note

"Maybe some day your name will be in lights sayin' [NYU Jazz] tonight"

Inside the club

Afterthought sound-check

We had a pretty good meal before the set began, and I got to talk a good bit with David Travis, the director of NYU in Florence, about the Eurostar and the goings on of TrenItalia. He came up for the performance along with Dave Schroeder, the director of the jazz department in New York. The meal was a buffet with at least two different types of pasta, and two or three types of meat. Little of it was memorable, but the turkey scaloppini was some of the best I've had.

Origin Blue has been playing together for at least a year now, and per usual, they played a really solid set. I think I've seen them play better before, certainly with more energy, but it was still a pretty great performance. We went on directly afterwards and opened up with "What Now?." I usually take a really good solo on it, and I thought what I played was solid, but it had been a while since we'd worked on it, so it didn't quite come together as well as I'd hoped. This kind of feeling summed up the entire performance for me. I felt like I played pretty well because I really knew the pieces we were playing, but I rarely pushed towards anything original in my solos. A lot of this stemmed from the fact that I never felt completely in tune, so I was constantly adjusting, and that extra attention I put towards my intonation drew away from my focus on what I was playing. The last part of the set I finally started to get it together. I felt really good about what I was playing on my tune "Done," but again, when playing with Andy, we have stricter arrangements, and although I wanted to take an idea I was playing into a second solo chorus, we had to continue on to another part of the piece. The last tune, "Lotus Blossom," was the best. I really like what I played, and I'm glad that we were able to close the set on such a high note. At that point I just wanted to play an encore or two though, to keep the momentum going.

I wasn't at all nervous during the show. If anything, I felt a rush of adrenaline that I hoped would propel me to a great performance. The intonation issue really got in my head though, and in the end, I felt that I didn't play up to my potential when we got our chance on the big stage. In listening back to the recording later, neither my intonation nor my solos were as off as I felt in performance, but I know it could have been that much better had I in fact been completely focused during the show.

Origin Blue with Francesco Bearzatti

Afterthought Quatet with Andy Gravish

Afterwards, David Travis bought us each a drink at the bar—I know we're legal in Italy, but that's still an oddly pleasing situation. I got to see my parents briefly as well, as they'd come up for the gig after their week in Cinque Terre. We discussed some of what they'd been up to on the scenic Italian coast, but we knew there was plenty of time to catch up on all accounts a week later, when I returned to America. Mostly, it was really cool to have them there, watching me play at the biggest club in Italy. They had one more day in Milan before flying back to America themselves, so we said our goodbyes, and I went back to hanging with my peers.

The Blue Note Bar

Domenico tries to conduct a serious interview with us after the show.

Unfortunately, he delegated interviewing responsibilities to Evan and Isamu, so we couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculous questions, of which we didn't have any for each other.

So we took ridiculous pictures too. Clockwise from the top: me, Jeff, Evan, Isamu, John, and Dave.

The next day I got up fairly early and got to work in peace on my politics paper for a bit. It was nice to feel like I was finally getting somewhere with it. Then, when everybody else got up, I joined them for breakfast downstairs at the hotel cafe. Considering that it was a four-star hotel, the breakfast was pretty mediocre. I find it hard to complain about anything, as school was putting us up, but I'm more surprised that the hotel would have such low standards of food quality.

We had to check out by noon, but we all wanted to get back to Florence as soon as possible, so we were out just after 10:00 and headed back to Milano Centrale to see if we could exchange our tickets—arranged for a 5:30 Eurostar—for something earlier. Unfortunately, it was the Italian equivalent of Labor Day, and everything was booked, so we resolved to spend the day at a park not too far from the station. When they bought the tickets, Antonio and David Travis had figured that we would want to spend some time sight-seeing around Milan, but as I had my guitar and laptop, and both drummers had heavy bags with cymbals, we weren't exactly in a position to go walking all around the city. We spent nearly five hours in the park lying around and playing an epic game of Ghost (a spelling game).

On the way back I got some good work done on my essay again, and I made plans to go out to dinner with John Spencer and some other friends that night. Unfortunately, by the time I got back, he let me know that he wasn't able to get the reservation, so he was eating up at school. Being a holiday, most things were closed, so I had to buy my food at the ninety-nine cent store, where I purchased a bag of pasta and an arrabiata sauce. Ironically, the two items only cost a Euro and a half, but I didn't argue, and I went home to make my dinner, which I supplemented with some mascarpone. It was actually better than plenty of the pasta and sauces I've found at the normal grocery stores, which will charge you at least twice as much. By that point, I was pretty burnt out on working on my politics essay, so I just curled up, watched some of a movie, and then went to bed early that night.

The very modern Italian city of Milano

Milano Centrale, a grand fascist monument.

Isamu towers over John as he struggles to come up with a word in the finale of our epic game of Ghost.

Inside the great Milano Centrale terminal

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