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The name Enrico Rava loosely translates as the Miles Davis of Italy. The trumpeter is perhaps Italy's most beloved jazz musician. Over five decades, Rava has recorded dozens of albums and launched the careers of scores of young musicians. Critics praise his distinct personal sound. Enrico Rava led his quintet in a rare club appearance in New York this spring. Tom Vitale was there.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and Gentlemen, Enrico Rava quintet of Birdland.

TOM VITALE reporting:

Enrico Rava is all black and silver as he takes the stage at the Times Square nightclub Birdland. His mane of shoulder length silver hair and a thick silver mustache stand out against his black Italian sports jacket, knit shirt and slacks. The 66 year-old trumpet player is way cool and when he picks up his horn, his sound matches his style.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

VITALE: Enrico Rava's fluid sound belies the fact that he is a self-taught musician. Rava was born in Trieste in 1939 and raised in Turin during World War II. He says he became a jazz fan when he was just a boy of six, listening to his older brother's collection of 78s, which included Louis Armstrong, Bix Biderbeck and Billie Holliday. Rava says he never thought about becoming a musician until he was eighteen, when he went to a Miles Davis concert.

Mr. ENRICO RAVA (Musician): Miles came to Torino with Lester Young and a European rhythm section. It was so incredible, of course, some of the best playing he ever had was in those two or three months. And a couple of days later I got a hold of a trumpet.

VITALE: Rava says he figured out the fingering on his horn and how to produce sound by copying the solos on Miles' early records, Bags' Groove and Blue Haze. The next step in his musical education came from personal contact with another legendary trumpet player, Chet Baker, who was living in Turin at the time.

Mr. RAVA: I was always around Chet, I would carry his trumpet. I asked him, but he was self-taught, too, so he couldn't give me any advice. But still, just looking at Chet maybe some (unintelligible) my friend's house, where he was living. It was better than going years to school.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NATE CHINEN (Music Critic): You know, you can hear traces of his influences in his tone, you can hear a little bit of Miles Davis, you can hear some Chet Baker, but he never sounds exactly like either one of them.

VITALE: Critic Nate Chinen was at Birdland to review Enrico Rava's performance for the New York Times.

Mr. CHINEN: He is a great musician. He surrounds himself with great musicians, and, you know, I think he's a great rejoinder to anyone who has ever said that the jazz that's coming out of Europe is somehow dissipated or not worth hearing or some kind of knock-off. It's plugged right into the mainstream jazz tradition. It's inventive, it's fresh and, you know, it's really true to his own sensibility.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

VITALE: Enrico Rava's sensibility was forged in the avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s. For five years, Rava worked for his father's trucking company during the day while playing at night in Turin's jazz clubs, where Gato Barbieri discovered him. Rava was 23 years old when he joined the Argentine saxophonist's band in Rome.

Mr. RAVA: Of course, my family, my father didn't talk to me for years, didn't help me at all. And I was very lucky because I could immediately make a living with that.

VITALE: Rava's reputation spread and in 1967 he moved to New York City to play with saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Mr. RAVA: We were playing free, free music. We played radical improvisation. And we did that for a while. It was fantastic for a while. And then I got tired of that because in the beginning you discover a new world, you know? Then it becomes routine.

VITALE: Enrico Rava wanted to get back to playing melodies. He returned to Italy in 1977 where, over the past few decades, he's become a celebrity, recording with pop stars, appearing on television, writing movie scores and performing on the Italian Jazz Festival circuit. Rava says that sort of career would have been unlikely here in the States.

Mr. RAVA: The thing that is that in Italy, the difference between here and Italy is that here jazz (unintelligible) music of this country and its most important achievement, I think artistically that America have, you know? But nobody knows that. Very few people recognize that in the States. While in Europe since the '30s, jazz was considered an artform.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Enrico Rava has also contributed to the thriving Italian Jazz scene by tutoring young musicians who have gone on to lead their own bands. Tuscan pianist Stefano Bollani was 23 when Rava discovered him, ten years ago playing in a band with an Italian rap singer.

Mr. STEFANO BOLLANI (Musician): And he told me, you are so young, you don't have a family, why are you wasting your time playing pop music if you don't really like that. You could be a jazz musician if you only tried to develop something of your own. And I started playing with him so this is the most important thing that happened in my career and in my life.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Stefano Bollani plays on Rava's two recent albums for the ECM label, Easy Living and Tati. Now his first solo album of piano jazz will be released in the fall. Bollani says he's learned from Enrico Rava how to add an Italian feel for melody to the American artform of jazz.

Mr. BOLLANI: He's a real poet of the trumpet. And I do think that he's special because each time I hear the sound I can say, this is Enrico playing. And this doesn't happen with so many musicians. When it happens, you know that you are in front of a special jazz musician. I think it's a melodic thing, most of all. And every note he's doing, he's playing, it's coming from the heart.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Enrico Rava says his passion for jazz saved his life, in two ways. First, jazz kept him from a career he dreaded, running his father's shipping company, and then, with jazz, he found harmony.

Mr. RAVA: I've always been a very rebel when I was a young guy. So I was against everything, my family and society, I was also very choleric, I was very angry, so maybe I would be in the street I would pick up a fight with someone all the time, and then, instead, when I started playing, the peace entered. It's like I found what I had to do.

VITALE: Maybe that's what has made Enrico Rava so cool in his life as well as in music. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: You can hear The Man I Love and other tracks from Enrico Rava's latest album at our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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