For a musician, whatever his background, improvisation is the most direct form of communication with the listener […] The music we use to express our emotions is the mirror of our soul. Christina Pluhar

Franceso Turrisi is an Italian-born and Dublin-based pianist, percussionist and composer constantly hovering between the two seemingly disparate worlds of early music and contemporary jazz. Involved in a multitude of projects either as a solo musician, a leader or a co-leader, Francesco Turrisi has also been recording and touring with Christina Pluhar’s early music ensemble L’Arpeggiata since 2004 as a percussionist, harpsichordist, organist or pianist.

The Austrian theorbist has of course highlighted many times throughout her recordings the similarities between modern jazz and early 17th century European music whereby a lot of material is based on vocal or instrumental improvisation over repeating rhythmic structures. L’Arpeggiata’s All’Improvviso (2004) and more recently Music for a While (2014) for instance saw a jazz clarinettist and guitarist (Gianluigi Trovesi and Wolfgang Muthspiel respectively) share the recording studio with a Baroque ensemble.

Self-released on his own label Taquín Records on 2 April 2018 last and reflecting the musician’s “lifelong geographical, emotional and musical journey”, Northern Migrations is Francesco Turrisi’s seventh recording and first solo piano album.

Francesco Turrisi - Northern Migrations (2018)
Francesco Turrisi – Northern Migrations (2018)

I consider myself a very privileged migrant, but like every other migrant in the world, I don’t belong where I came from anymore, and never will fully belong where I go. Francesco Turrisi

The Turrisi hail from Sicily, but harsh economic conditions in the impoverished south forced the family to move northwards to the wealthiest city of Turin in the 1970s where Francesco grew up. The musician then travelled to the Netherlands to study Baroque and jazz music at the Royal conservatory of The Hague and eventually settled further north in Ireland.

As suggested by the cover artwork, Francesco Turrisi likens his physical and professional journey to that of the sea turtles. Even though the reptiles will migrate thousands of miles in the course of their lifetime, they will always return to the beach where they hatched on a regular basis. Introduced as “a distillation of my musical and life experiences”, Northern Migrations is both a snapshot of Francesco Turrisi’s career to date and a metaphorical homecoming to the musical realm of Southern Italy.

Geographically, Sicily is of course a melting pot of various cultural heritages from all the surrounding Mediterranean ethnicities and would have absorbed over the centuries influences from North African, Turkish, Greek, Balkan or Middle-Eastern traditions.

Francesco Turrisi has already widely explored his Mediterranean roots through 17th century early music, contemporary classical and jazz, modal music, ostinato bass lines and improvisation as a jazz trio or with small ensembles such as the Taquín Experiments, Tarab or Zahr. All these wide-ranging musical explorations resurface on Northern Migrations, taking the form of newly composed melodies or improvisations along one traditional Italian song (“Alla Carpinese”).

The three tracks “Taksim I,II and III” (subtitled “Partenze”, “Longings” and “Il Ritorno”) for instance are completely improvised pieces all based on melodic progressions which are widely used in the Arabic maqam scales. Featuring additional keyboard and accordion (the ultimate Italian instrument), the title track is the only “arranged” composition on the record.

If other compositions are either based on early music chromatic harmonic sequences, on ostinato bass lines or traditional-like melodies, the music is always underpinned by an underlying melancholy such as on the magnificent “Mi Mariposa Hermosa” or “A Thousand Tears Old”, always expressing a latent nostalgia.

Northern Migrations also boasts an exceptional sound quality. The music was expertly recorded live over a day and a half in Castalia Hall, a purpose-built concert venue in Co. Kilkenny. The Steinway piano used for the recording was also tuned to an original unequal temperament, thus lending a unique character to the overall album. As well as that, the sound engineer Ben Rawlings used old ribbon microphones to capture – as entire takes – the resonance of the piano in the hall. The instrument’s impressive sustain can be fully appreciated in the last 30 seconds of “Taksim III” as the track concludes a remarkable and emotional musical journey.