An article in the February 2021 issue of DOWNBEAT Magazine had this to say about the individual who will be the recipient of the 2024 Jazz Legend Award at the annual San Diego Jazz Party in Del Mar, California (Feb. 23-25):
“By the age of 20, pianist Rossano Sportiello had mastered the repertoire of trad jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and Dixieland to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, with special emphasis on stride piano. He did all this while growing up in Northern Italy, learning from records and playing in European jazz bands beginning when he was 16.
“Rossano was drawn to jazz primarily because of the trad style and the possibilities he heard in the freedom of improvisation. His early piano lessons were classical, and hearing improvisation was a revelation to him. Exploring music styles beyond trad and stride is an ongoing source of inspiration, and he incorporates all he has learned into his own playing.”
“I met Barry Harris (New York’s dean of bebop pianists) when I was 26 and was so inspired to hear him play. He teaches not only how to play music, but how to experience it. He tells his students, ‘Jazz is about feelings. It’s about beauty. It’s about expression. Jazz is a beautiful way of expressing yourself.’” Rossano cites Hank Jones for teaching him a valuable lesson “that you don’t have to bang the instrument to swing, and that you can play softly with a couple fingers and still swing.”
Meeting Dan Barrett
Trombonist-arranger Dan Barrett recalls his first encounter with Rossano. It was in the summer of 1998 in Ascona, Switzerland, a charming resort town located on Lake Maggiore near the Swiss-Italian border, which annually hosts what is billed as Europe’s largest hot jazz festival.
One evening Dan was invited to sit in with an Italian big band that had a young man at the piano whom he had not met, but who very quickly caught his attention. When the pianist finally had a chance to solo, Dan said, “This young Italian cat started swinging, and he took the band to another whole level. This was Big League jazz playing, some of the best and most exciting I’d ever heard, and the fans responded with a thunderous, almost riotous ovation.”
Dan kept in touch with Rossano after that introduction, occasionally sending pieces of music he thought might be of interest, and at the 2003 Ascona Festival, recruited him to play in an American all-star group that he was leading. The critics took notice, and on Dan’s recommendation, the late Mat Domber of Arbors Records invited Rossano to perform at that year’s “March of Jazz” in Clearwater, Florida.
Milano Jazz Gang member
For seven years (1993-2000), Rossano toured Europe as a member of the Milano Jazz Gang, playing the San Francisco style of jazz associated with Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. He moved to the United States in 2007, which was the year he met his wife, Lala Moore, when she was singing in a Barry Harris choir and who now works as a writer at the United Nations in New York City.
There are no musicians in Rossano’s immediate family, but both parents appreciate good music. Their son was attracted to the piano at an early age and by the age of eight was taking lessons from a next-door neighbor. A year later, he came under the tutelage of classical pianist Carlo Villa, a relationship that continued until Rossano’s 1996 graduation in classical piano from the local conservatory at the age of 22.
Listening to his father’s jazz records, he started to imitate various jazz pianists “because that’s the way you learn to play jazz.” What really turned him on was hearing the soundtrack of the movie Cotton Club featuring an all-star band that included Bob Wilber and Randy Sandke with Mark Shane on piano.
Ralph Sutton influence
Rossano refers to the late Ralph Sutton as “his Spiritual Father.” However, he feels his own style is a composite of all the great jazz piano players. “I like them all, and they all have much to offer. I don’t try to play exactly like Teddy Wilson because I cannot be somebody else. Many ingredients make my style, and I am always striving to get better.”
Rossano displays a deep understanding of classical piano idioms and could very well be a first-class concert pianist in the classical world. During his studies at the Milan Conservatory of Music, he learned how to compose and how to orchestrate for a symphony orchestra. He also is an excellent teacher and has been a guest instructor at clinics and jazz workshops both here in the United State and in Europe.
He’s made over 50 recordings. His first solo recording in 2003 was In the Dark, where the liner notes gave a phonetic pronunciation of his name: Ro-SAH-no and “Sporty fellow” and offered the following description of the artist:
“Rossano is a modest and courteous young man, with a slender build that’s just perfect for the Italian suits and jackets in which he performs. He has dark brown hair and wears a closely-trimmed beard and rim glasses that accent an already scholarly appearance. His smile is like the Cheshire cat’s: ear-to-ear, and is on display quite often, for he laughs a lot and has a wry sense of humor.”
More into Technology
During the 18 months of “down time” during the Pandemic, he began streaming weekly concerts from his New York City apartment that attracted listeners from all over the world. He gave private lessons and accepted commissions to compose original songs requested by fans to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and special events. Over 100 of the “Live at the Flat in Greenwich Village” series are currently available on-line.
He also revealed that growing up, his mother and grandmother insisted he know to operate a sewing machine, a talent he put to good use making face masks for family and friends during the pandemic. He went on to say that he became more technologically involved with the Internet and Social Media and feels it resulted in his becoming more productive and busier than before.
He’s played with most of the current jazz luminaries and become a regular on the jazz party and festival circuit throughout the world. He currently spends 60 percent of his time performing in Europe where a majority of his performances are as a member of The Three Wise Men trio along with Dutch saxophonist Frank Roberscheuten and Austrian drummer-vibraphonist Martin Breinschmid.
He modestly states, “Playing with great musicians, I feel I’m always learning something.” In line with his crossover ability (like Benny Goodman), he has three CDs where he plays classical compositions by Chopin, Schubert and Listz in the jazz style.
Dick Hyman has been quoted as saying, “Rossano’s beautiful touch and elegant ideas immediately attract the listener. Still a relatively young man, he is destined, I’m sure, for a brilliant career.” (Rossano will be 50 on June 1, 2024.) On his website, Rossano states his overriding goal is to play jazz and make it understandable to everybody. Most of all, he wants to see people smiling and having fun.