Italian blues master Stefano Zabeo talks about Alexis Korner, James Cotton, his project, and local scene

"The blues is a music alive, and you can’t set its limits if you don’t wanna kill it. Of course you won’t find the blues nowadays in the same form and shape as it’s been in the past. But that means that the blues is still alive as I said."

Stefano Zabeo: Deep Groove Simplicity

Italian blues master singer and guitarist Stefano Zabeo presents himself in the course on the Blues road: "In a musical scene where everyone can claim to have played with anybody else, I don’t want to bore you with a list of all the famed musicians I had the pleasure and the honor to work with. I’d like to mention only two great persons which have been quite significant in my musical career and in my life as well: my boyhood friend Guido Toffoletti, maybe the most respected bluesman in Italy and award-winning even in USA, with whom I’ve played live and made records for almost two decades, and Alexis Korner. I have been introduced to the “Great Father Of English Blues” by Guido, and I had the opportunity to play live and in studio with him, but moreover I could spend some time in his house and learn from his wisdom and his way of conceiving music. That's what definitely changed my life. Today I’m trying to promote two main projects: Stefano Zabeo & TV Mama, which is a Power Blues Trio spacing from strictly Blues to Rock hits taken from the Sixties and the Seventies, and Stefano Zabeo & Carlo Zambon, Acoustic Duo of guitar and harp with Blues intents, no compromise."

Stefano talks about the Blues, Italian scene, Alexis Korner, Jorma Kaukonen, James Cotton, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Mick Taylor, and his projects.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

Well, it ain’t easy to answer, but mainly I feel the blues as a way of life more than a way of playing. I know that it’s weird hearing an Italian guy saying so, and me myself I can’t explain how it comes since I’m not black nor I’m even American. I only know that I’ve been captured by the blues long time ago and now the blues is a part of the very me. The blues makes you go deeper in everything you do because it changes the way you conceive the music, and for a musician that means changing the way you conceive your whole life too. When I was young I used to think “the faster the better” and I loved to play a really huge amount of notes. Then I met the blues, and I started to realize that “less is more”. I started to understand that you have to carefully choose every single note you play and the value of silence. But, men, that is true for music and for your entire life as well!

"Every kind of experience can inspire your music, no matter if good or bad. The real issue is HOW DEEP you can go in your playing or writing and not WHAT you sing or write about."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I don’t know if I’m a “good” bluesman nor a “good” songwriter, I only know that I can’t help playing and writing because it’s the way I can express myself at best. And every single experience in your life can push you to play and write while none of them couldn’t. I know that there’s a lot of people around thinking that you can play the blues only out of pain and sorrow. But for me it ain’t totally true. Every kind of experience can inspire your music, no matter if good or bad. The real issue is HOW DEEP you can go in your playing or writing and not WHAT you sing or write about.

 

How do you describe Stefano Zabeo sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

There are two goals I’m always trying to reach in my music: “groove” and what I call “deep simplicity”. “Groove” is a self-explanatory term I think. I do need to feel and make my audience feel the inner motion of music, something that pushes all the people to stomp their feet on the ground or clap their hands even during the slowest song. Then a simplicity that I love to call “deep” to avoid confusion: in no way a simple thing has to be a simplistic thing. I’m always striving to give weight to every single note I play, and to avoid useless notes. I’d better use silence instead. I’ve often said to those young rockers around: gather all the energy you spread in your one million note solo and stuff it in one single note, can you imagine what kind of note you’ll play? Last but not least lyrics! Lyrics are not a necessary break between solos, lyrics are what the blues bud from. You can’t sing silly words and be profound in your playing, can you?

"Dick (Heckstall-Smith) has been a real good friend for us all and for me in a special way. He’s toured with The Blues Society and with TV Mama as well, so we had a very intense relationship."

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

While I can luckily say that I had the chance to play and sing with many great musicians and real legends learning something from each one of them, and also “grabbing” secrets from them, there are only three persons that taught me things in the true sense of the word, and I feel a lot of thankfulness towards them: Alexis Korner, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Eddie C. Campbell, but Alexis more than anyone else.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career? Which is the most interesting period in your life?

In a way the best period has been around ’82-’86 ‘cause we were gigging big theatres and festivals and we were often appearing at the national TV. In the same way the worst is now, because it seem that only tribute bands can gig around. But in other respects I think that the most interesting period in my musical life is now, even if I gig small venues and I don’t appear in TV shows anymore, and the reason is that I’ve never played the way I’m playing now, at least for myself.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

First of all try to be a real musician and pursue a deep consciousness of what you’re doing. Fame and money can come and go very quickly, and they are totally out of your control. But remember: the more you go for them the less you will get them.

"When we started playing blues back in the Seventies almost nobody knew what we were doing."

Are there any memories from Guido Toffoletti, which you’d like to share with us? What are you miss from him?

That’s a very big question! Not so much people know that Guido and me became close friends since the age of 12 and we used to live in houses that were about 200 meters apart. We started to share a common passion for the Beatles at first, then for the Rolling Stones and all the other bands of the sixties. We’d never expect at that time that later on we would play with a lot of them. Guido has been my closest friend for so many years and when he passed away I knew that I lost a part of myself. It’s not easy to explain, but we were complementary to each other. He could do things that I couldn’t and vice versa. Together we had a strength that none of us two alone could have. His death put me in a very bad state of mind and I couldn’t gig nor record anymore for years. Only 4 years ago I started again to play venues so no mystery why I gave my last CD the title “Out Again”.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Alexis Korner, which memory from him makes you smile?

It happened that the first time we met it was in Venice ‘cause we were supposed to gig together in a big venue the day after. But we had to play also that night, without him, in a big calm place in Venice. So we went to the airport (Guido already knew him in London and became his friend) to pick him up and we went directly to the place we had to play in. He was a very humble person, very humble indeed, and sat backstage waiting for us to perform and eventually go to bed. So we started our show and… suddenly I heard a new guitar in the band. Guess what! It was him playing with Guido’s spare amp and spare guitar. Obviously we started to go in the shade to let him shine in the front line. But he said: “No no no, don’t do that! This is YOUR show and I will play behind you all, because if the people recognize me this won’t be your show anymore and you owe respect to yourself!”. After that first experience, for some reason he developed a fondness for me and I started to become his pupil. I even had the chance to be in his house in England for a couple of times where I saw the Golden Record Award gained by his group CCS hanging behind the door of the toilet (that’s for real!). But more than a master, Alexis has been almost a second father to me: a very, very kind person, really!

"The best jam I had is for sure the one I played with James Cotton. No one else can play the blues the way he does and he makes you play blues in a way you would not if alone."

And would you like to tell your best memory about Jorma Kaukonen, James Cotton, Dick Heckstall-Smith, and Mick Taylor?

They gave me very different experiences indeed.

Jorma arrived near the studio with a big Cadillac and a bunch of body guards in black limousines. It seemed that the president of USA was there, really. Obviously they parked in a no-parking area, so later we had to pay the bill for them (laugh). He went in the studio with a “I have no much time to spend here” attitude, so he took the first guitar he saw there, plugged directly in the mixer, played two tunes “first take is always OK”, and goodbye. No friendship feeling at all, but sadly “I’m only in it for the money”…

I can’t say that James Cotton and me became friends either, but he’s a very kind guy and it’s been very easy to work with him in the studio and on stage as well. Of course he’s a living legend, so even though we were playing with him, we definitely knew what kind of musician we were working with, and we always had a sort of awe feeling towards him. Anyways beside his music I can still remember all the good time we had drinking, chatting and laughing together.

Dick has been a real good friend for us all and for me in a special way. He’s toured with The Blues Society and with TV Mama as well, so we had a very intense relationship. He was a very educated person and we used to talk about any kind of subjects during our long journeys. Well, he always said interesting and profound things that I often understood later in their true meaning. It’s been him the one who spoke to me about “backbeat” for the first time, and that’s maybe the greatest secret of the blues music. In another hand he had his little monkeys, like any of us. I still can remember the day when we arrived to an incredible place where we were supposed to gig in the very South of Italy. A clay court, a sort of wooden platform built around a tree as stage, no seats ‘cause people were supposed to bring their own from home, no P.A., no lights, no nothing! We were hanging around gawping when I heard Dick’s voice from behind: “Stefano, where is the dressing room please?”… Wasn’t he a lovely man?

I met Mick while he was touring Italy with Bob Dylan. He is a very simple person with a friendly attitude towards anyone. And, believe me, he is so shy that you even can’t imagine. He went in the studio, took an SG guitar that was there and plugged it in a Fender London Reverb (a solid state amp!) that was there as well. Me, I was sitting on his amp giving him and taking from him a bottleneck ‘cause he played his part either sliding and with fingers. He did such an incredible job that I really had teardrops in my eyes, and when he was done he asked me: “How do you find it? Have I done a good job?” and, people, he was FOR REAL!!

 

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Well this is a very good question too! I have a lot of gratitude towards all the real bluesmen I had the chance to meet ‘cause each of them taught me something I couldn’t get along without. I could speak about the way they conceive life or I could talk about their philosophy, and those are very important things indeed. But first of all we are talking about music, and going straight to the point I think that I had two strong instructions from two different persons that completely changed my way of playing. The first came from Alexis who told me: “Play only those notes that are truly necessary or play the silence instead”. The second came from Dick who’s been the first to explain me what the “backbeat” is (in the blues certain notes need to be played a little late). 

 

You have two projects with electric band TV Mama and an acoustic duo, what the difference and similarity between electric and acoustic Blues?

Well, if you ask me what for me is the difference between electric and acoustic blues in general I could speak for hours and probably I wouldn’t come to an end. But I think you’re asking me about my way of playing electric and acoustic blues, isn’t it? So I have to admit that with the electric band it’s easy to slide sometimes towards jazz, sometimes towards rock. And that happens because there are drums. I think that drummers have the power of strongly condition the sound of a band, really! Playing the duo instead it’s easy for me to keep the project more faithful to the roots. There are only two instruments: guitar and harp. So there’s no space, no chance for useless licks or silly and cutesy notes, I HAVE to keep me on rhythm or everything falls down quickly.

 

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following in Italy?

This is something I can’t explain, but I’m very glad it happens! When we started playing blues back in the Seventies almost nobody knew what we were doing. Then, little by little bit by bit more and more musicians stepped in the same path we’ve opened, and now we can talk about a real stream across two generations or even more. I think that passion is contagious, maybe that’s a good explanation.

"There’s a lot of musician showing the magic word 'Blues' in their source of inspiration, or even defining themselves as 'bluesman' because it sounds smart and defined."

How has the Italian Blues scene changed over the years since you first started in music?

Everything was very simple at first. We were coming off the “Baroque Rock” era where you had to have lots of keyboards, lots of lights, lasers, smoke machines and lots of any gear you could possibly imagine. Therefore, it was very hard to gig small venues (meaning small wage) and very complicated too. When “Punk” came, it was clear that all the bands could go back to the “guitar – bass – drums” formula and that allowed our blues bands too to go back gigging pubs and clubs again. Today things are pretty different: all the bands left the simplicity of the origins and try to entertain audiences with big shows involving again lights and sometimes even screens on the back. But I don’t think that it has so much to do with the blues. Luckily enough we can still gig small venues where we do not need such apparatus and where we can look people right in the eyes while playing and singing.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam I had is for sure the one I played with James Cotton. No one else can play the blues the way he does and he makes you play blues in a way you would not if alone. Talking about the gigs, there are some that I can still remember with great emotion. I should mention the one with Eddie C. Campbell for all the things he taught me, he really changed my musical life. Then all the times I had the honor to play with Alexis, Dick and Mel (Collins). But the one that thrilled me more was maybe the Cagliari Blues Festival when I took the stage for half an hour all alone in front of more than 6000 people, and I know you can guess why…

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

I don’t know if the blues will always stay with us as it is nowadays. I never tried to find logical explanations on what I live, but I always dealt with experiences feeling them instead of reason about them. Anyways I think that people who loved classic authors while they were alive, lets’ say Verdi or Rossini, thought that their music would last forever, and probably they were right in a way. Nevertheless today those composers are appreciated by a large number of people but not so large as in the past, and their music isn’t popular anymore. I’d like to say that the blues has reached a status similar to the one classic music reached, so it will last forever, maybe in a different way, but forever, absolutely!

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

The blues is a music alive, and you can’t set its limits if you don’t wanna kill it. Of course you won’t find the blues nowadays in the same form and shape as it’s been in the past. But that means that the blues is still alive as I said. So if you search for the “real” blues as it’s been done by Waters, Hooker, Johnson, Leadbetter, McDowell, Son House etc etc, you won’t find it, definitely!  Musicians are still trying to find the right new way to do it, that’s true! And I don’t find any impressive result at the moment. But it will arise very soon, I believe it!

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Oh yes! There’s a lot of musician showing the magic word “Blues” in their source of inspiration, or even defining themselves as “bluesman” because it sounds smart and defined. The truth is that they don’t have any clue on what the blues is. I’m thinking about an Italian singer called “Zucchero Blues Fornaciari”: he is not so bad, but he has nothing to do with the blues, he’s only trying to sell more CD’s, and he sells a lot, believe me!

Stefano Zabeo - Official website

 

 

 

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