An Interview with Italian elegant guitarist Maurizio Pugno, one of the finest European bluesman today

"The Blues is not only a music style; it’s the connection between the daily life and the life that we hope…  That’s why the blues will be forever here…"

Maurizio Pugno: Italian Blues Axe 

Maurizio Pugno is one of the finest Italian guitar players today and he has been with the Blues for 25 years! He lives in Gubbio, a little city in Umbria with a medieval atmosphere, but where the humid air of Mississippi has arrived at our door modified by mild Mediterranean currents. Maurizio has long been a part of the Italian blues scene contributing his abilities and expertise to the Rico Blues Combo for the past 10 years with history dating back even further in the Wolves Blues Band prior to that.

He is an elegant player who knows in detail several musical styles. His attempt is to make music that is genuine and melodic, and that doesn't forget the roots of Black Music. He is known as a perfect accompanist for vocalists. He has accompanied some of the best blues singers that have toured Europe, such notables as Sugar Ray Norcia, Mz. Dee, Tad Robinson, Mark DuFresne,  Lynwood Slim, Crystal White, Mark Hummel, Dave Specter, Mike Turk, Sax Gordon, Kellie Rucker, Alex Schultz, Mitch Woods, Ian Paice and many others. Pugno’s cds “That’s What I Found Out” (2007) and latest “Kill The Coffee” (2010), released on American label co-produced by Jerry Hall.

For these recordings Maurizio collaborated with two of America's premiere blues vocalists, Sugar Ray Norcia and Mark DuFresne (Roomful Of Blues). Not merely relegated to sidemen duties, Maurizio generously allows room for Sugar and Mark to step into the spotlight, contributing all of the albums lyrics and vocals, in addition to supplying their masterful tone and technique on the harmonica. Pugno’s live project, a CD+DVD called “Maurizio Pugno Large Band – Made in Italy – Live at Gubbio Opera House” will be released at the end of 2012. Also, a new release for the Maurizio Pugno organ trio! These Italian top musicians teamed up with vocal powerhouse Mz Dee from San Francisco!! This project is an explosive mixture of soul, blues, and rock.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I grew up listening to music, studying in a technical school, working as draftsman and marrying wrong women... When I was a young boy I had a terrible road accident, I therefore had to grow up quickly spending my youth in an hospital. At that time (it was around 1978) I really fell in love with music, and that was forever! My father gave me my first tape recorder and some rock albums: Made In Japan (Deep Purple) and Déjà Vu (CSN&Y)….and this is my beginning. After that, I only had ONE purpose and I couldn't keep my mind on anything else. I closed myself in my room with vinyls, tapes, books, milk and mint...I was a teenager, and my teens-discotheques-hanging around with my friends or things like that went right down the drain (which I don't regret)!

After That (I was seventeen), and through a friend of mine, I came in contact with the blues. He had a record store where I used to spend a lot of time, buying vinyls, talking about politics, courting pretty girls and dreaming of a life on the road. He is a little older than me and he was already playing the blues with a band called Stage Blues Band. One day he lent me a Jimmy Reed anthology,  “It’s time!”, he told me. “Bright Lights Big City” has been a lightning!! One year later we were together on stage with a band called ½ Blues Band, playing traditional Chicago Blues. It was 1984.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

Well, I'd have to say that it's been varied and not only from Blues artists. I’m completely self-taught on guitar. My teachers are vinyls and the several live concerts that I saw!

My blues influence on guitar are Otis Rush, Tiny Grimes, Magic Sam, B.B. King, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, T-Bone Walker, Peter Green, Lonnie Johnson, Freddy King, Jimmy Vaughan, Hollywod Fats, etc.... but in the same time I’m here because I love so much Ritchie Blackmore, George Harrison, Ry Cooder, Junior Brown, Amos Garret, Jimmy Bryant,  Nokie Edwards, Hank Marvin, Jimmy Nolan, Steve Cropper, Grant Green etc. Only speaking about guitar players...

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

This is the best part of my story with the music. Before to be a guitar player I love to write songs and horn arrangements. That’s why my ideal of a band is a large band with a horn section plus a REAL singer (Sugar Ray Norcia, Mark Dufresne, Lynwood Slim, Mz Dee, Tad Robinson and many others)!

I use to write music in the old style; I write my ideas using my music book with staff lines and my yellow pencil...I like to see the drawing of my ideas. After that I try to play those on my piano, the best instrument to find melodies (on guitar sometime is dangerous...the shuffle in E is around the corner!!). But, above all, I’m not a singer..but I really love to be a writer for singers.

Sometimes, in the blues, the  instrumentals tunes are only interludes where you play with no ideas... I call them “ The lack of musical memory”!

The real problem here in FIND a real blues/soul singer.. We have plenty of guitar players/singers or harmonica players/singers.. and most of the time this is terrible for my ears; a kind of bad combination between terrible pronunciation and NO tone. The strange thing is some promoters and Festivals like this concept.... the sweaty guitar-hero with the gun (and the gun is the microphone!)!! Few people take a real care about the project, about songs and musical details. They want the “SHOW”, ....but I’m a musician and I am paid and supposed to make good music and not  to be a monkey with two trumpets on my mouth.

How do you describe Maurizio Pugno sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

Sometimes I really don’t know If I’m a guitar player...

I started with the saxophone so, I guess, I’m a sax player who is trying to blow into a guitar... If you mean “guitar sound”, I love a straight and natural sound: Fender Telecaster plugged into my Fender Bassman. I need to feel the real tone of my body, because I use to play “phisically”. I like to hit the strings stronger and deeper, with pick and fingers simultaneously. The perfect musician/guitar player for sound/timing/tone for me is ALEX SCHULTZ! He’s the man! My background on the instrument is a little different, less jazzy (I love jazz but I don’t like so much the jazz guitar tone). I told you, I started playing saxophone, and my sound is connected with that. I also don’t love too many harmonizations on my instrument… I think as a saxophone player…more or less…eheh…

Anyway, my main philosophy is the tone and the simplicity. I don’t like the “guitar Hero” concept... My concern is to play some melodies also when I play a straight 12 bars blues.

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

My main ispiration is the good music: Junior Walker, Meters, Beatles, Carl Stelling (A GENIOUS!!), Spike Jones, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Son House, Jimmy Reed, Steve Winwood, Junior Parker, Donny Hathaway, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Etta James, Professor Longhair, Johnny Cash, Lorreine Ellison, Joni Mitchel, Earl Bostic, The Band, Bela Fleck, Jimmy Rush, Lou Rawls, Bobby Bland, Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, Deep Purple, Stevie Wonder, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington, Ennio Morricone, The Ventures,  etc etc.... for me it doesn’t matter!

For the songs, I don’t happens, sometimes accidentally, sometimes when I’m thinking about a trouble, a bad coffee, faces, women, my kids, or the singer who has to sing that song!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Few years ago, Jeff Scott (from Delta Groove Records) gave to Jerry Hall the rough mix of my first solo Cd with Sugar Ray Norcia. After that he contacted me writing: “That’s What I Found Out  is one of the best blues/swing songs in the last 10 years! Please let me be your producer!” I was shocked...but that’s what’s happened.

Another great time… About the “Kill The Coffee” recording sessions..  I remember a magic moment, late in the night: we had to record  “Not Me”, a slow ballad I wrote for Ray... I told to the guys “please!! don’t rehearsal this song.. just play..straight...and we’ll see....”  We played this song without “breathing apparatus”...When everyone stopped, we woke up and looked each others; we saw Ray’s tear-stained face! All of a sudden..the soundman, the band and the few people there, standing there with their heads tilted to where the sounds were coming from — and a strange, slow and long handclap filled the room...

..the worst?.... When I loose to 2 great friends of mine, my friend Renzo Cardoni (an Italian drummer) and my young friend Sean Costello… And the last.. the bad story about my producer Jerry hall: he had a sad and bad adventure (a stupid and drunk neighbor hit him with a punch and Jerry now is in a vegetative coma..)…

Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?

I remember a gig in Rome, it was 1999. I can’t forget! There were, sitting in front of me, John McLaughlin, Dennis Chambers and John Hammond… I close my eyes telling to myself: “OK! Let’s play.. dead or alive!”. At the end they took the stage playing a couple of songs with me... a strange combination but so cool!!!

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Here in Italy, the music business is almost 90% the pop business… The blues, jazz etc. are on the border...

When I started, it was a little bit better… but it was hard in anycase… to think about the music as a “day job”… That’s why I play a lot in France, Belgium, Germany, Netherland etc… In Italy there is not a real blues scene. There are a few clubs, I mean, clubs where professional musicians can work -  I underline “WORK” - in a professional workplace. We have a few good Festivals in the summer season but it’s not easy to survive only with this “scenario”.

But in Italy on the other hand we have great musicians; I have the honor to play with two of the best musicians all around the world: the organist ALBERTO MARSICO (for me the best, there is no doubt!!) and the amazing drummer GIO ROSSI. It’s a privilege for me share stages and projects with them. And we’re deep friends, before everything!

In Umbria we have two big events in the summer. “Umbria Jazz”, one of the most important jazz festivals in the world and “Trasimeno Blues” where I played several times. Gianluca Di Maggio, the promoter, is a good friend of mine and he always believed in my projects. I have to tell him thanks for many reasons. The festival is really cool.. all around  the Trasimeno Lake, close to my home town. it’s always a pleasure to be there!

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

When I was younger, I started to think that I should follow my passion. “This is the only thing that I love to do, and it just kind of hit me”. So I decided to try making my living playing...BUT... later I  realized...

You know, now everything is easier, if you want to discover or learn something, you can switch on your computer, download mp3, watching guitar lesson on youtube, searching clubs or festivals, or buy a low-cost ticket and fly everywhere...etc etc.  For me, it was all a nightmare, even just find a vinyl. There wasn’t internet or things like that, my home town was Gubbio and not Jackson or Clarksdale, and take an airplane it was so hard for a “normal” person.. I remember my first trip in USA…I worked one year as waiter to pay it!!

Anyway, now, yes,  I have a day job too; I have 2 kids to feed and 2 ex-wifes… etc etc…So I can’t survive with the music.. I work as a draftsman in a cement factory…and “combine that with the music” means privations leading a double life, without holidays, breaks, etc etc… but the music passion is before me...I can’t do anything.. I “walk the line”..wrong or right!

So… what’s can I tell them…  mhmmm.. let’s play with your heart on your left hand and let’s survive working hard with your right hand…

Why did you think that the blues in Europe and especial in Italy continues to generate such a devoted following?

Probably because we didn’t feel the BLUES as a social condition… so for the European blues lovers is a kind of romantic perception…  and maybe is the same reason why the black musicians don’t like so much to play the blues today..

Which are the most interesting period in local blues scene?

If you mean, witch part of the year is better for the blues…. Of course the summer…where there’re nice festivals all around the world..

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Italy. When it all began for the blues?

Fabio Treves (the grandfather of the Blues in Italy), Guido Toffoletti (dead years ago) and Roberto Ciotti started in the middle of seventies… That’s the blues beginning here in Italy. Rudy Rotta came out a little bit later… I ‘m so proud to know everybody.. and I also played or jammed with them several times….

I remember Fabio Treves when he was around with one of my favourite guitar player... Mike Bloomfield... I was so young when I saw them play together in Toscany… I’m playing the blues also for this kind of pioneers.

We have great musicians also now... The Limido Brothers (Franco and Marco) are great friends of mine, they’re really original musicians and we take music in the same direction,  without barriers!! But we also have artists like Marco Pandolfi (my favourite harmonica player, I use to work with him too), the one and only Paolo Bonfanti (a gentleman and one of our best guitar players, I’m a big fan of him!!!), Francesco Più (one of the best musical talent I never seen) and my deep friend Enrico Crivellaro of course; he’s a guitar hero, that’s true, but without microphone...! He knows really well the styles and what he’s going to play.

Are there any memories with Mark Hummel, Sax Gordon, and Kellie Rucker, which you’d like to share with us?

Yes. They’re so great artsists. Mark Hummel and Lynwood slim are two amazing harmonica players..really amazing. They can do everything with their diatonic instrument. They’re really meticolous, both; they know exactly what he wants from us about style and about the right sound. It has been so cool working with them.. Lynwood is also a great singer and songwriter!!

Sax Gordon is an amazing musicians and it’s so funny play with him… a love the old sound of the saxophone (I was a sax player) so I love the R&B from King Curtis etc…

With Kellie Rucker... she takes out my country and roots soul... I wrote for her too, and made several arrangements where I feel like a small “Keith Richard” or “Ry Cooder”. With Kellie I can play open and strange tunings and strong rock/country riffs. I love that!

Are there any memories with Sugar Ray Norcia, Lynwood Slim, Tad Robinson, and Ian Paice, which you’d like to share with us?

Sugar Ray, was/is one of my favourite singers. I wrote him (It was 2003) an e-mail: “I love your voice and your style. You come from the real blues, from Walter Horton, from Otis Rush and from the swing tradition but I feel ALSO from Junior Brown, Bob Wills, Johnny Cash and Hank Wlliams..isn’t it?” He was so surprised because he answered me “You’re discovering a secret!!”....ahah...Yes: Ray is a great country fan. You can feel it in his deep voice. After that we started to speak about food, red wine, Italy (because he’s of italian descent), good coffee and grappa (that’s why we wrote together “Kill The Coffee”), italian women, and last, at the very end...musical projects!

We started playing gigs in Italy and we became close friends. I wrote songs for him, and he liked them a lot (for me was a dream). From that moment on we recorded several things together…. We’re brothers.. really!

With Mark DuFresne everything happened because Ray spoke to him about me and then my dream became reality: a project with the best Roomful of Blues singers in one time, with a large band...and that happened! We recorded a studio Cd and one live DVD! Mark plays funny and smart riffs heading towards harmonica players like Paul DeLay.

In other cases (MZ DEE or TAD ROBINSON for example) it happened through ALBERTO MARSICO and GIO ROSSI. They used to play with most of the best blues/jazz american records/artists: Tad Robinson, Alex Schultz, Lynwood Slim, Finis Tasby, Jimmy Whiterspoon,  Mz Dee and many other...

That’s why we’re playing and planning new things with MZ DEE. I love her: THE POWER in a sweet lady.The new adventure with her is so thrilling and it’s the main project at the moment… we came out with a Cd last year, called “Letters From The Bootland”…

Tad Robinson is, I think, the best soul singer today… it’s so great to share the stage with him and I know so many thing about the tone and the timing because he taught me so many things…

About Ian Paice… mhmm … we played an amazing show on April 2000, where we didn’t play Deep Purple’s tunes but only Blues, Swing and Rock ’n’ Roll… amazing… we had a lots of fun!!.. and we spoke so much about his love for the jazz Orchestra from the old era.. he was sitting in my sitting room, drinking  fresh beer , watching a football game on TV, and speaking about Buddy Rich and Art Blackey.. until 5 minutes before the show…


Which memory from Rico Blues Combo and the Wolves Blues Band makes you smile?

So many adventures… really… because with the Rico’s members there’s a deep friendship before all… and we shared so many stories… I recorded my first vinyl (“Last Nite”) with a band called Wolves Blues Band. It was 1988, under a jazz label (Egea records) and my first experiment with horn arrangements.

After that I played for more than 10 years with a band called Rico Blues Combo and we recorded 4 albums (“White Whiskey” - 1996; “Sleepy Town” - 1999; “Live At Murphy’s” - 2001, and “House Of Blues Rags” – 2005) with guest musicians such as Sugar Ray Norcia, Mike Turk and many others…

I remember the first time we went in Holland… only for 1 gig….with Rico Blues Combo… we drove 2 days in the middle of a snowstorm.. so we couldn’t sleep for 48 hours… we drove straight to the club just in time to do a fast sound check drinking something… we played 3 long sets… at the end of the show the owner of the club told us… “ok...I can see in your eyes you slept really well last night…that’s the reason why you played so great!!!”… of course…

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Alex Schultz is one of my favourite blues  guitar player ever, and  is not possible to compare to anybody else. He is THE TIMING. He is the TONE, and “Think About It” is one of the best modern blues album I’ve ever listened to, recorded with Larry Taylor, Tad Robinson, Finish Tasby, Lynwood Slim and the best organist and drummer...guess who?: Alberto Marsico and Gio Rossi of course! If you want to understand “less is more” and the blues dictionary that’s your CD!

And he gave me that…. He showed me HOW to play “back” and with the right tone…he told me “let’s play in your style… because your style is nonpareil”... and I really understood what he meant!

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES, JAZZ, SOUL and ROCK feeling?

I don’t think there is a real difference… its good music… so... I just change the approach… geographically..

The feeling is the connection between you and the audience… if it’s jazzy, bluesy or rocky... it doesn’t matter….

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

The Blues is not only a music style; it’s the connection between the daily life and the life that we hope…  That’s why the blues will be forever here….

I wish for the blues a smart adaptation at THIS new era... without stupid “we wanna be” … do you know what I mean?

I was born in a medieval city, I leave in a ancient house built around 1200, I drink Cappuccino in the morning and I drink red wine from Toscany in the evening, I like Parmigiano and the only delta that I see is the pine bucket of water from the barman who‘s washing outside the door, I have 2 weddings on my back and 2 kids to feed, a day job to survive and the music to feel alive… I have to drive one day and night to play a gig and one day and night to be at home…. That’s my blues..

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

So many… I remember the first time I met Sean Costello… in Belgium… he was really young… and we played together a real After midnight show after the show… he shocked me... he was really inside the music….

Another gig I remember like a dream it was at “Paradiso” theatre, in Amsterdam, where I played with Mark DuFresne before Mavis Staples… it was a GREAT night… also in the backstage…playing and speaking and eating and drinking with Rick Holmstrom, Mavis Staples etc….

Also the gigs I played with the Roomful of Blues singers, Sugar Ray Norcia and Mark DuFresne… both... Two Shows in One show... I really had a great time with them… and I have a Live Cd+Dvd ready to be printed from these nights!!

This was done, mixed and mastered, ready to be printed but Jerry Hall (my american producer) had the sad and bad adventure I spoke above…. So my project is there. I prayed for Jerry, but at the moment there's no life expectancy. I'm trying to print it with another label. I’m looking for that. I hope it’ll be out in the second part of 2013.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? 

I think …write and play the blues, but the music in general, is like making photographs at different times of your life.. so, if  it’s better or not,  I don’t know… it’s different.. of course..

Now I’m looking for the melody, the tone, the right note in the right place at the right time; when I was younger maybe I was looking for the great and fast riff on my guitar…

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I love to stay a little bit in the shadow:

First. I love the shadow; it’s fresh and I can avoid wearin stupid hats.

Second: I love “The Shadows”, (Hank Marvin is one of my heroes...I’m a surf boy!! ehehe!!).

Third: For me write and play WITH great singers does not mean to “stand in the shadow” but simply an effort to make good music all together.

After that,  it’s a thrill when you have so great singers in front of you! And in “the shadow”, sometimes, me Alberto Marsico and Gio Rossi can be “The masters of disasters”… But the audience can feel that.. I guess… they understand that the music and the arrangements are coming from my pen, from my mood, there is my personality in that… With my guitar I like to push and burn but not all the time… sometimes the music needs to breathe, sometime I need to kill my nightmares, sometime I look someone and I need to tell him/her a secret, sometime I like to play on the border of the mistake…

What is your music DREAM?

Well, my last project with MZ DEE  “Letters From The Bootland” gave me a lots of great feedback and it’s a dream! She is an amazing singer and a sweet woman… and I’m so happy to be so busy on this project.

It’s a big production, with MZ Dee on vocal, me on guitars and arrangements, Alberto Marsico on organ, clavinet, fender Rhodes and electric bass, Gio Rossi on drums and percussion, The Cape Horns (my brother Mirko Pugno on trumpet, Cristiano Arcelli on alto sax, Giordano Biccheri on Tenor Sax and Andrea Angeloni on Trombone) and The Sublimes on backing vocals (Lorenza  Giusano, Gloria Bianco Vega and Elisabetta Rafaele). I write the music and I make the arrangemets trying to push it a little bit over..

Let me tell you:  I’m really proud about that; it’s a kind of ’70 blues/soul/rock project with the songs in the center of attention!.

My musical dream, now,  is write the perfect song for this project at the moment…and in the same time write a good instrumental album...a kind of “singin’ without singer”… I working on it… with a simple trio (guitar, bass and drums)…

But the REAL dream it’s to be a good father for my kids…and see that in their eyes!

What mistake you want to correct?

My mistakes?.... mhmmm…. about my life too many wives… eheh … musically… maybe I should study more seriously the music  but maybe not… who knows

Maurizio Pugno - Official website

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