Bright lights, big city, great music — that’s New York for you. It’s one of the global epicenters for jazz and jazz musicians. Why else would guitarist Pasquale Grasso up and leave his home country of Italy to relocate to the Big Apple nearly a decade ago?
On my most recent trip to New York, I caught Grasso and his trio playing a sold-out show at Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center. The interplay among the trio was telepathic and Grasso ripped off incredibly clean lines on his guitar.
The legendary Pat Metheny has called Grasso “the best guitar player I’ve heard in my entire life.” His trio performs every Monday night at Mezzrow and Grasso has several albums out on Sony Masterworks. Still only 30 years old, Pasquale’s astounding technique is informed by his deep knowledge of bebop pioneers, including Bud Powell and Charlie Parker.
After the show at Dizzy’s, Grasso and I sat down for a bit to talk about the inspiration he gets from being in the beating heart of jazz culture.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On growing up in Italy
I grew up in a small country town about an hour from Napoli. Our farm had chickens, pigs, grapes and olives. My parents passed on the love of music to me and my brother Luigi (now a professional saxophonist). We grew up listening to jazz and playing music together. It was our game instead of soccer or basketball. My dad came to the U.S. when he was 18 and he brought back records by Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. I was attracted to the beat of both swing and bebop, so the ’40s and ’50s were my favorite period. And that is still my favorite period!
On the influence of American pianists on his development as a guitarist
When I was a kid, I had a big crush on Art Tatum. I used to listen to his solo masterpieces, and I tried to play along. I was wired to all the pianists, including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Elmo Hope. When I performed with my brother, I’d assume the piano parts on guitar. That really helped my development. My brother Luigi is still my inspiration. I recently went to Germany and we got to play together, and it was great.
On living in N.Y.C.
The city keeps my music inspired. I’ve met so many musicians including Barry Harris, Frank Wass, Clifford Barber and Leroy Williams. Although I am from a different generation, they saw that I loved the music they loved. Working here, I get inspired by the touch of a piano player or the feeling that a singer gives me. I go for runs a couple times a week and I get to experience the city. It’s a jungle, but it works! I feel like I have a certain energy here that is unique. When you’re around music all day, it becomes part of you; like having a conversation or eating something. You don’t have to think about it!
On working and touring with vocalist Samara Joy
She’s only 22 but she can sing anything, and people say, “Wow! Who the hell is that?” I really enjoy spending time with her and making music together. I think we have a very special musical chemistry. She comes from a great family and when we’re on tour she never complains about anything.
On playing from the subconscious mind
I usually just follow my instincts. I think the best playing comes from natural instincts, not preconceived notions. You have to play in the moment. I listen to who I’m playing with and trust myself that it’s going to be okay! I can’t live one day without playing the guitar. I can’t go on vacation and say, “I’m going to stay 10 days without music.” It’s impossible!