After 20 years away from his native Bologna, jazz saxophonist and composer Marco Pignataro is finally feeling at home in Boston. But as he discusses his latest album Sofia’s Heart – released in late 2011 to critical acclaim – it becomes clear that hasn’t always been the case. On an album that Pignataro describes as a “personal musical diary,” songs like “Homesick” and “Bologna d’Inverno” express his sense of longing for Italy.
“Once you’re outside your country, you feel like part of you is still there,” Pignataro says. “It never leaves. Through a part of my life it was a big issue, meaning I would be extremely homesick. I remember dreaming that I was walking around the streets of my hometown. I’m seeing everything like I’m there and there’s this feeling of loss that is really difficult.”
Over the years, though, Pignataro says he has learned to pour that emotion into his music and appreciate what it adds to his art. He still feels strongly connected to Italy, but says he lives his homesickness “with no drama anymore.” He returns home regularly, not only to reconnect with family and friends and the places where he first discovered music, but also to perform.
It was back in Italy that a 17-year-old Pignataro began to experiment with the saxophone, years after his father introduced him to the music of legendary American saxophonist Stan Getz. “My taste totally changed and I went from playing guitar to wanting to learn the saxophone and I discovered jazz,” Pignataro explains. “It was like I got a virus. I was totally sick, spending all these hours closing myself in my room practicing saxophone.”
Apart from the influence of Stan Getz’s sound, Pignataro says his passion for sax comes from the instrument’s versatility “I feel that it’s an instrument that can really express your emotions in a very personal way,” he explains. “The fact that it can be extremely beautiful and warm and sensual or it can be also very aggressive, it’s literally like you use your voice to express any kind of emotion.”
Despite Pignataro’s success as a saxophonist and composer – he has played around the world with some of today’s top jazz musicians – he came to Boston four years ago to work in education. At the time, he was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico and helping develop a new Jazz and Caribbean Music department at the territory’s Conservatory of Music. Through this role, Pignataro met Panama-born pianist Danilo Pérez. After the two collaborated on a few projects, Pignataro moved to Boston in August 2009 to help Pérez head up Berklee College’s Global Jazz Institute, which welcomed its inaugural class in January 2010.
The innovative institute allows a select group of Berklee students to explore and develop their aptitude for jazz through a mentorship program with renowned musicians. “Musically it’s very challenging for them because obviously these are not professors that stay in an environment of academia,” Pignataro explains. “They’re the musicians that the night before were playing in New York or Paris.”
Still, that’s not the only unique aspect of the Global Jazz Institute. It also teaches students to use their craft to create positive social change. For example, they recently traveled to Africa where they worked with children and performed for the underprivileged. On a more local level, the students regularly play at hospitals, nursing homes and prisons in the Boston area.
And for Pignataro, his work as an educator at Berklee and his craft as a musician go hand in hand. “To me everything is connected and extremely in harmony,” he says. “There are certain musicians that eventually start teaching because they feel they have to or they don’t make enough money. For me it was never the case.”
Though Pignataro has taught people of all ages, from kindergarteners to college students, he finds a special inspiration in working with those of the Global Jazz Institute. “It keeps me totally on my toes. Especially when you’re around this level of students, you always feel like you need to keep on growing while they’re growing. So, the level of inspiration that I have now teaching in this program with this amazing group of faculty and jazz artists and this incredible roster of students, it’s very deep. It’s something that every day makes me come to work and be very happy and very appreciative. It’s a very special place to be.”
Marco Pignataro will perform June 1 at the River Festival Cambridge and June 15 at Ryles Jazz Club.