Who or what inspired you to take up jazz, and pursue a career in music?
Since I was a child music made me feel happier, but it took me a long time before it became a professional career. I tried to distract myself with a degree in English Literature at the University of Cagliari and a Master in theatre directing at Goldsmiths College London but in the end music has always been the strongest part of my soul. I needed to express myself through my voice. I started singing and performing when I was a student in Cagliari, Sardinia, where I also attended theatre workshops and contemporary dance classes; I wanted to be a complete performer. All these years of studying literature and theatrical semiotics and practising theatre directing have become part of my performance style, a fusion of jazz, theatre and literature. I even now run a theatre direction course at Essex University, and I’m giving a workshop on 4 November with Cleveland Watkiss at the Italian Cultural Institute.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I used to listen to jazz records and attend live concerts when I was very young and had a special interest for Brazilian music. Pat Metheny and Elis Regina were one of the very first jazz musicians I listened to regularly, as a student. I was playing in a Latin Jazz band at the time and it was the bandleader who got me into Brazilian jazz, for which I’m still grateful. Of course, there are jazz stars from my homeland of Sardinia too: Paolo Fresu, Antonello Salis, and the woman I was lucky enough to have as a teacher, jazz singer Maria Pia De Vito. The Sardinian musical tradition has a strong presence in my work, and I’m incredibly curious about rhythms from different parts of the world too. I’ve travelled to many countries – Brazil, Mozambique and Portugal, which have a language in common. Portuguese has music and a natural, fascinating rhythm of its own. I am especially interested in seeing how the voice is used in different cultures.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Directing the big theatre production Misterioso, a theatre/jazz play about Thelonious Monk, was a big test. I knew that Stefano Benni, one of Italy’s most prominent authors, had toured with a text about Monk throughout Italy. Through my friend and colleague Paolo Fresu I approached Benni to turn his text, which I translated, into a theatrical production.
Misterioso is a script or poem about the last years of Thelonious Monk’s life, when he fell into a complete creative silence in response to the persecution of the McCarthy years. I got a huge team together, technical staff and also managed to get funding through the English Arts Council. Its first run at the People’s Theatre in Camden in 2006 resulted in a three week run at the Riverside Studios, which was sold out night after night, and the reviews were great.
Now I’ve asked Stefano Benni to join vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and me on stage for a jazz adaptation of ‘Misterioso’ at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho on 11 November.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Organising the annual Theatralia Jazz Festival is a huge but rewarding challenge; seeing all these musicians come together and make great jazz is fantastic and fills me with pride.
I am also proud of the recording Jester of Jazz with my own quartet as well as my most recent album Scaramouche. That CD contains a track ‘Momentum’ featuring Kenny Wheeler, which might have been one of the last recordings he made before he passed away last year. Hugely memorable to me.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Free jazz. Thelonious Monk was a huge inspiration to me; he was so open to all the possible sounds, and so expressive in his use of them. I want to capture that same spirit of exploration, and use my voice to discover new sounds, new melodies, new rhythmic possibilities in performance. I believe that jazz music is a continuous challenge, a never ending learning process. I like to challenge myself continuously, learning difficult melodies, harmonies and rhythms, otherwise I get bored very easily.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
My repertoire is entirely original year on year, so every season there are new projects, new songs to write, new musicians to work with. I love meeting new artists and creating new collaborations. I mainly look to poetry, literature and art objects for inspiration. I love going to concerts to see what’s happening around me and meeting people who are just as open-minded as I try to be for collaborations! Having a language in common helps, naturally, but they need to be on my wavelength too.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love to travel and perform in theatres and international festivals. I’ve enjoyed touring in Germany, Croatia, Italy and remember great clubs like A-trane in Berlin, Night Club in the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Alexanderplatz in Rome, I love the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall too. Last year B-flat opened its doors in Cagliari, a new club that reminds me largely of the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho. The PizzaExpress have believed and supported me in my projects from the very start. They are open to projects that are not exactly conventional, but sometimes experimental and challenging, for the audience as well as for the musicians. Largely, my favourite venues are theatres, I feel at home there.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love the work of Hermeto Pascoal and other Brazilian masters. I love the way they use the voice as an instrument, with or without words, and their melodies are a challenge and an experience to learn and perform. I’m always very curious, always looking for new vocalists I could work with. At the moment I’m working on a piece written by Luciano Berio, Sequenza III; I love Cathy Berberian’s performance of it.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Paolo Fresu, Monica Salmaso, Nana Simopoulos, Orphy Robinson, Cleveland Watkiss, Maria Joao, Egberto Gismonti, Demetrio Stratos and many more.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A duet with Antonello Salis (accordion and piano master), performing ‘Stripsody’ by Cathy Berberian together in a beautiful theatre in Sardinia, Italy. Stripsody is a composition by Berberian, totally based on the onomatopoeic sounds from comic books. Salis didn’t know the piece, written only for one voice, and he started improvising and following my vocal sounds with his piano/vocals and the incredible objects he uses during his performances. It was great fun. I also remember a splendid moment in a huge theatre in Wolfsburg, Germany, when a big Sardinian traditional choir joined my jazz quartet onstage, and we all improvised on a Sardinian tune called No Potho Reposare. There’s even a video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdaKjGmbl40). We joined in with their singing bit by bit and it was magical, unforgettable.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Learning to search for their own unique voice and sound, never just imitating others. Young musicians must have the courage to take risks and create something new. As for women in jazz, I want to show that they can be leaders of bands, they can be composers of jazz music. I put together my group the 4Njanas as a celebration of women’s art, of women’s contribution to jazz.
How do you choose the programme for your annual jazz festival?
I always want to bring together musicians who haven’t performed together before. The duo of Paolo Fresu playing with tuba player Oren Marshall is an example of these new encounters. The revival of ‘Misterioso’ is by popular demand. I look forward to seeing Stefano Benni on stage this time himself in this jazz adaptation of what originally was a theatre production.
For Theatralia this year, we’re putting together Paolo Fresu, a trumpeter, with Oren Marshall, a tuba player. It shouldn’t work, but it does; but who would have thought of it?! Having this kind of open mind is so important to carve out a niche. Not just calling themselves a ‘vocalist’; they’re a jazz artist using their voice.
What are most looking forward to in this year’s Theatralia Jazz Festival?
The Njanas! This is a new all female-band I started up with three colleagues of mine, all jazz musicians who are leaders of their own band. The Njanas will open this year’s festival as a real statement, to give a voice to women in jazz.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Where I am now. I love London, I moved here 14 years ago, I love being around people and artists from all over the world. It’s something I could not live without.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Touring the world performing with fab musicians.
What is your most treasured possession?
My music and my books.
What is your present state of mind?
Really excited looking forward to my forthcoming festival.
Filomena Campus’s Theatralia Jazz Festival comes to the PizzaExpress Jazz Club, Soho, from 9-11 November, with preliminary events at the Italian Cultural Institute and Italian Bookshop, London, on 4, 6 & 7 November.