When people ask me what's my favorite jazz club, I always reply ``Casa del Jazz.''
At the same time it depends how you define ``club.'' The Casa del Jazz in Rome, which sits on 2,500 square meters of lush landscaped park, including pines of Rome, palm trees and a large lawn, is more like a country club.
There is a concert hall, recording and rehearsal studios, a restaurant, sleeping quarters for musicians, and a book and record shop. As you may have suspected, it's knee-deep in subsidies. The budget, including a staff of five, comes to more than a million euros ($1.57 million) a year.
It may soon be out of business. Silvio Berlusconi and his right wing party was voted back into power last year, and right wingers do not generally favor jazz. He ran against Walter Veltroni, who is to the left, and a jazz fan. The former mayor of Rome, Veltroni is to be thanked for the Casa.
Two concerts there last month provided a unique perspective on the current state of the music.
The trio of Paolo Fresu, Dhafer Youssef and Eivind Aarset are Apple laptop players. Actually, they double on trumpet, oud, and guitar, respectively. Their jazz fused with ethnic elements filtered through sophisticated electronica, and manipulated with musicality, is near the cutting edge.
Fresu is one in a line of an Italian trumpet tradition that goes back, ironically enough, to Chet Baker, who was in prison in Lucca on a drug charge long enough to learn Italian. They consider him Italian. After he was released, he recorded way too many albums just for dope money (no rehab for Chet). People wonder which ones are worth buying: I recommend ``Chet Baker, The Italian Sessions'' (RCA).
His presence in Italy inspired a modern Italian trumpet tradition, including Enrico Rava, and Fresu, and now there is a younger generation including Fabrizio Bosso, all of whom work at the Casa.
Italian jazz musicians you've never heard of can blow you away. Although this is not soccer, and there is no best, the Italians are way up there at the top of the league. But they tend not to travel well. The Alps are a psychological and physical barrier, most of them don't speak English, and there seems to be enough work for them at home.
Fresu's trio at the Casa was composed of a Tunisian, a Norwegian, and an Italian. It was intellectual and it gave you a lot to think about, but there was not much of a groove. Americans call this type of thing, pejoratively, ``Eurojazz,'' meaning ``it don't swing.''
Americans are thought to be physical, they think Europeans thinketh too much. In any case, the following night, Swedish jazz night at Casa del Jazz, saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, with pianist Torbjorn Gulz, Torbjorn Zetterberg on bass, and the drummer Jonas Holgersson demonstrated that the American jazz tradition is not dead in Europe after all.
It had been raining, so the concert was indoors. The acoustics were sweet, the comfortable, 150-seat hall was gleaming. The sophisticated audience listened closely. About half of them had been invited by the Swedish embassy, which sponsored the evening -- a subsidy within a subsidy.
It was thrilling to hear young European musicians who do not have an international reputation play such committed, communicative, creative, swinging, straight-ahead jazz.
Thirty-some-odd years ago, Frank Zappa made the smart-aleck remark: ``Jazz isn't dead, it just smells bad.'' It smelled like a rose last month in Rome