When the Italian-born, Sweden-transplanted Ilaria Capalbo set out to write her first album as a bandleader she knew she wanted a specific focus to draw inspiration from. A lover of history and the region in which she was raised, Capalbo turned to the legend of Karthago. It tells the story of the ancient city of Carthage, which was founded and ruled by the powerful Queen Alyssa, until it was destroyed by the Roman empire in 146 B.C. It’s a tale of courage, resilience, and overcoming obstacles to achieve your purpose. Beyond musical inspiration, the legend resonated deeply with Capalbo as someone who overcame severe stage fright while performing early on in her career, and who also searched long and hard for her voice as a composer and soloist.
As an album, Karthago showcases a composer who grasps subtle nuances and profound melodies, who is comfortable in her own skin, and who can command a band without being overly verbose in her playing. Less hard-swinging and more reflective and ethereal, Karthago embraces improvisation and lyrical melodies that come together as one beautiful movement, from front to back. As a bandleader, it’s hard to imagine that this is her debut in that role, but Capalbo wisely selected a supporting cast who would carry out her vision in guitarist Andreas Hourdakis, drummer Fredrik Rundqvist, reed players Thomas Backman and Fredrik Nordström, cornetist Tobias Wiklund, and trombonist Mats Äleklint.
Capalbo studied music throughout her childhood, but it wasn’t until she discovered jazz and picked up the upright bass that she found her true calling, quickly emersing herself in the styles of of Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Scott LaFaro, James Jamerson, and Jaco Pastorius, A doubler on upright and electric bass, she also composes and performs with her jazz trio, KÓSMOS, and other outfits in her new home of Sweden. With tours finally underway to perform her new release and other projects in the works, Capalbo is poised to let her voice be heard as both a composer and a bass player. Whether drawing inspiration from lost cities, old myths, or early influences, Capalbo has much to say in the world of jazz.
This is your first album as a bandleader. How did it feel to step into that role?
I love being a collaborator, and the role of leader is a new stage in my career. It has been an enriching process. I feel like I succeeded in this project because I had these musicians in mind when writing the music. They’re all from Sweden and we’ve played together in other groups, so I feel like I know them well by now. That process was very specific to my approach as a leader because I wanted to make room for their personal expression in the music. It wasn’t so much a linear path to make this happen, but bringing these players onto this project made perfect sense for the vision I had for the album.
What was the writing and composing process like for it?
It was a long and very intimate process. I’m the type of person who works best creatively when I think of a reference as inspiration for my writing, which is why the the legend of Kathago is so integrated into the record. I like to have an image or experience in my mind and then process the sensation that it gives me, and I sit and try to let that come out in my playing. It’s taken practice for me to be able to do that, but it works in composition, as well. The more you practice concentration and focus, the more it comes to you. I was inspired by the theme of the album, the story behind it, and the musicians who helped me construct this music. The ideas came easily and were transported onto my instrument very naturally.
How do you approach soloing in your music?
I listen to where the song takes me rather than trying to force phrases or pre-written progressions. I come from a jazz background, so I’ve done a lot of soloing and have studied improvisation and the language around it. In my case, it’s the melody that’s the most important element. When I listen to Charlie Haden I can hear his melodic approach and how his solos serve the song. I just really love the bass and its voice in music. I let it take me somewhere and I never know where I’ll end up, but I especially like that part of it. It’s a lot of taking chances, which doesn’t scare me anymore. So much of being a musician is overcoming your fears. I had a very severe case of stage fright for a long time when I first started. It was really bad. But I knew that if this is what I wanted to do in life I had to find a way to beat it, and I did. Courage and confidence like that are important for soloing, as well.
Your tone is so rich and full on the album. How did you record your bass?
We used two different condenser microphones on my bass, one set close to the soundboard and one towards the body. I was very happy with the result because it came out well-balanced and you can hear the wood and the notes quite clearly. The whole band recorded in the same room in a studio here in Stockholm and we had a lot of fun with the recording process.
Tell us about your playing in the jazz trio KÓSMOS. How different is that project from your solo material?
It’s different in many ways, and maybe the first is that we’ve been playing together for a long time and growing into this constellation since we’re from the same hometown. We share a deep friendship and are similar in many ways. We have the same aesthetics in music, which is an important thing in a trio. It’s also challenging because we always experiment with new things, and in recent years, we’ve found a sound that is more representative of us than it was before. This project is always evolving and it’s something that will probably continue on for a long time. We have a new album coming out this year of new music that I’m very excited to release.
How do you approach electric and upright bass differently?
By all means, I play them very differently, but I think the bottom is always the same. The main role of the bass always has to be there regardless of which one you’re playing, and it has to serve as the foundation. But as a whole, they do seem to subtly speak a different language, so I try to bring those out in each of the instruments. There are things that I like on double bass that might not work as well on the electric and vice versa. I love the electric bass and I’m going to use it a lot more for my next project.
How would you describe your playing technique?
It has evolved a lot over the years and now it’s something that feels very natural to me. I used to struggle when I was in school because I realized that it was hard for me to extract the sound that I wished out of the instrument. Over the years I learned that you don’t necessarily need to be extreme with volume. If you’re swinging in jazz, it’s all in your pulse. That was a good way of seeing it for me because it made it possible for me to work with my own assets. I’ll probably never have the projection of Ray Brown, but I focus on agility, presence, and texture over sheer volume and force. I try to get a sound out of the instrument that I find pleasurable to my ears, and I know what I like. When I get there it feels so good.
When did you first start playing bass?
I started studying classical music on guitar when I was a child and then I moved on to the cello. Electric bass came next for me when I was 16. Then I started getting more into jazz albums, so I picked up the upright bass. It felt natural and very good when I first started playing it. I was way into Motown at the time, so I found it to be the most fun instrument you can play in that setting. It was also easier for me because all of the bands in school needed a bass player, so I was able to play with a lot of different people right away.
What attracts you to jazz?
It’s such an imaginative and freeing music that embraces creativity and originality. It was frightening to approach it in the first place, especially when it came to improvisation, but it was also exciting and extremely fun. I also listen to a lot of pop and rock music, and other genres, and I find the assets in those styles that are important. No matter what type of music you’re playing, I think that it is good to keep the focus on having fun and listening to the others playing with you.
Why bass? What do you love about the instrument?
It feels good for me to know that I have a role in supporting other people doing their own thing. It is an art in itself to play that part. It’s great to know that people trust me to lift them while they shine. I think it takes a certain personality to be a bass player in that sense. I also like to be at the service of the music as it unfolds. I don’t need to take the spotlight, it is just important to me to be in the music and be a part of it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about bass?
To not be afraid. Music has a distinct psychological dimension to it. Unlike playing electric bass, when you’re playing upright you can’t see anything beyond your bass. There’s an Italian term, “horror vacui,” that translates to “fear of the void,” and the best thing you can do with that within performing music is to go for it with confidence. Even if it goes wrong, it’s going to be fine either way. –BM
Hear Her On: Ilaria Capalbo, Karthago 
Bass French model upright restored by Napoli luthier Gaetano Pucino, Fender Jazz Bass
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