The combination of music and images has been a powerful one for many many years. Plenty of painters and photographers have crafted their work, galvanised by music, such as Wassily Kandinsky, who was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s compositions while searching for a new style of painting. Jazz was no exception, of course. Just think of Jackson Pollock’s action painting technique, used to capture the freedom behind improvisation and rhythm. In reverse, I hear more and more often of contemporary jazz artists that are inspired by images, hearing sounds just by looking at them and transposing the same images in a cinematic, musical way through their compositions.
Italian saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Betty Accorsi is one of them. Photos, natural landscapes and images combined with a wide range of style and themes flow in Accorsi’s writing, making the correlation between jazz and images a fundamental feature of her craft. Accorsi moved from Milan to London in 2018 after she studied classical saxophone, piano and composition at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatoire. After having started her Master’s degree in Jazz Saxophone at Trinity Laban Conservatoire she then moved to Goldsmiths University of London in 2019, where Accorsi completed her Master’s in Performance under the guidance of Mick Foster, Paul Bartholomew and Dr Pete Furniss, graduating with a distinction in 2020.
The Italian saxophonist – who now lives and teaches in Brighton – has surrounded herself with some of the finest musicians on the UK jazz scene, giving her the impetus to put together the Betty Accorsi Quartet, which was founded with pianist Finn Carter and drummer Scott MacDonald and that features bassist Andy Hamill (Van Morrison, Martin Taylor, Ibrahim Maalouf). The quartet debuted with their “simply elegant, superbly crafted, sumptuously melodic jazz” (All about Jazz) releasing ‘The Cutty Sark Suite‘ in December 2020 and performing the whole suite at 2021 Brighton Fringe Festival on a live-streamed gig. Two years after ‘The Cutty Sark Suite‘, Accorsi released her second work ‘Growing Roots’, funded by Help Musician’s Music Of Black Origin (MOBO) Award. The line up is the same as the first album but with pianist Daniel Hewson (Groove Armada, Madonna, Incognito) instead of Carter. The release marks an evolution in Accorsi’s compositional approach that here appears even more polished and sophisticated.
Regarding her music, it has been said that “her compositions take you where she says the music belongs” (Simply Jazz Talk) and I couldn’t agree more. Her tunes are a cinematic projection of some of her many passions – ranging from nature and its protection to the curiosity for people. Most of all, these are based on original tales that draw from the most disparate inspirations – for example, the theme of the forest in Shakespeare’s plays. In both her studio works, every tune spends time searching for and describing the topics in question, almost in the way that classical composition might explore and combine themes to create a musical image. As such, Accorsi’s albums are collections of tunes and stories not chosen at random but linked together in a musical narrative. Thanks to this, the listener can really see her scenarios through her compositions, experiencing a sort of synaesthesia between music and images. It’s with six images – specifically six pictures taken by Accorsi herself – that ‘Growing Roots‘ journey starts, along Brighton’s coast.
Where does this passion for storytelling that connects music and images comes from and how did it evolve between the making of your first album – ‘The Cutty Sark Suite’ – and your latest release, ‘Growing Roots’?
BA: I think that the connection between music and images comes from two aspects: one is my background as classical musician and the study of how classical composers used landscapes seen in their journeys to write new music (think about Liszt Années de pèlerinage inspired by his journeys in Switzerland and Italy); the second one is my passion for films! I love to watch films and see how the music is connected to the images. I also wrote some music for short films and audiobooks that you can find on my website (I would love to carry on with this too!). With The Cutty Sark Suite this idea of connecting music and images as in a film was strong but it became stronger with Growing Roots. In Growing Roots I got inspired by six pictures I took from my favourite places in Brighton and nearby and then I wrote a piece for each of them.
You can really create a big connection with the audience by sharing your stories when playing your music live. How important is it for you to explain them or how often do you let the audience just interpret or guess what your music is about?
BA: I like to guide the audience in a sort of story-telling performance and sometimes they just tell me after the gig that they can see the places I described in their head and this is a very important thing for me. I want to bring the audience on a journey where they can see places and meet characters through my music.
I know that your compositions also take inspiration from different popular cultures, as well as traditional/folk music. Can you tell us more about your compositional approach and the research behind it?
BA: I love listening to English, Scottish and Irish Folk and some of my melodies can remind the listener of this style of music. When I write, I research a subject first and then the music comes. I didn’t do any research on a particular kind of music but I just leave the music to enter in me and then I will adjust it into my composition.
Talking about sound and phrasing, I can definitely hear references to John Coltrane but also to the ECM style. What are your main influences? Is there anyone in particular that you looked up to during your years of musical training?
BA: I think that my style of playing is very influenced by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and John Surman especially because they are all soprano saxophone players. My compositions are influenced more by Weather Report, Pat Metheny and Jan Garbarek. I love the way they use harmony to support a simple melody and how they structure a piece telling a sort of story.
What’s your next step after ‘Growing Roots‘? Any particular milestone you’re aiming for?
BA: I am now writing the pieces for my third album that will be about the relationship between art and nature. I am also applying to play at major festivals in the UK and in Europe and I am looking for a label to collaborate for my third album. Lots of ideas and projects!
If you haven’t had the chance to see Betty Accorsi live in action yet, she’ll perform on the 23rd of November at Karamel Club. The event – in collaboration with Women in Jazz Media – will be a celebration of ‘Growing Roots’ and the performance will feature her quartet from the recording.
Find out more about Betty’s music HERE
Last modified: November 23, 2023