Jazz pianist and composer Ron Di Salvio talks about his career, new Christmas album

Dec 17, 2012

Ron Di Salvio photo from '24 Days of Christmas'
Credit Ron Di Salvio

Local jazz pianist and composer Ron Di Salvio is a renaissance man. He teaches jazz at Kalamazoo College, runs his own heat treating business out of Homer, Michigan, and even made up his own shorthand called Deltadiatonics. Di Salvio taught himself piano, but before that he played accordion.

I tried out for the High School of Music and Art in New York City and I played a Chopin impromptu on the accordion. And they said to me ‘Sorry, we don’t have a place for that instrument in this school.’ So that was one of my many rejections in life. At that same time I got my mother and my father—who happened to be divorced when we were very young, which was unheard of in an Italian family back in those days. However, my dad always kept in contact and he was very involved in my music because he played the saxophone and the bass. And he helped me with my accordion to form a band, a three-piece band—accordion, bass, and guitar, and got us some work in the Catskill Mountains. So I had my first group when I was 14, a trio that I arranged all the music for. And did that for quite a few years, and then my dad took me to hear Dave Brubeck live at Carnegie Hall. And I was sitting in basically the front row, and I could see Dave Brubeck’s feet because it was eye-level. Anyway, I was 16 and I left that concert and I came home to my mom and I said ‘Mom, I’ve got to play piano.’

Di Salvio’s first album called Appassionato, an Italian suite he dedicated to his father. Di Salvio has performed with jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Roland Kirk. And five years ago, he made a tribute album to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue with the last member of Miles Davis’ ensemble, drummer Jimmy Cobb. The album is called Essence of Green.

“And what I tried to do with Essence of Green is what Miles Davis did with Kind of Blue, had very precise arrangements,” says Di Salvio. “So I had my road map, I had everybody’s chart and we basically played it once through before we recorded it. So there were no rehearsals and that’s what I was trying to capture. The spirit of Kind of Blue where they got together and they just did this music. I think it succeeded in that. I’m very pleased with the way the musicians played and of course having Jimmy Cobb was just the icing on the cake.”

Unlike his previous work, Di Salvio’s latest recording 24 Days of Christmas was more of an accident.

“I had this idea to send out a Christmas card to all of my pianist friends. I said ‘Well, I’ll just arrange Silent Night. I’ll just play it once through with some really nice jazz harmonies and print it up and paste it on a nice card and send it out,’” he says. “So I did that. I never got to send the card however because what happened was I did the arrangement of Silent Night—it was right after Thanksgiving—and the next day I woke up and it was Joy to the World for some reason. And then the next day it was God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. And the long story short, before December 24th, I had 23 pieces done.”

He added The Twelve Days of Christmas for an even 24. Di Salvio explains his goal for album:

“I’m going to play these pieces once through and I’m going to keep the melody totally intact,” Di Salvio says. “However, I’m going to change everything else—harmony, rhythms whatever.”

He says he is working on another album using old hymns that will come out sometime next year. For more information on what Di Salvio is working on next, listen to the full interview here: