A Perugian Recipe

La Danza della Scarpetta


The Italian word scarpetta translates literally into "little shoe." Gastronomically speaking, scarpetta refers to the art of gracefully skating a bit of finely crusted bread around a plate to absorb the delicious finale of a wonderful meal. I was first introduced to the art of scarpetta at Ristorante La Rosetta in Perugia, Italy, an ancient city perched on a hill in the Umbria region. For several years I have performed and conducted Berklee-sponsored workshops there as part of the Umbria Jazz Festival. When invited to participate in this year's 25th anniversary of the Berklee in Umbria program, I responded, "It would be my pasta-I mean my pleasure-to go!"


Other than eating and drinking well, my main function during the festival is to direct master classes and prepare student ensembles for a concert experience: four ensembles in just four rehearsals. The daily balance, the cycle, and the symbiotic relationship between the intensity of working with the ensembles at the school down the hill from the city center and the return trip to Ristorante La Rosetta for nourishment provide an important combination: a recipe that fuels the creative spirit.

  Guitar Professor Jon Damian has played with artists including Johnny Cash, Bill Frisell, and Luciano Pavarotti. His books The Guitarist's Guide to Composing and Improvising and The Chord Factory: Build Your Own Guitar Chord Dictionary, have been published by Berklee Press. He is seeking a publisher for his latest, Developing Your Creative Potential: Lessons from the Creative Workshop for All Artists.
  Photo by Scott Free

Drawing on the Senses

When preparing the ensembles for the concert I drew on communication techniques from the Creative Workshop, a performance class I have developed and directed at Berklee for nearly 25 years. The fundamental philosophy of the workshop is to draw inspiration from anything in the universe, from alphabets to zodiacs. In Perugia, that might be a plate of Trenette Al Pesto (a heavenly nest of pasta with a basil sauce scented with a fragrance that rings of sun-speckled fields of green). Each ensemble workshop has a unique set of ingredients: players with a range of abilities and instruments. I relish the challenge of creating a special musical recipe with the ingredients at hand. How about 11 guitars?

On the opening day of the workshops, I waited for the arrival of my first ensemble. A trumpet player walked in, followed by a guitarist, a drummer, two pianists, another guitarist, a bassist, and then, to my surprise, a harpist slowly and carefully wheeling in a lovely golden-colored harp. Following her were another guitarist, a saxophonist, and two drummers. The players were very interesting ingredients. "Please introduce yourselves," I said. "Isabella," the harpist responded. "Queen Isabella!" I thought excitedly, and realized that with a harpist named Isabella in a magical setting like Perugia, with its castle-like walls, cobbled paths and steps, sculptured archways, and bells tolling, we should try "The Coronation." It's one of my creative workshop pieces that uses story form. The approach is for musicians to portray the various characters of a story: in this case, the crowning of a king and queen. Isabella is the queen, Stefano (one of the pianists) is the king, and the other instrumentalists play the roles of villagers and singers: the creators of a medieval ambience, a perfect setting for a coronation.

Later, during one of my many repasts at Ristorante La Rosetta, as I finished the final fragrant morsels of a plate of Trenette Al Pesto, I envisioned a new piece. As I watched my hand skate circles with a bit of bread around the plate, I imagined a scarpetta-inspired dance with a calypso-flavored melody and harmony. After my last swipe of bread, I ran excitedly-but slowly-to my room to sketch "La Danza della Scarpetta" for my afternoon ensemble.

"La Danza della Scarpetta" is a simple dance; it's as easy to perform as eating a bowl of pasta and incorporates some age-old Italian hand gestures. You simply stand and imagine a plate in front of your nose. Take your right hand and bring your thumb, index, and middle fingertips together as though you're holding an imaginary bit of bread. While singing the lyric scarpetta (see the musical example above), move the hand clockwise around the edge of the plate. For the repetition of the word scarpetta, make a counter-clockwise circle with your left hand. For the lyrics "Mmm! Mmm!," simply point your right index finger lightly into your right cheek and make a couple of little twists. Then do the same with your left index finger for the next "Mmm! Mmm!" (see the musical example above).

Ensemble members danced and played excitedly, and during the concert their performance inspired the audience to sing and dance. "La Danza della Scarpetta" was a hit.

My student ensembles' performances were filled with a youthful drive and exuberance that rivaled the energy emanating from the main stage at this year's Umbria Jazz Festival. The joy of working with the students and sharing their excitement during the concert is hard to describe-as difficult, let's say, as describing the delights of Fritto di Mozzarella (a dish of lightly battered and fried buffalo mozzarella), or Tagliatta di Petto di Pollo con Arugula e Pomodorini (a grilled-chicken dish).

Some readers may wonder what I did with the ensemble that had 11 guitar players. Actually, some of the sweetest music of my four concert ensembles came from the two guitar orchestras that consisted essentially of beginner-level guitarists with little or no experience. A unique ensemble can produce some unique music.

For a guitar orchestra piece, I again drew on La Rosetta's menu for inspiration, including Lasagna Tartufo (a lovely ensemble of layers of homemade pasta, local cheeses, truffles, and cream sauce) and Insalata Pescatora (a rich assemblage of seafood; calamari, shrimp, mussels, and octopus). For one guitar ensemble, instead of "homogenizing" the players to conform to one idea, I decided to create layers: that is, a musical lasagna of sorts. I had the guitarists display their own particular personality-their own flavor, if you will-by creating a brief musical idea and playing it repeatedly, solidly, and with confidence. We played the spicy mix of layers, added group vocalizations in a common key and tempo and titled the piece "African Village." The final performance went so well that audience members remarked that the "composition" reminded them of the music of Steve Reich, King Crimson, or Igor Stravinsky. And that was with early-level musicians playing!

As you can see, the symbiotic relationship of food, environment, and music is a real thing for me. I hear the food, smell the cobblestones, and taste the music. In the Creative Workshop philosophy, we think of ourselves as "polyartists": that is, artists in all media. We experience all media through all expressions and senses such as hearing a painting, singing a flower, dancing to a recipe. I employ this holistic approach in my new book, Developing your Creative Potential: Lessons from the Creative Workshop for All Artists, and invite artists of all persuasions to participate. In the Creative Workshop, simple, organic concepts and language translate easily to various artistic media. As polyartists, and as Homo sapiens, we share a common, mutual medium, our being. Through our chosen artistic medium, we share our essential selves with others. For me, this sharing is the true beauty of the arts.