A penchant for cardigans, spy novels and pop culture connections.
James Senese was born black. But he was also born in Miano, a district of northern Naples. He is and has been a tenor saxophone player for more than fifty years and he has made it his own; his distinguishing sound is that mix between Naples and the Bronx.
He now carries the battle scars of the glorious and not so glorious times, a living legend that chose Jazz-funk and impressive vocals that he made his own. He was the first to play with one of the most innovative artists the peninsula has seen: Pino Daniele. Friend first, colleague for a lifetime.
2016 was his year, thanks to the album “O sanghe” (The blood) which won him the award for the best album in a dialect, the Tenco 2016. It’s an album which shows a completely expressive form of music, lots of funk, blues, contemporary as well as mediterranean jazz; and then there is lots of Naples in the melodies, in the stories told. Life, work, daily struggles, survival, love, faith. Now seventy, James opens up about his latest work.
Who is James Senese?
It’s very difficult to talk about oneself even if my music for many years tells you everything you need to know, even more than words. James is a man who is searching for emotions, regardless of everything before, regardless of his age. He is someone still looking for paradise. I was born in the same year of the end of the second world war, at 15 I looked in the mirror and I was different, they made me feel different and yet, I was only black.
You were born when the war finished, your father was American, your mother Neapolitan. What was life like in that family at the start, what do you remember?
Certain memories you cannot forget. At the very top there is family: my mother, my grandad and my grandmother were the centres of my life, they raised me to become the man I am today. They took care of a baby, a child that was different from everyone else and someone that needed to be protected. How did you overcome social injustices?
Blowing them away, literally with my saxophone. I decided that, by playing, I was playing for those who live day to day with all the of the struggles around them, the ones that want to give up, the ones that struggle to literally bring bread to the table; but I also wanted to speak of love and respect for people. You won the Targa Tenco 2016 with ‘O Sanghe’. What is in this album? Is it reflecting what you’ve just spoken of?
There are things in this album that speak of the things that we don’t want to understand or simply not see. There is a truth behind emotions and everything that surrounds it: the good, the bad, power, false promises, the trappings of power, the battles of the poor, immigration. We struggle to understand who we are and where we will end up. It’s an album full of love and hope, even towards God. Love and hope that however needs to be earnt. You were one of the first ones to hire Pino Daniele. Then Pino became your friend. What did you see in him? Coming to today’s music, what impact has he had in the Italian music scene? I received a phone call. He called and he said: “I’ve heard Napoli Centrale (a band where James was the leader) and it’s driven me crazy, I want to play with you.” That phrase just hit me right in the heart. I organised the meeting and he came to my home to talk it out. I instantly thought he was a great guy and I made him join the band, I bought him a bass guitar because then he didn’t have a lira to his name. From that day forwards Pino and I were never separated, we had a strong bond, a sort of alchemy which held us together to the very end. At the beginning I was the established musician, so I helped him get into the swing of the group, I taught him the way I knew, where music had its own home, giving him a part of my musical knowledge and repertoire. From that moment Pino went on to create his own path, he was exceptional in everything he did. A great man, even before a greater artist.
In your melodies there is a lot of Naples, as it is with many Neapolitan artists, why is that? For me, it’s because I’m from Naples, and therefore my music is there. I am connected to the sounds that I heard when I was a child and these sounds were part of my DNA, they came from Naples and America. Don’t forget, I’m half black!
If Naples was a song it would be…? No song better represents the city other than Napule e’, the opening track to Pino Daniele’s 1977 album. It is a true soundtrack of the city, it would fit perfectly with an Oscar winning film, with all of its contradictions and love. You’re seventy, with fifty years in the business. How have you managed to live with the changes over the year? The internet, social media, talent shows? What a brilliant question? I do things differently: I compose music and never stop. Year after year, all the time. And then I am honest in my emotions and my words and I’m capable, it seems, in finding a universal language, independent from the norm and recognisable. This has allowed me to survive.
If you’re a true Neapolitan, you love your food. What is your favourite dish?
Pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans), what a question!
You call yourself an armed man… of the sax, of emotions. Today, are you happy? I could be, but I have never been egotistical. I have a need that everyone needs to be happy. I’ve made it to 70 and I’m happy to be here. Time is something that starts to have a meaning the older you get. When you’re young you don’t pay attention to it, you don’t look after yourself. When you start to get older, time flies by and you try to slow it down. I do it by being armed, with a sax and emotions. That’s how.