Chasing fate with Jacopo de Nicola and his local Italian folk trio The Late Saints

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Photo by Daniel Mezick
Photo by Daniel Mezick

You might say the emergence of local trio The Late Saints was a matter of fate.

Jacopo de Nicola, guitarist, kazoo player and leader of the self-styled “Italian gypsy folk” band was born in Italy and originally trained as a bass player. While still in Italy, he performed in a variety of bands ranging from a goth act to a twelve-piece traditional Italian orchestra and a techno-jazz trio. In 2003 he started writing original music, and it soon became his main musical focus.

Around this time, he made a fortuitous 500-mile hike along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James. a pilgrimage route in Western Europe. The path came to be in medieval times after the remains of St. James – or what was believed to be his remains – were discovered and a cathedral was eventually erected in Galicia, Spain.

“I started at the modern-accepted starting point of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the mountains of France,” Nicola says. “I started by myself but I met lots of people along the way. I learned that walking the Camino is like walking through life. You meet all sorts of people and situations. So it’s very important to stick to your true self and not get swayed. Because some people can really take you off your path. So it has physical and spiritual consequence, because if you walk too fast or too slow, or don’t respect yourself and do things that can harm you, you can really suffer because it’s such an intense experience.”

Along this walk Nicola met his wife, who was in France specifically for the trek. He says that she was on the Camino with a friend and they kept intersecting paths.

“When you start, it’s almost like you’re predetermined to see certain people,” he explains while picking at a small plate of orzo salad in an East Passyunk café. “Somehow you keep seeing the same people. But there are also people that start at the same time as you and you’ll never see them again. It almost incredible; kind of serendipitous.”

Nicola feels that way about playing with his current lineup, which formed earlier this year. He also feels that way about using his trademark instrument, the kazoo.

While recording an album he never released, he was in the studio and originally imagined a trumpet on some of the songs. He didn’t have the money to hire a session musician and decided he’d play it himself, but the studio did not have a trumpet.

“At the time I wasn’t familiar with the costs of production so things got scaled back real quick,” he says with a chuckle. “And when they didn’t have a trumpet, the guy in the studio said, ‘well, I have a kazoo if you want to try that.’ And I started to hum along on the kazoo and it eventually became my thing. I made this contraption to hold it while I play. It’s a repurposed harmonica holder. If you have the creativity, it becomes the perfect jazz instrument. You can solo along with anybody considering the limitations of the instrument.”

Nicola’s buzzing kazoo is striking. It has the ability to make people in bar-room stools often turn their heads towards the stage immediately as he hums his first breath through the little metallic instrument. The songs currently on The Late Saints’ Soundcloud page have Nicola’s kazoo playing more up front than on his prior records such as 2010’s Torn in the USA.

The kazoo mixes with Nicola’s vocals, which include both Italian and English lyrics – sometimes both in one song, such as the uptempo klezmer-y stomp, “Stolidi Pensieri.” It’s a number that also features Sheila Hershey on cello trading eights with Nicola on kazzo, making a stand-out moment in The Late Saints’ repertoire.

They also keep crowds on their toes by covering songs like Green Day’s 90s punk classic, “She” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” masking them behind folk strums Italian words. The language change makes their covers sometimes tough to distinguish until a noticeable chord progression hits the ears. But Nicola actually doesn’t try to write exact translations of the lyrics, he purposely uses incorrect Italian words, so that his singing resembles the original tonally.

“The English language has so few words,” he says. “there are parts that wouldn’t work [in Italian]. So the translations aren’t exact, but I just use Italian words that resemble the English so people will understand what the song is.”

Bassist Jason Bachman, also of local atmospheric trio Busses, and drummer Micah Hebbel work as a stellar rhythmic unit together but never feel disconnected from Nicola’s duo language use. Bachman says Nicola is often up front about a songs’ meaning. The trio has also been gelling quite well considering the length of time they’ve played together

“I’ve only known Jacopo about ten months,” Bachman says. “And it’s worked well right from the beginning. We tend to cross a lot of genres so it gets interesting.”

The walk-about shuffle of “So Bad” toes a bluesy jazz line in the beginning before getting pounded out into a driving rock clash at the end, much like “Fratello Sorella.” Bachman says he doesn’t like flashy bass players, and it shows in playing, which is full of color, but never overbearing.

“Since we’re only a three-piece, everyone’s individual playing contributes to the style,” he says. “I studied jazz bass at Lebanon Valley College and I think that’s mostly how I play.”

Combing the styles of all three players, Nicola and the other two Late Saints have created a more well-traveled sound. And it’s headed right where Nicola wants it to be.

“The Late Saints have become something different,” Nicola says. “It’s a folk-rock because we like to take it different directions. It’s very much in grass roots nature since we had a cello for a little while. But it’s gotten a little more aggressive. But I feel like I’ve finally found my core.”

The Late Saints perform at Wilmo Rock Circus Saturday, November 30; the all-ages show begins at 5 p.m., tickets are $12, more information can be found here.

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