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Jazz Meets Hip-Hop in Bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto’s World

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A black and white photo of Giulio Xavier Cetto playing the upright bass.
Giulio Xavier Cetto is influenced by his Venezuelan-Italian heritage, Bay Area rap music, and his jazz and classically-trained family.  (Ivan Noble)

View the full episode transcript.

Jazz and hip-hop are technically different genres of music, but for bassist and composer Giulio Xavier Cetto, the connection between the two is indivisible.

Both genres seamlessly compliment each other as they show up in the music Cetto listens to as, as well as the music he makes. When he performed at NPR’s Tiny Desk with Kassa Overall, that connection was loud and clear. And it’s even more pronounced when he does shows at San Francisco’s Black Cat Jazz Supper Club.

“My main goal is to support as a bass player,” says Cetto, who plays both the upright bass and the electric bass. “I want to be like the floor for someone to stand on. I want to be the rock. So I’m going to just listen as best as I can, and be super honest with what I think the music needs best. Sometimes I need to go into a situation and kind of try to be a blank slate. Not think too much. Just kind of be a vessel.”

In a black and white photo, Giulio Xavier Cetto holds his upright bass. The lighting casts a shadow over his face and arms.
Giulio Xavier Cetto curates weekly jazz shows at the Stow Lake Boathouse in Golden Gate Park. (Donovan Washington)

On this week’s Rightnowish, San Francisco’s own Cetto discusses the story behind his Instagram handle, his favorite Bay Area music venues, and what it’s like to lead Big Trippin, a band that features drummer Thomas Pridgen, saxophonist John Palowitch and pianist Javier Santiago.

This story was originally published June 30, 2023  as part of  “Liner Notes” a five-part series about jazz in Bay Area.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

PENDARVIS HARSHAW, HOST: Hello hello, welcome to Rightnowish. I’m your host, Pendarvis Harshaw, coming to you with a special announcement ahead of today’s show. As you may know, the Rightnowish podcast series is coming to an end. Our final episode is July 18th. 

In celebration of all that we’ve done over the course of our five-year run, we’re hosting one final event, an evening filled with live jazz, community convos and beverages to toast. The event is called Liner Notes Live: A Rightnowish Jazz Production, and it’s going down Thursday, June 20, at KQED headquarters. For more information, tickets or details about how to live stream the event, visit kqed.org/events.

The theme of our upcoming event is inspired by a series of Rightnowish interviews we dropped about a year ago, where we talked to some well-known Bay Area based jazz artists and practitioners about their art and the current state of jazz in this region. 

Given the announcement of our upcoming jazz event, I think it’s a good time to revisit that Liner Notes series. So we’re going to toss it to Rightnowish producer Marisol Medina-Cadena for her 2023 conversation with jazz bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto. 

[Break]

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: I first saw you two years ago perform. And I remember going up to and being like, “How can I keep up with you?” And you were like, “I’m on the Instagram, I’m @thejazzthug.”

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO, GUEST: The jazz thug that’s my, my alias. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Yeah. What’s the story behind the alias?  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: It kind of just speaks on my love for hip hop and jazz music. My friend actually made it up one time, he said it and I was like, I like that. I want to go with it. It stuck. And people like it more than I do now. I get called that.I’ll see a flyer and they won’t even put my name. They put the jazz thug. And I’m like, well, I still want my name on there. But yeah, I thought about changing it recently and a bunch of people were like, No, don’t change it. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Well, I mean, you said it’s your love of jazz and hip hop, so I’d love to hear how you hear the two genres like intersecting.  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:   Definitely. I mean, when I listen to Ahmad Jamal, I hear hip hop and when I listen to Duke Ellington. I hear hip hop and when I listen to NAS or when I listen to, you know, J Dilla, I hear jazz.  

 All my favorite hip hop is like jazz samples, and I just love to play jazz music or improvised music really, and I mean I put on jazz and I put on hip hop all day long, and then when I go out to play, I want to hear them both at the same time. So that’s kind of what happens. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  That really resonates because for me, growing up, my parents played a lot of jazz in the household, but I don’t think I appreciated it until I started getting into hip hop as a teenager and I was like, Oh, they’re like sampling that jazz riff!  And then I was like, Whoa, I really like jazz now. 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:   Yes, It kind of brings it back. Right?   I love also following that, like hearing the history, like, oh, I know where this is from. I know where the samples came from. That’s like, that always brings me joy. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: Mhmm. 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  I’ll be that guy. Like, do you know what this  is from? And everyone is like No. And then I like, try to explain it. They are like, okay.  And I do that when I play because we’ll play a song and I’ll introduce this song…My band, Big Trippin does this song by Gary Bartz, who lives out here in the Bay Area, actually, and it’s called “Gentle Smiles.”

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  And I say that and then I’m like, a lot of people don’t, you know, recognize it right away, But I’m like, you know, Tribe Called Quest sampled this song, and then everyone’s like, Oh, and then they hear that part, and then it’s like this full circle moment of realization, which is really fun to see and witness. You see people light up when they hear that part they recognize, you know, it’s cool. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  How did you get put on to jazz, as a young person?

 GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: So my parents played it too. In the house my dad would put on Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, all these people that he loved to listen to. But I wanted to listen to heavy music and I had a whole punk rock phase .

 And then I worked my way kind of back around and found jazz again, maybe in high school. And that’s when I had realized I’d already heard so much. And I think that made it all the easier to. Just jump right into it and listen to it and it hit so much harder, I think, too, because it had that familiarity and it wasn’t so foreign because my dad always had it in the house playing, and my mom was always listening to her, her music…

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: ..all this salsa and Latin music and folkloric music from Venezuela and all that kind of melding together to just make my ears more well-rounded.

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  You play with a lot of trios, you play with a lot of heavy hitters too, and everybody has their own sound. 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: Totally. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: How are you able to adapt to each band? 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:   My main goal is to support as a bass player.  I want to be like the the floor for someone to stand on. I want to be, you know, the rock. So. I’m going to just listen as best as I can and  be super honest with what I think the music needs best. Sometimes I need to go into a situation and kind of try to be a blank slate. You know, not think too much. Just kind of be a vessel. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Saying you are a vessel kind of makes me think about the videos I’ve seen of you performing, it looks like you are tapping into some other vibration, you know, your shoulders are into it, your head is rocking.

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  The bass face is going, yeah.. .

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  What are you thinking about inside, internally? 

 GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  If I’m really in there like that, I’m thinking about nothing. Nothing is going through my mind but the music and I’m really focused. When the music has taken me over and I’m really having fun, you know, I’m not thinking about anything.

I have my eyes closed, the whole whole hour set sometimes and open them up. And it’s like waking up in front of people like, Oh, woah, I forgot you were all there, ‘cause when I am really doing it right and really inside the music. Yeah, I’m letting go. the heart is on the sleeve, you know, and the emotions are coming out. And I love to play music that way. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:   A reoccurring show you sometimes lead at The Black Cat is called Sunday Slap. 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Yes 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  It’s described as Dilla meets Coltrane.  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: There’s a good chance we’re going to play some Dilla and a good chance we might do some Coltrane. But yeah, I’m constantly featuring different emcees, rappers, singers.  

We’ll play, you know, a jazz song, make it hip hop, we’ll do a a hip hop song and make it jazz, you know, we’ll do all that stuff and we’ll we’ll cover a lot of ground in Sunday Slap. It’s usually with my band Big Trippin, and we can do anything. Okay, we’re going to take the feel from this song, the bass line from this other song, and we get to play this jazz standard over it and till it’s unrecognizable.  

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Or one of our favorite things to play is this song “Nardis” that’s by Bill Evans but Miles Davis claimed it, and then Kendrick Lamar did a version where he didn’t even play the melody. But then I take his version and then we put the melody back over it and suddenly we’ve got this, you know, really cool intersection of jazz and hip hop that a lot of people can get down because people love Miles Davis, people love Kendrick Lamar. Put them together, yeah.

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Another really cool gig you had recently was you went to NPR’s Tiny Desk.  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  yeah!  

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  And you played with  Kasa Overall…

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  yes.

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: Talk to me about how that was.

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  It was amazing. I was stressed out a little bit. It felt like this like really important recording session that a lot of people are going to listen to. You know, I go into recording sessions all the time and think, oh, I hope a lot of people listen to this, or I hope people listen to this. Then you go to Tiny Desk and you’re like, I know a lot of people are going to listen to this. So I think the pressure was on. But it was really special   

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  And Kasa, I love his music and talking to all this hip hop jazz stuff. I mean, he’s like the perfect person to play with that really speaks to me. I love what he’s doing when it comes to, like, the style of beats he’s making in the music he’s making. But then I know we could just swing out and really play some real type of improvised music and jazz. And so to me, his music calls to me. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  I could see your music and his music in conversation because he has that synthesis of jazz and hip hop and that’s what you do. And so it kind of totally makes sense why you guys just click.  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: I told him I was like, I’m feel like I’m supposed to be in this band man, like. Got to get me in there.

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Mmmm

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: He had been touring without a bass player for a while, so he  got me to play with him for the Tiny Desk because it’s acoustic. So there’s not much amplification; it’s got to be kind of this stripped version. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: Cuz you play the upright bass and the bass guitar. So like when folks approach you, how do you make that judgment call? Like, Oh, I think upright would do better or…   

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Yeah, I’ll get asked just to play a gig and it won’t be, they won’t say which one they want. They are just like, “Can you do this?” And I’ll show up with both basses and then see where the music, what the music tells me to do, you know, because it’s usually clear to me like, Ooo, this is this is an upright song or oooh this is electric, ya know.   because they’re very different, you know? 

[Upright bass notes]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: Yeah. Super different energies to both. And one is just the sound of wood and has all that percussion behind it to the upright, you know?

[Electric bass notes]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: But then electric bass, like I hit one note that lasts for 30 seconds and just kind of the big, powerful guitar player kind of energy. So, yeah, they both have their their things.   It’s such an important part of the music that is easily looked over. And I get people telling me all the time that, Oh, I didn’t even think about the bass until I saw you play. And then I realize how much I like the bass, you know, and how important that is to the music. I’m like Yeah!!! Like it’s the it is the heart of the music. It’s, it’s the it’s the dance floor, you know, it’s that it’s important, you know? 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Your band is called Big Trippin 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Yeah. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  And you’re leading this band  

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: Im leading this band. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  It’s different from a lot of your other gigs where you are just plugging into another group’s style and here you’re leading it. So talk to me about what that’s like.. 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: Yeah it’s four powerful players. We’ve got a guy named John Palowitch, John, our saxophone player. John Palowitch. Javier Santiago plays piano, and this guy, Thomas Pridgen, plays drums and they’re all heavy hitters. And they are all great and they all lead and do their own music. But when I get them all together, I get to choose what we do.  

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  You know, quarterback the ideas and where’s the where the song is going to go. Like, okay, let’s do this and repeat that and I, and I’m just calling out plays like the whole time, but they’re all leaders in their own way. So I feel like it’s a collective. They trust my musical intuition and I trust theirs.  

I’m trying to lead a band from the bass chair, which is also interesting ‘cause we have a saxophone player who is playing melodies and and if you saw us, you’d probably think he was the leader or assume ‘cause he’s, when you play the melody, you kind of lead where it goes. But I’m often right there in his ear like, okay, we’re going to play this one now. Take us to the bridge, you know, whatever. that kind of thing.  

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  yeah

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  I’m constantly shouting at everybody.   –

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: [laughs] 

 GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  It’s fun. I really like to lead like that instead of just like, you know, we could just play the song over and over and end it. But usually in the middle, I’m like, Stay on this part. Or like,” okay, now, you know “just you just piano.” Suddenly you’re just changing it up, keeping it interesting the whole time, I really like to lead that way.  

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Talk to me about the new self-titled album, Big Trippin, that you guys have been working on for a long time. That will be out later this year… 

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  It’s been about two years in the making. A lot has happened in between us recording it and now. So there’s been some pretty serious delays. But I am really excited to put this music out and I’ve never released music under my name, So this is a big step for me and a big learning process but i just want to share. 

We really bring a lot of energy. So sometimes I feel like we’re knocking wigs off. We’re making everybody a little like, whoa. And we can hit people over the head a little bit musically. We are like the extreme sports version of music. It’s intense. [laughs] 

 MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  I mean, you have this cover arrangement of a Ahmad Jamal song and it has like a bunch of 808 beats on it. 

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Yep It’s got 808s. It’s it’s a it’s like a trap beat. Like in a trap style, but it’s a Ahmad still, like I said in the beginning of this interview, when I hear Ahmad Jamal, I hear hip hop and it’s this beautiful song of his called Arabesque and. When I heard it right away, I knew I knew what to do with it, that what I wanted to do with it anyway. Not to say that his version isn’t perfect. 

This article actually came out not that long ago of, you know, someone saying like, you don’t have to change the jazz songs like it’s already this masterful work. You don’t have to make your own arrangement all the time. But for me, when I heard this, it spoke to me right away Like I hear it in the style. I couldn’t deny that I wanted to play it in that way. And I think it works beautifully.

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA: Here in the Bay, we have a lot of sweet jazz venues. Some more intimate than others. You told me in an earlier conversation we had that you really like the lake house? 

 GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: Yeah.  

 MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  Which is like this unconventional spot. So I’m wondering for folks who haven’t been there or know about that place, can you tell us why it’s a cool place to play?  

 GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  Lake House Jazz is at Golden Gate Park at Stow Lake. Inside the boathouse. It’s really unassuming, you know, It’s this little. It’s kind of like a shack. No, it’s not. It’s more than a shack. It’s a boathouse! And in the daytime, it’s like little gift shop. It’s got sweaters and a little snack bar. 

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO: But then at night, through a group I work with called S.F. Mellow Sessions, we transform it into a concert venue, and we put out these chairs,  seats about like 75, 80 people max. We do the lighting right, and then suddenly it’s this beautiful special space that’s right on Stow Lake, where you can hear music.

And I love it so much because you can hear a pin drop in there while we’re performing because it’s so small and intimate that everyone is just drawn right in. And I play a lot of places where that’s not the case [laughs]  ya know. 

And then you step out of the doors and you’re just looking at the Lake and Golden Gate Park, and it’s it’s really special. Yeah, I really like playing there. And I curate that every Friday. 

MARISOL MEDINA-CADENA:  What do you think as a bass player like your role is in the larger Bay Area jazz scene? 

 GUILIO XAVIER CETTO:  When I think of my role in the band and on the scene, supporting everyone as best as I can. I also feel like a connector in the scene. I love bringing artists that don’t know each other together.  I’m constantly trying to bridge gaps between people and things. 

[Music]

GIULIO XAVIER CETTO:  I really like that I get called to play with a lot of people coming from out of town. That’s been something really special to me. It lets me be on like multiple scenes. 

There’s months that go by where I get to play with so many people coming from New York or anywhere, and then I’m always like, Oh, let’s go here. Like, I’m going to bring these guys to this session and or like, I want to connect all these worlds all the time. So that brings me joy. That’s my role. 

PENDARVIS HARSHAW, HOST: That was Marisol Medina-Cadena speaking with the extremely talented Giulio Xavier Cetto, thank you both for that convo.

Giulio is active! You can catch up with him on IG, at @thejazzthug and you can find his band under @bigtrippin_ That’s b-i-g-t-r-i-p-p-i-n underscore

And once again, in honor of all that Rightnowish has accomplished, we’ll be enjoying live jazz and partying at KQED’s headquarters as we say goodbye to this podcast on June 20th. More info can be found at KQED.Org/ Events

This episode was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena. Chris Hambrick is our editor. Christopher Beale is our engineer and sound designer. The Rightnowish team is also supported by Jen Chien, Ugur Dursun, Holly Kernan, Cesar Saldaña, and Katie Sprenger. 

I’m Pendarvis Harshaw. 

Jazz lives on, as does Rightnowish. 

Peace!

Rightnowish is a KQED production      

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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