As you approach Matt Criscuolo’s Wilton Pizza nestled on the Wilton Town Green, be prepared to be enveloped by, perhaps even enraptured by, a savory, swinging, shrine-like, aromatic ambience celebrating the nourishing power and the delicious glory of both jazz and pizza.
If you’re lucky, Criscuolo, a cordon bleu free jazz alto saxophonist/composer, chef, restaurateur, and entrepreneur, just might be out on his patio on a Friday summer’s evening, wailing away with his quartet, which features the brilliant virtuoso guitarist/composer Tony Purrone.
By the time you get within 30 feet or so of Criscuolo’s ultra-hip pizzeria on a day when there’s no live jazz, you’ll be greeted by the recorded sounds of such immortals as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.
Inside, the welcoming eatery’s walls are reverentially lined with black-and-white photos of such jazz saints as Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and other hallowed members of the owner’s jazz pantheon.
Even the menus are illustrated, holy picture fashion, with images of jazz deities revered by the musician/restaurateur, who is every bit as deeply committed to creating high quality jazz as he is to cooking classy cuisine.
A Bronx native and longtime Connecticut resident, Criscuolo fell madly in love with jazz at an early age after showing a precocious gift as a classical piano student.
Later, as a teenager hooked on jazz, he worked for his father, an Italian immigrant, in the Criscuolo family’s popular pizzeria in Rowayton, an affluent Connecticut coastal village just 40 miles from New York City.
As an apprentice member of his restaurateur father’s kitchen cabinet at Rowayton Pizza, young Matt learned the art and the craft of the restaurant business from the workings and mysteries of the pizza oven to the mastering of ancient, secret family recipes traced all the way back to Italy. Over the years, Criscuolo, a first-generation Italian-American, who is fluent in Italian, has visited Italy numerous times and still has family there.
Once your senses are whetted by the sounds and aromas in the air and the images on the walls and menus at Wilton Pizza, you can order such Criscuolo specials as Ravioli Coltrane (pronounced in a faux-Italianate manner by some patrons as Ravioli COLE-TRAH-NAY); Linguine Miles Davis or, if you prefer holiday fare, even Lady Day Bolognese.
“Since 1993, I’ve owned a jazz-themed restaurant featuring jazz groups playing here. So, in a small way, I’m doing my share to keep the music alive and to bring it to the community,” Criscuolo says by phone, taking a break from his two full-time professional pursuits, jazz and pizza, double “z” words he has been doubly passionate about for years.
As a fourth-grader, he fell head-over-heels in love with the alto when he heard it played by a professional musician at a school assembly.
“It looked and sounded so cool to me with its tone and shape, and the way the guy was leaning way back when he was playing it,” he recalls.
When his father discovered Criscuolo’s crush on alto, he went out and bought him a batch of 8-track tapes featuring the internationally popular Italian alto saxophonist Fausto Papetti (1923-1999). A savvy, sweet-toned, commercially successful saxophonist, Papetti was renowned for his romantic covers of pop hits, as well as for his hot album covers festooned with scantily clad, gorgeous women, an evidently sure-fire combination of saxy flash and sexy flesh that helped sell his recordings around the world by the boatload.
On his own, Criscuolo progressed from maestro Papetti to David Sanborn to Bird, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, plus an array of other bold explorers, including Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill. He attended Manhattan School of Music and toured Europe, with a long stint in Norway where he became relatively fluent in Norwegian. Closer to home, he's played throughout the Tri-State area, including his popular Friday night gigs through the summer at his Wilton pizza palace where jazz reigns supreme.
A one-man pizza/jazz enterprise, he also owns a second pizzeria, Toozy Patza Pizza in Wilton, and, until recently, had also owned two other Connecticut restaurants.
Versatile and eclectic, he’s played with stylists ranging from the noted avant-gardist David Murray to modern mainstream master, trombonist Steve Davis.
Right now, he’s in a celebratory mood with the release of his new album, The Dialogue, his seventh CD as a leader. It’s the follow-up to his album, Headin’ Out, which was awarded a much coveted 4 ½ star review by DownBeat magazine.
Both albums unite Criscuolo with his simpatico sidekick/collaborator, Tony Purrone in a synergistic, Damon and Pythias jazz alliance, and are released by the saxophonist’s Jazzeria Records. Criscuolo, who’s also verbally inventive, cooked-up and, he adds, patented the portmanteau word jazzeria.
A continuously evolving artist with a voice all his own, he’s absorbed the teachings of a ferociously fearless legion of saxophonists ranging alphabetically from Albert Ayler to David S. Ware.
“We all somewhat emulate other great artists. But at some point,” he stresses, “you have to dig in your heels and be aware of what your own personal expression is, and bring that out.”
With his affecting tone and fluent, adventurous phrasing, he explores free, or avant-garde jazz. It’s his way, he explains, “to be open to all possibilities.”
As with his use of the best ingredients for his thin crust, crispy pizzas, he believes a catalytic conversational approach to improvisation is the best possible sauce and seasoning for his creativity.
“I love to direct my attention to each and every instrumentalist in the band, and if, for example, I hear a strong statement from the drummer, I like to grab on to that and develop the idea,” he says of his basic recipe for jazz success.
“Themes begin to develop and that’s where the music starts to get off at the exit and go off onto the side roads. And then at some point, we get back onto the highway again. It’s like empathetic improv actors reacting to what is being said. It’s a conversation. It just happens.”
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