Ah, the old country -- where hearty Genoan focaccia rivals the Roman pizza of Zuppa's boyhood: "So thin," he says, "that it almost disappears into the plate." And with a surname that, fittingly, means "soup," the 38-year-old banjo virtuoso would seem to have blood in his veins as thick as minestrone. But good cooks don't overshadow the medical scholars in Zuppa's family tree. Consider his great-grandfather, Vincenze Tiberio, who laid groundwork that led to Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin. There's even an intersection in Italy's capital bearing both doctors' names.
For the musically inclined Zuppa, however, working nine to five in a lab coat held less allure than the pursuit of wine and song. Discussing his life over a cup of coffee in the Centennial condo that he shares with girlfriend Tammy Pliego -- an artist, psychic and hypnotherapist from Mexico City, who also helms the pair's catering business, La Forketta -- Zuppa exudes a passion for many things: history, politics and, especially, his customized Harley-Davidson Wide Glide. Non-traditional by bluegrass standards, the short but powerfully built picker sports plenty of body ink.
"I might be the most tattooed banjo player on the planet," Zuppa says, revealing a pair of intricate full-sleeve designs: A cubist banjo decorates his right arm amid Celtic patterns; on the left are skeletal forms reminiscent of the work of H.R. Giger, swimming through a tangle of cables, wires and wheels.
A seven-stitch scar on Zuppa's forehead tells an equally colorful tale. One rainy night in Rome, while driving intoxicated, Zuppa, a professed atheist, suffered a head injury when a police car ran a red light, broadsiding him. The cops were found culpable and ended up paying for all of the medical expenses and court costs.
But Zuppa's quasi-charmed life, at least as a musician, began much earlier. "I started playing guitar when I was six," he recalls. "Most of it came by ear. My real training was singing in the streets or the piazza."
During the '80s, Zuppa lived in Denmark and London, covering Beatles songs for pocket change. In the Street Blues Duel with partner Gabriele Brucchi, Zuppa mastered tunes by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Then he met the members of Italy's New Country Kitchen, a seasoned bluegrass outfit, at an Irish pub. They encouraged their fellow paisan to take up the five-string and sit in from time to time.
"Learning banjo got my attention totally focused," he says. "It's such a hard instrument to play." Taking Earl Scruggs's three finger-style from an instructional manual, Zuppa taught himself enough standards to launch the Soda Rangers, his first official bluegrass band. At 22, he made a pilgrimage to America to conduct more hardscrabble research.
"When I first came to the States on vacation, I would seriously go into the bluegrass section of any record store and buy every book and CD and video that they had," Zuppa relates. "I had no idea who the hell these people were. I bought a lot of great stuff and a lot of crap. I did everything I could just to get better at it. At one point, I was probably playing ten hours a day. I was really obsessed."
The next time Zuppa came to the United States, he visited Colorado and decided to stay. He spent four years as a food photographer and another year as a chef, then made the banjo his full-time calling -- both as a player and teacher. Through an ad posted at Swallow Hill music center, Zuppa started Treeful of Pigs with guitarist Ross Martin (veteran of Ron Miles, Tony Furtado, Molly O'Brien and the Motet), Ben Kauffman (bassist for Yonder Mountain String Band) and mandolinist Terry Messenger. All the while, he attended local workshops with banjo luminaries such as Alison Brown and Tony Trischka. On a chance flight from Washington D.C. to Denver, he even shared an armrest with Pete Wernick, aka "Dr. Banjo" of Hot Rize fame.
"I was looking at his fingers to see if there's something abnormal -- if he's got six on one hand or something," Zuppa recalls, laughing. "I didn't want to bug him too much. We talked banjos, but it seemed like he knew everything about the plane we were in -- the size of the wings, the engine. I thought, 'This guy's really into planes.' It wasn't until later that I found out that he's actually a survivor of a plane crash. I heard that the guy next to him got decapitated. But Peter Wernick's banjo survived the crash. The neck was broken and the resonator had a big hole in it, but he just kept it that way."
No doubt Wernick's mangled banjo fits the profile of something that Zuppa might bring to Old Town Music on South Pearl Street for customizing. "Micah Lundy's my luthier of choice," Zuppa notes. "He's got great ideas, and he's just as sick as I am." Along with shop owner Marlo Mortensen, the three are always on the lookout for an ancient wooden rim, exotic tailpiece or the ultimate pre-war tone ring.
"I used to play heavy metal when I was a kid -- White Snake, Iron Maiden, Saxxon -- all the pyro bands like Mtley Crüe and Kiss," Zuppa confesses. "I was wearing tight pants and makeup. So I wanna buy the body of a Gibson Flying V and put a fifth-string banjo on it with a little resonator, just to put on the wall. It's a piece of art to me. But it has to be white, man. That's the guitar that I've always dreamt of. I still look on eBay like once a week to see if there's one."
Until that happens, Zuppa will make do with his acoustic Nechville and an electric Deering Crossfire. Though not as tricked out as the sought-after customized Gibson, they were perfectly suitable rigs for cutting his 2001 debut, Zupperman. Full of quicksilver picking and tuneful arrangements, the album features breezy reels and rousing originals, plus covers of Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home" and Django Reinhardt's "Swing 42." Packaged with a comic booklet featuring a muscle-bound, Zorro-like superhero who saves a child from two marauding thugs, the disc blends traditional bluegrass and exploratory jams for an energetic synthesis.
Zuppa takes a more adventurous sonic approach on his latest disc, Soup Kitchen. Recorded for Avant-Acoustic, a worldly and progressive branch of Morris Beegle's Hapi Skratch imprint, the sophomore effort pays tribute to departed mandolinist Marco "Ciccio" Rosini (who died of a heart attack in 2004), and the other members of New Country Kitchen. "They were the ones who inspired me the most to play bluegrass and to play the banjo," Zuppa allows. "So this is my homage to them." Along with rearrangements of Russell Barenberg's "Through the Gates" and Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider," Soup features a Bach arpeggio adapted for banjo, "Two Part Invention in C." On each track, Zuppa presents the five-string in a fresh context.
"My addition to newgrass is my interpretation of how the banjo could fit pretty much into everything," Zuppa says. "To all those people who think the banjo is a limited instrument, I say it's not. And here's the proof: There's a classical tune, there's a Latin tune, there's spoken word, there's Irish music, and there's rock that hints towards U2. Maybe it'll all come together at one point, as long as there's a good melody. I'm Italian; I can't listen to free jazz without getting bored out of my head."
Such an admission helps to explain why Zuppa graces the title track of Zebra Junction's freewheeling Waterborne. Or why, backed in a live setting by violinist Julia Hays, bassist Dave Solzberg and drummer Chris Meisner, the ace picker might consider dusting off the famous golden oldie that launched a thousand squealing pigs.
"A lot of banjo players won't touch a cliche like 'Dueling Banjos,' because they wanna get out of that Appalachian, inbred kind of thing," Zuppa points out. "But I started playing the banjo because I saw Deliverance and listened to the soundtrack. So I play 'Dueling Banjos' now and then just for fun. I heard Béla Fleck do it once with a computer, and it was out of this world -- call-and-respond with a MIDI part that he'd pre-written. But the whole idea was that they were communicating. It was amazing."
If bluegrass purists want to string Fleck up for messing with tradition, they've yet to cry foul over Zuppa's playful gyrations. But in case worldly newgrass doesn't take hold in every corner of the globe, the noble Roman can always fall back on his culinary chops.
"Music is like cooking," Zuppa concludes. "There's tradition, but there's tons of possibilities to experiment. If you use good ingredients, it's all gonna taste good. You don't wanna mix too many flavors, 'cause one flavor is gonna erase another, and the sauce is gonna be a big brown thing. You wanna do something tasteful, something that appeals to the listener's heart."