By no means a newcomer to the scene, Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's star has only begun to rise significantly in North America in the past couple of years, with albums including the outstanding FelliniJazz (Cam Jazz, 2004) and Plays Morricone (Cam Jazz, 2005) finally more readily available. The double-disc Live in Japan, recorded in the spring of 2004, shortly ahead of the session for Ballads (Cam Jazz, 2006), captures the pianist once again in the company of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baronoccasional companions, if not an ongoing working group, since the turn of the century.
Pieranunzi's impressionistic romanticism has often been compared to the legendary Bill Evans, but his penchant for focusing on material by Italian composers, in addition to his own writing, has often lent his work a distinctive Mediterranean vibe. But his collaboration with drummer Paul Motian on the freer but no less beautiful Doorways (Cam Jazz, 2005) demonstrated a more angular mindset that's an equal part of his overall approach, and is as much a component of Live in Japan as is gently balladry, straight-ahead swing and unmistakable lyricism.
Nearly half of this 100-minute performance is, in fact, devoted to free improvisation, but never without focus or collective intent. The 15-minute "Improleaves" deals largely in abstraction, but occasionally finds itself approachingthough never quite reaching"Autumn Leaves," not to mention an on-again off-again pulse. Pieranunzi's "Aurora Giapponese" is a hauntingly beautiful overture that leads into the more extended "Impronippo," where Johnson's robust bass solo leads the trio into free territory. Brief references to standards like "All the Things You Are" are only a kind of baton-passing relay where Pieranunzi's deft touch may be the apparent dominant voice, but is really just one voice in a democratic three-way conversation.
Johnson and Baron's work together in recent years for artists including guitarist John Abercrombie and pianist John Taylor, and on the bassist's own superb Shades of Jade (ECM, 2005), suggests a rhythm section that will be looked upon with the same reverence as those of Scott LaFaro/Paul Motian and Ron Carter/Tony Williams. Infinitely flexible and unfailingly intuitive, there seems to be no limit to their musical reach.
The balance of the program consists of Pieranunzi originals, four by film scorer Ennio Morricone, and one by Baron, the open-ended "Broken Time." The set seems to go by in an instant, and while there are breaks for applause, they're hardly noticed. In turns energetic, elegant and elusive, Live in Japan is a thoroughly compelling release that positions Pieranunzi, Johnson and Baron in the upper echelon of piano trios, and will certainly go down as one of the best trio records of 2007.
Personnel: Enrico Pieranunzi: piano; Marc Johnson: bass; Joey Baron: drums.