In many ways, Italian piano explorer Stefano Battaglia's work with the German ECM labelbeginning with the opaque beauty and greater extremes of 2006's Raccolto, and continuing with 2007's more ambitious and stylistically far-reaching Re: Pasolinihas been leading to this. Pastorale, unlike those previous releases, is a single disc, pared down in other ways as well. Instead of the trios on Raccolto and quintet/sextet of Pasolini, here Battaglia is back with only his longstanding percussionist, Michele Rabbia. The inherent flexibility and intimacy of the duo setting affords Battaglia the opportunity to explore a program of quiet, near-static landscapes and more florid terrain, combining natural acoustic sounds with subtle electronics and delicate prepared piano treatments.
Battaglia is a pianist who, rather than straddling the classical and jazz worlds, finds his own meeting place where they come together in remarkable synchronicity. Battaglia also dissolves the line between form and freedom, drawing from the entire musical spectrum as he touches on the Middle East with "Sundance in Balkh." A sketch of a context joins with Rabbia's frame drum to develop a piece that also straddles the fence between minor key plaintiveness and major key celebration, building in intensity and intent over the course of six minutes. On the title track, Battaglia creates an unsettling juxtaposition between right handed lyricism and left-handed dissonance.
Battaglia's use of prepared piano and Rabbia's incorporation of electronic sound sources expands what might appear, on paper, to be a simple pairing of piano and percussion. The arc of Pastorale builds from the ground up, with the melancholy "Antifona Libera" founded on rich, repeated voicings that demonstrate Battaglia's versatile touch; soft, when necessary, strong when demanded. His part grows almost exponentially, as Rabbia's bowed cymbal and other devices create textural, near-lyrical lines that float above Battaglia's mid-register. The beauty of Rabbia's work on this disc is that, while Battaglia's playing could stand on its own, the percussionist's additionswhether textural or gently rhythmicdon't just enhance the sound, they expand it in significant and profound ways.
That this duo builds eminently appealing soundscapes is all the more surprising when it turns more foreboding, as it does on "Spirits of Myths," or busier, as it does on "Oracle" which, with Battaglia's flittering lines and Rabbia's percussion filling the entire three-dimensional audioscape, is more about color and feel than melody and pulse.
"Metaphysical Consolations" may, in its harmonic and rhythmic stasis, be closer to Morton Feldman territory than anything in the jazz sphere, but with Rabbia's soft brushwork driving the brooding "Cantar del Alma," Battaglia comes closer to the jazz vernacular, albeit impressionistically and imbued with an unmistakable melancholy classicism.
An album of contrasting dark thoughts and brighter ideations, the masterful Pastorale strikes an almost immediate subconscious chord. Resonating on a deep level, it's Battaglia's purest, most vividly evocativeand provocativealbum to date.
Personnel: Stefano Battaglia: piano, prepared piano; Michele Rabbia: percussion, electronics.