Stefano Battaglia Trio: Songways (2013)
Since his relationship with ECM began in 2003, Stefano Battaglia has been consistent in his use of different constellations for each recording, from 2006's double-disc Raccolto, where the Italian pianist worked with two different trios, and 2007's Re: Pasolini, another two-CD set where one employed a more broadly defined sextet and the other a string-centric quintet, to the vulnerable duo of 2010's Pastorale, with percussionist and electronic manipulator Michele Rabbiaa largely constant companion throughout these three recordings. Battaglia's reliance on unusual contexts also contributed to the broader landscape of his emergent ECM discography.
So it was something of a surprise when he reenlisted drummer Roberto Dani and double bassist Salvatore Maiore, who'd both performed on Re: Pasolini's sextet disc (and, in the case of Maiore, one of Raccolto's two trios). Clearly Battaglia felt compelled to further explore a specific chemistry with these two players, but in a more intimate setting. Rather than adhering to conventions often suggested by this standard configuration, however, The River of Anyder (2011) turned out to be career-defining album of unsettling and unpredictable beauty.
It's also clear that Battaglia enjoyed the experience because, for the first time since commencing his work with ECM, the pianist has delivered a second recording with the identical lineup. With Songways, Battaglia continues to explore a similar direction as Anyder, equally defined by gossamer lyricism and delicate interaction, whether in the context of stricter form or more open-ended rubato freedom. But here, the diaphanous interplay is more profound, even as Battaglia's writing for the trio has become increasingly specific, allowing each member greater freedom to more fully realize their roles in what is an equilateral triangle of finesse, melodism and subtle power.
The album opens with "Euphonia Eulogy," one of two tracks that break the 12-minute mark, but there the similarities between them end. "Euphonia" is a tone poem that nevertheless possesses its own forward motion through an underlying turbulence that unfolds slowly but relentlessly, as Battaglia asserts a rolling motion with his left hand, even as he layers spare melodies with his right. Maiore adds unpredictable yet somehow inevitable harmonic movement, while the delicate pitches of Dani's cymbal splashes and soft tom rolls transcending texture to create gentle melodic counterpoint. "Armonia," on the other hand, relies more fully on space and darker textures, with Maiore only entering halfway to more firmly define form and pulse, even as Battaglia turns to building a long-form melody that feels somehow connected to antiquity even as it clearly occupies a contemporary harmonic space.
It's an approach that Battaglia's trio refers to often: concepts steeped in historical and cultural premises while never feeling time-stamped. Instead, the same out of time rather than of a time quality that so defined River of Anyder is even more omnipresent on Songways' 10-song, 78-minute program. Songways capitalizes on the strength of a trio that's been honing its craft in multiple contexts for eight years, finding beauty in every nook and cranny even as it eschews the obvious, and continues to hone its profoundly lyrical language with music that paints vivid pictures and evokes cinematic landscapes, encouraging the imagination to run where it will.
Track Listing: Euphonia Elegy; Ismaro; Vondervotteimittis; Armonia; Mildeno Wide Song; Monte Analogo; Abdias; Songways; Perla; Babel Hymn.
Personnel: Stefano Battaglia: piano; Salvatore Maiore: double bass; Roberto Dani: drums.