Still in his mid-thirties, Italian pianist Stefano Bollani has created a surprisingly large discography in the past decade. Piano Solo is the first under his own name for ECM, though he's by no means a new face on the label. He's worked with Enrico Rava since the mid-'90s, and can be heard on the trumpeter's Easy Living (ECM, 2004) and Tati (ECM, 2005), which represented Rava's return to the renowned label after nearly two decades away.
Bollani parted company with Rava a couple of years back to focus on his own career. Piano Solo takes the leap into solo music and, despite its encyclopedic reach, is intimate and deeply personal.
This compelling mix of free improvisation, original composition and material from the classical, jazz, Brazilian and tango repertoires also reflects a modernistic impressionism that's occasionally reminiscent of Marc Copland. But while the two pianists share an abstract romanticism that always steers clear of the saccharine, Bollani looks farther back for source material. Still, Bollani's expansive take on Brian Wilson's "Don't Talk" is evidence that he shares Copland's ability to turn even the most contemporary material on its side.
More stylistically all-encompassing than Copland, Bollani digs back to the 1930s for a take on "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" that's referential in its stride yet contemporary in its voicings. Likewise, Scott Joplin's classic "Maple Leaf Rag" subtly brings ragtime into the 21st Century.
Bollani is capable of great virtuosity, but never at the expense of substance and form. His four free improvisations, all under four minutes, feel more inherently constructed than Keith Jarrett's, though they can be just as oblique as the seminal pianist's more atonal work. "Improv on a Theme by Sergey Prokofiev" references his classical training, beautifully emulating Prokofiev's ability to build, as Bollani describes, "a world out of a few bars."
Bollani's own writing ranges from the darkly elegant "Promenade" to the more propulsive "Buzzilare," extending his reach from lyrical simplicity to challenging complexity. Even when he avails himself of the piano's full range, his touch is light, making even the most extroverted and angular playing sound appealing to the ear. The Brazilian imprint of Bollani's "Sarcasmi" intimates a more refined Egberto Gismonti.
An album that crosses so many musical boundaries could easily lack focus, but astute sequencing and Bollani's keen ability to contemporize give Piano Solo a strong narrative. Less stream-of-consciousness than Jarrett and more diverse than Copland, Stefano Bollani has created a space all his own.
Personnel: Stefano Bollani: piano.