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Enrico Pieranunzi with Marc Johnson and Paul Motian: Enrico Pieranunzi: Live at the Village Vanguard

Dan McClenaghan By

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Italian jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, with his melodic romanticism and wondrous sense of harmony, deepened by by his classical training, gets compared often and aptly to the legendary and game-changing pianist Bill Evans (1929-1980). While Pieranunzi's style is more gregarious, and less introspective than that of Evans—and often more abstract—he does share with the late piano icon a penchant for the mode of the interactive trio. In the case of Live at the Village Vanguard, the comparison can be pushed further: the set's drummer, Paul Motian—who passed away in 2011; this is one of his last recording efforts—sat in the percussion chair in Evan's classic trio from 1959 to 1964, as a catalyst in the job of democratizing the piano trio format. Marc Johnson, who was Evans' bassist in the pianist's last trio, from 1978 to 1980—is here, too. And it's the Village Vanguard, where Evans recorded, in 1961, the two albums that changed the way of the piano trio: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, both released in 1961 on Riverside Records.

Pieranunzi, who made his name as one of Italy's top jazz men, rose to a higher profile in America via his work with trumpeter Chet Baker, then with alto saxophonists Lee Konitz and Phil Woods. But his finest hours have been in the trio setting, with superb recordings like the gorgeous Play Morricone (CamJazz, 2002), Ballads (CamJazz, 2006), Dream Dance (CamJazz, 2008). All three of these were recorded with bassist Marc Johnson, along with drummer Joey Baron. With Motian in Baron's place, the music changes, not for the better or worse—the Pieranunzi/Johnson/Baron trio plays on the highest level in terms of active piano trios—but with a change in personality, an added buoyancy and percussive peculiarity.

Motian displays an energized style from the beginning, on the rousing take on Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You." Pieranunzi adds melodic flourishes and twists, brightens things harmonically, and Johnson fits in just the right notes over, under and around the melody. Pieranunzi's original, "Tales from the Unexpected," is a churning flow piano notes, and eddying stream over rhythm full of surprises.

"Pensive Fragments" begins with a brooding intro, with Motian whispering on brushes behind Pieranunzi's abstractions. Johnson takes a solo, with Pieranunzi dropping single notes like icy raindrops before he takes the lead with the prettiest of reveries inside Motian's shuffling brushes. "My Funny Valentine," a jazz staple from the Great American Songbook, sounds sinister during the intro, then a light blinks on, and Pieranunzi takes things into a brighter room, giving a tune that is normally a ballad a sense of urgency, an insistent momentum.

The trio wraps it up with Italian film maker Nino Rota's "La Dolce Vita," a sprightly tune given here an injection of idiosyncratic depth with the group slipping into a a rubato mode, then shifting into a straight ahead groove, moving into a bass solo where every note—the spare piano comping, the pull of a bass string or the hit of a stick on a cymbal—sounds like a divine proclamation. Then things swing back into a jaunty groove, closing out an extraordinary piano trio set, one of the year's finest jazz recordings.

Track Listing: I Mean You; Tales From the Unexpected; Pensive Fragments; My Funny Valentine; Fellini's Waltz; Subconscious Lee; Unless They Love You; La Dolce Vita.

Personnel: Enrico Pieranunzi: piano: Marc Johnson: bass; Paul Motian: drums.

Title: Enrico Pieranunzi: Live at the Village Vanguard | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: CAM Jazz


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