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

Warren Allen By

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Enrico Pieranunzi Trio
The Village Vanguard
New York, NY
July 9, 2010

The first full week of July 2010 was a hot one for New York City, marked by record- setting temperatures, sweat-choked subways, and scorched sidewalks. But it also saw a rare appearance by Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi on this side of the Atlantic, at the venerable Village Vanguard, alongside two other master players in Marc Johnson on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

Pieranunzi is one of the most revered players of jazz piano in the fertile Italian scene. As a young virtuoso, he played with Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Johnny Griffin, and Jim Hall. Today, he is a maestro in his own right—advancing the music with a personal vocabulary steeped in the language of classical as well as jazz, and everything in between.

Suffused in the red light of the Vanguard's curtains, the trio warmed itself to life over a few gentle, easy-swinging ballads. Selections favored the 2000 release New Lands, recorded with Pieranunzi's usual trio of Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. beginning with the appropriately cheerful "If There is Someone Lovelier Than You." Sitting slightly stooped on the bench, Pieranunzi played with great restraint, as if challenging himself to see what he could make by holding back. This continued into the "The Mood is Good," an easy swinging melody propelled along by delicate piano trills, gently dexterous ornamentations, and Motian's seductive brushwork. The audience seemed captured at once, even hesitating to rattle the ice in their water glasses.

Paul Motian remains one of the all-time great presences on drums, and doesn't show a sign of age from behind his kit. Few drummers can do more with less, can make the drums sing with a tap of a bone dry cymbal. His stick often just hangs in space, snakelike, waiting for the right time to strike. He also contributed the real show stopper of the first set in "Abacus," off his recent ECM release Lost in a Dream (ECM 2010), recorded live at the Vanguard last year with a trio of Jason Moran and Chris Potter.

The difference between the two bands, however, was striking. While the original played the song as an intense but plaintive ballad, Pieranunzi took the basic pentatonic melody and began the intricate process of disassembling it. Johnson took a lovely bass solo, reflecting the melody, before passing it back to Pieranunzi, who injected little flurries of dissonance around the changing but recognizable rhythm pattern. All five fingers danced in little blurs amidst the keys as they crashed up and down the keyboard. The harmonic tension built without resolution, driven on by a rising pedal in the bass, and leaving the audience breathless as the song twisted to reform itself in new permutations of keys. Just when it seemed like the whole thing would either have to resolve or implode the piano, Pieranunzi simply stopped. Motian stepped in to fill the space with a raucous and delightful monologue of rhythm that boomed as the cascades of piano echoed into memory.

A funkier kind of heat was generated in a superb "Jitterbug Waltz." Amidst his blister-inducing technique, Pieranunzi reached out and found some of the bluest notes on the keyboard, to grind a certain gospel sensation into the old Fats Waller standard. Then things returned to a calmer vein with Pieranunzi's lovely "Night Music," taken rubato, and unfolding with the patient grace only possible from master musicians.

Both sets featured a mix of classic composers (Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter), legendary standards ("I Fall in Love Too Easily" and "Solar"—both evoking Keith Jarrett's trio), and Pieranunzi originals showcasing the romantic and lyrical style that shapes so much of his musical aesthetic. While the first set edged its way up, the trio came out swinging for the second set with a dynamic romp through Monk's "I Mean You." This was followed by Pieranunzi's "Fellini's Waltz," from his tribute album to the great Italian director, with the theme unfolding on beautiful solo piano in lilting odd meter. Then Johnson entered to share the melody with Pieranunzi as the tune continued to reel out in panoramic style, with more nuanced touches.

From this point, a further solo piano excursion hinted to the old familiar melody of "My Funny Valentine," but also spun off new tangents from the opening riff. This is a distinctive part of Pieranunzi's style, as he slyly manipulates the familiar into something new—and dazzles as he reconstructs anything from Monk to Scarlatti. Here, Pieranunzi came to the conclusion that it was time to settle back into the original sleeve of the Rodgers and Hart melody. The trio came in behind him with the traditional head. Then, much as he had earlier with "Abacus," he simply demolished it in the best of ways.

Shuffling harmonies around like a veteran poker player, the tune's complexion blanched and blushed, amidst tempo shifts, chordal jumps, and the blurs of Pieranunzi's fingers. Motian broke out a dizzying drum solo and Johnson broke out his bow. All in all the song lasted well over 15 minutes. By the end he had spun countless new melodic ideas out of the original, even quoting "All The Things You Are" for good measure.

A call and response set up within the trio for Thad Jones' "A Child is Born," with Motian answering Pieranunzi's sparse but intricate leading lines with a sharp ratata-tatat. Pieranunzi paused then to explain that the next tune, "Sharp Humor," was so named because of its very "uncomfortable" key of F sharp.

"I don't know why I write it in this key," Pieranunzi said, grinning as he glanced towards Motian and Johnson. "To make life interesting, I guess." With only a brief pause, they launched into the up-tempo melody, an aggressive and at times dizzying tune that was sounded every bit as challenging as Pieranunzi had described. At times, the tune veered towards an orchestrated chaos, with Motian accenting the Pieranunzi's frantic arpeggios and dissonant harmonies with cymbal hits, like the thunder after heat lightning.

The craziness escalated with a spectacular series of virtuoso trading. Pieranunzi, whose tremendous technique had been on display all night, employed in an almost Cecil Taylor-ian way, a soup of rhythmic craziness that Motian fed off and fed into. For a near octagenerian, he never seemed to want to quit. And though the band clearly pushed themselves to the limits, each trade was incredibly tight, well-orchestrated.

After that, a mellow standard like "These Foolish Things" seemed slightly surreal, a feeling that was only heightened when, after the song had ended, Johnson took a moment to find his bow to transition into the next song. Once he found it though, Pieranunzi liked the arco sound so much that he backtracked, returning to the sweet melody of "A cigarette that bears lipstick traces" for one more chorus. His sound returned to its romantic classical roots, touching the lyricism in the lines, before launching into a cooking "Straight No Chaser" to close out the night in magnificent form—Pieranunzi driving Motian and Johnson on by popping off a high or low octave note.

After much applause, the trio returned for one more encore, a complex sounding tune that provided a chance for the bass to shine. Johnson brought a measure of peace to cool off the night, wringing out soothing, almost guitar-like tones. After so much heartfelt playing, the last few notes were soft, soothing, a wonderful middle ground in the eclectic territory carved out in the Vanguard. At well over two and a half hours of astonishing music, it was a moment to exhale in appreciation of the cool, with the heat outside and the music in.



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