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Stefano Bollani: Joy in Spite of Everything

Ian Patterson By

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Like a kind of musical contortionist, Stefano Bollani keeps repositioning himself with eye-popping ease. The diversity and eclecticism of Bollani's projects are reflected in the sweeping breadth of his vocabulary; his output as leader on ECM alone, since his debut Piano Solo (ECM, 2006), is indicative of his adventurous spirit. That solo outing was followed by Orvieto (ECM, 2011), a joyous duologue with Chick Corea, whereas the exhilarating O Que Sera (ECM, 2013) coupled the Italian with Brazilian bandolim player Hamilton de Holanda. With Bollani virtuosity is a given, but the pianist's first ECM effort fronting a group is a more expansive portrait of Bollani's compositional élan.

Bollani unites faces old and new. Danish duo Morten Lund and Jesper Bodilsen have been cornerstones of Bollani's trio since Mi Ritorni in Mente (Stunt, 2004); a decade and two further recordings on, the trio's well-honed conversational fluidity leaves an indelible mark on these nine originals. Bollani and Mark Turner pick up where they left off on Enrico Rava's New York Days (ECM, 2008), with the saxophonist's darker, leaner lines contrasting with the pianist's sunnier, more expansive phrasing. Bill Frisell—whose ECM connection dates to the late 1970s—is the ace in Bollani's sleeve, bringing his trademark sinewy lyricism to the mix.

Bollani juggles the musicians in duo, trio, quartet and quintet formations. Perhaps the album's most engaging tracks, however, are when all hands are on deck: on the delightfully breezy calypso "Easy Healing," whether soling or comping, the five musicians dance and sing as one; bebop as spoken by Thelonious Monk colors "No Pope No Party," with all five musicians turning on the style in a series of wonderful solos. The slow-burning atmospherics of the gently haunting "Vale" and the elegant, deceptively powerful "Tales from the Time Loop" are among the most seductive compositions Bollani has yet penned.

Bollani and Frisell dovetail more closely on the delicate quartet lullaby "Ismene" and get tighter still on the duet "Teddy," where lead and comping lines happily blur. The latter track is apparently inspired by Teddy Wilson; whilst Wilson's influence here isn't obvious, Bollani's approach to the piano in general shares the playfulness, swing and flashing cadenzas characteristic of Wilson and, in Bollani's more exuberant gestures, of another great of that generation, Art Tatum. Perhaps it's Frisell's influence, but Bollani's playing has rarely sounded more pared back and essential as it does on this album.

"Aloba e Kurda," a trio workout fusing baroque, jazz and folkloric influences sees Bollani at his most compelling—restlessly exploring, always melodic. The balladic "Las Hortensias" features lyrical solos from Bodilsen and Turner, with Lund's skittering brushes and Bollani's subtle comping stirring the currents; Bodilsen and Lund drop out, leaving piano and saxophone to converse in harmony. When the quartet reunites on the fleeting coda its imprint is as delicate as a breeze rustling leaves.

The cover art-work isn't your typical ECM fare, but if walls of smoke born of conflict are sadly all too familiar sights on the TV news, then Bollani's optimism and his perpetually uplifting music are potent reminders that there's also much to celebrate in this life.

Track Listing: Easy Healing; No Pope No Party; Alobar e Kudra; Las hortensias; Vale; Teddy; Ismene; Tales From The Time Loop; Joy In Spite Of Everything.

Personnel: Stefano Bollani: piano; Mark Turner: tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell: guitar; Jesper Bodilsen: double-bass; Morten Lund: drums.

Title: Joy in Spite of Everything | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ECM Records

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