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Stefano Bollani: Joy in Spite of Everything

Karl Ackermann By

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Largely unacquainted as a unit, the quintet that formed around Italian pianist Stefano Bollani for Joy in Spite of Everything connects with the empathetic familiarity of a long-standing group. The leader—a professional pianist since the age of fifteen—has crossed over most every genre from classical to avant-garde and with equal proficiency. While his early encounters with fellow Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava set him a course for jazz, he has sharpened those skills in the diverse company of saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Phil Woods, guitarist Pat Metheny, free jazz pioneer drummer Han Bennink and many others. The creative sense that Bollani brings to the performance of his original compositions transcends music; it is his imagination crafted by the individual and collective skills of an extraordinary group of artists.

The calypso opening—"Easy Healing"—defies any urge to remain stationary and recalls the Brazilian style that Bollani and Rava so beautifully exploited on The Third Man (ECM, 2007). It's immediately clear that the interaction between Bollani and saxophonist Mark Turner is exceptionally empathetic. The two had first worked together on Rava's New York Days (ECM, 2009) and the dynamic that the trumpeter and pianist demonstrated then, are in line with musical relationship between Bollani and Turner here. Bollani's expressiveness pairs nicely with Turner's incisive searching quality while the prolific drummer Morten Lund's meticulous pacing propels the piece. It's a lively introduction to the individual and group mechanisms of the quintet and while everyone gets solo time, bassist Jesper Bodilsen has a particularly nice go of it. He and Lund are also part of Bollani's working trio.

As the title of the album would imply, joy is only one side of the story here and the tempo and mood change dramatically with "No Pope No Party." By no means a somber piece, it has more of a traditional swing at its core, taken nicely off-kilter by Turner and Bollani's improvisations. Guitarist Bill Frisell's solo moderates the tempo and provides the segue for Bollani to jump back in and slowly rebuild the tempo while changing the nature of the piece to something more abstract. Lund, in an extended trade off with Bollani, brings the piece back to its original theme in a very satisfying exercise. "Las hortensias"—initially a piano trio piece—is a meditative ballad featuring more fine work from Bodilsen. Turner joins in late adding some soulful lines and characteristically utilizing the full range of the tenor. Another trio-plus number, "Ismene" features the late arrival of Frisell's crystalline guitar adding mysterious, pensive complexity. The title track closes the collection much the way it began, with an upbeat freshness and a spirit that pleasantly brings the package together.

Joy in Spite of Everything says a lot about the kind of composer Bollani is and his experimental nature in the presentation of ideas. This collection plays to the strengths of the quintet primarily by not always viewing them in the context of that configuration. Bollani implements the full variety of group formations throughout and takes advantage of the impact of introducing either Turner or Frisell unexpectedly to an otherwise smaller setting. It's a winning effect, adding layers of complexity to very lyrical foundations. Joy in Spite of Everything is a more a joy because of everything Bollani and company bring to the table. As often happens, Bollani—a bona fide star in Italy and much of Europe—is widely unrecognized in the US. Hopefully this alliance, with Turner and Frisell's brand equity, will change that.

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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