Stefano Bollani: And Now For Something Completely Different


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Impersonating singer Paolo Conte and other Italian cultural icons comes as naturally to pianist Stefano Bollani as interpreting the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson, or Maurice Ravel—or indeed, writing novels. To say that Bollani is multitalented is a bit like saying Art Tatum could play the piano a bit. Oh, and Bollani plays the piano a bit like Art Tatum, when he's of a mind. However, as Orvieto (ECM, 2011) —a live recording with pianist Chick Corea elegantly demonstrates, Bollani possesses a delightfully light touch and an uncommon fluidity of ideas.

Known for his developed sense of humor—in New York, he's been dubbed the Roberto Benigni of jazz—Bollani could be forgiven for joking when he says he cannot distinguish between his playing on Orvieto and that of Corea. However, he's absolutely serious. In fact, Bollani is very serious indeed about music, not as something precious to be treated with kid gloves, but something to be celebrated with joyful abandon. This is very much the mood of Orvieto, one of the most musically satisfying piano duets of recent years. It is a fine example of the true art of communication—two musicians listening closely to each other and responding at the right moment. In these strange times, characterized by digital exchanges as frivolous as they are fast, meaningless rhetoric, intrusive marketing, and increasingly banal and vulgar television, Orvieto is a shining reminder of the art of leisurely conversation, and of the joy of being truly at play.

A restless curiosity is at the heart of Bollani, and the pianist juggles more projects at any one time than Silvio Berlusconi does lawsuits. His collaborations with trumpeter Enrico Rava continue to be a lifelong love story, and when not leading his Danish trio or Italian quartet, Bollani can be found playing the music of the Gershwins with a symphony orchestra or rearranging his own music with the NDR Big Band. On a whim, Bollani will knock together a band to interpret the music of Frank Zappa, leap into a duo with bandolim virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda, or bring to life the black and white images of Buster Keaton, with his witty, skilful improvisations. Bollani's modus operandi, it seems, could perhaps best be summed up by the old Monty Python line, "And now for something completely different..."

All About Jazz: You've recorded a song called "Orvieto" on Stone in the Water (ECM, 2009) and now an album named Orvieto, this time with Chick Corea. Are you hoping to obtain the keys to the city?

Stefano Bollani [Laughs.] Almost. The song title was by my bassist [Jesper Bodilsen], not me, and also the title of the recording with Chick [Corea] is coming from [producer] Manfred Eicher. It's not me trying to get the keys, but probably Manfred and Jesper.

AAJ: A couple of schemers! Was the collaboration with Corea the suggestion of Umbria Jazz director Carlo Pagnotta, or did it spring from you guys?

SB: It came from him, and then my agent phoned Chick and he said yes.

AAJ: Orvieto sounds like it was a lot of fun. What's it like playing with Chick Corea?

SB: It was wonderful. Of course, I've been a huge fan of Chick since I was a child, when I started listening to jazz piano when I was 11 years old. I couldn't have guessed how passionate he is about music; we started talking by e-mail, and he was always talking about what he was studying at the moment and what he was practicing. Here's a 70- year-old pianist talking about studying and practicing. I immediately thought I would like to arrive at his age and be like that—still be passionate and still be a student. That was surprising.

The other thing that surprised me was that Chick was not playing at all like Chick Corea from the old times. Since I know Chick's records so well, my fear was that I would go in his direction and we'd sound like two Chick Coreas—the real one and the fake one. But there are a lot of piano players around the world imitating Chick Corea, but not him. He is not imitating himself.

AAJ: He does seem to get more creative and more productive as he gets older.

SB: He's incredible. He's always on the road, he's always playing—an incredible energy.

AAJ: You've played and recorded in duet before, with [trumpeter] Enrico Rava, and saxophonist Lee Konitz, and recently with pianist Martial Solal at the London Jazz Festival. What challenges does playing a duet with another piano create?

SB: It's always difficult to play with another pianist because we could easily fill in all the spaces, so you have to have big ears and you have to have a partner with big ears. But in the case of Chick, and also Martial Solal, we are talking about masters of the piano. You start a phrase and you have the feeling they are going on with the same phrase. It's always an exchange of melodies, of harmonies and ideas. There is a feeling of dialogue. You have a feeling that you can do whatever you want.

There's a big difference between that and trumpet and piano, where the trumpet is singing most of the time and I'm comping. With another pianist you are absolutely on the same level, so you're not soloing and you're not comping—you're just dialoguing all the time.

AAJ: There are moments of exhilarating play, in the middle section of "Orvieto: Improvisation 2," and "Armando's Rhumba," but on the whole there's a lightness of touch about the play on Orvieto. Some of the most arresting exchanges—for example, the end of "Retrato Em Blanco E Prieto" and "Jitterbug Waltz"—have an exceptional delicacy. Was this lightness of mood something you discussed before the gig, or did it evolve on the night?

From left: Chick Corea, Stefano Bollani

SB: I think a lightness of mood is something we share. I can find that lightness in most of Chick's work, and probably in my work too. So the mood and the touch are light and the singing between us is light. Nothing is prepared on this record. For this concert, we just decided on the names of some tunes, but we didn't really think about how to play them or how to arrange them. We didn't really have a list of songs or an order; we just started playing. "Retrato Em Branco E Prieto" came out of an improvisation; the same with "Nardis" and lots of the songs on the record. Only sometimes we decided what to play before putting the hands on the keyboards. I think that was the case with "Valsa de Paola," my song, and perhaps two others, but all the other songs came out spontaneously.

AAJ: Numerous times, in interviews, you've mentioned your early fascination with the speed of pianists like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. Would you say your own playing is more evenly paced these days?

SB: I don't know. You're asking me to be my own critic, but I really don't know. I would say that I still love those piano players, especially Art Tatum. But nowadays I'm in love with him not only because of his speed but for what he puts in there—I'm talking especially harmonically. He puts all these strange chords in a very fast way. If you slow his music down, you discover a world, especially when he plays alone. You get these bars sometimes in the middle of a song, like "I'm in the Mood for Love," bars which are in other keys, but just for a few seconds, and then he comes back. That's something that all the piano players are doing, but mainly after him. Someone like McCoy Tyner is doing it all the time, but with Tatum we're talking about a pianist of the 1930s. He was doing it so fast that a lot of people were not really aware of it.

AAJ: You and Corea seem to be kindred spirits in many ways. You both have a playful approach to music, you both play in a great variety of settings and are extremely prolific, and you share a love of Latin music. Did you feel with the experience of Orvieto that the two of you connect on a deep level?

SB: Well, when I'm listening to the record, I sometimes feel that it's one pianist with four hands. And really, I can tell you, I don't know how the journalists can divide what I played from what Chick played, because frankly speaking, I sometimes don't know who is playing that phrase or that chord. Chick is a master and he's playing with me, so you have the feeling that everything is fluent. I didn't have the feeling that Chick is playing against me or he was playing something else. He was always playing what was coming to his mind, but answering to what I did. When I first listened to the recording, I was really surprised because, of course, when you're playing you miss a lot of details. I discovered that the speech was really fluent, and I discovered that I couldn't really recognize the piano players.

AAJ: That's interesting to hear. At times, both your personalities are clear, but it is very hard to distinguish who's playing what.

SB: It's the same for me. You know, at the time of the CBS recording with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, they used to divide the piano players so you had one on the left channel and one on the right channel, and it was very useful if you wanted to know who was playing what. In this case, we didn't do it because we didn't want people to be listening carefully to who's playing what. I like that, because jazz music is a strange mixture between ego and collective experience. We share the feelings from Africa but we put a good amount of ego into the music. Everybody wants to take his own solo, everybody wants to have his own voice, his own language, and be recognizable. But on Orvieto, we are just sharing the music without ego problems, which is very rare.

AAJ: What can aspiring young pianists learn from Corea's playing? What would you recommend they look out for?

SB: Well, like every other pianist in the world, I have my favorite Chick Corea records, but I would say his improvisations on ECM are a good place to begin if somebody wants to get close to his piano playing. Of course, he's a great composer, a great band leader, and he's done a lot of projects which are all different, from Return to Forever to his Electric Band, his trio with [bassist] Miroslav Vitous and [drummer] Roy Haynes, the band with [tenor saxophonist] Joe Farrell, with [tenor saxophonist] Michael Brecker, and a lot more. But talking about piano, I think the piano improvisations for ECM are really something special because they sound classical, but it's really improvised music.

AAJ: Besides Corea, Is there another pianist above all the others that you'd like to play with?

SB: There are lots. Some of them are dead, so I can't play with them. Talking about living pianists, I would have to say Herbie [Hancock], of course. At the time I first started listening to jazz, Herbie and Chick were the piano players I was listening to all the time, especially the duets. I really listened to a lot to their recordings as a duo.

AAJ: Something you have in common with Corea is a love of Latin music and, in your case particularly, Brazilian music. You've recorded an entire album of songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, but your album Carioca (EmArcy, 2008) presented a wonderfully diverse panorama of Brazilian composers. What was your intention with that project?

SB: The idea was to replace the singer with the piano and play with musicians the repertoire of choro and samba. This is unusual because usually it's a singer or it's a bandolim or a guitar playing these kinds of songs. We wanted to see what happens if you put the piano as the main character. I was singing the melodies, replacing the singer in a kind of music I didn't know so well. Of course, I was in love with Brazilian music, but Brazilian music to European musicians, and also North American musicians, I guess, is mostly the bossa nova. It's just one little part of Brazilian music, and it's an acculturated part, I would say, because it's already a mixture of songs with jazz harmonies, and the [trumpeter] Chet Baker style of singing. But choro and samba are really popular in Brazil, and I wanted to see what would happen if we played popular music with an instrument which is not popular at all, with a classical instrument like the piano.

AAJ: Are you surprised that more Brazilian artists are not interpreted by jazz musicians? It seems that most jazz musicians love Jobim, and it's really common to hear a Jobim song in a jazz concert, yet most jazz musicians don't explore much beyond that. What's your impression?

SB: Yes. I have to say that all my friends, all the musicians I Know, are listening to Brazilian music, but I don't see many records with people interpreting things by world-famous composers like Chico Buarque or Caetano Veloso.

AAJ: Or Edu Lobo.

SB: Edu Lobo, whatever. I can understand that people don't have the time or the will or the chance to go and see what happened at the beginning of the last century with choro and the birth of samba, but I cannot understand why people are not listening more to Chico or Caetano, because they write wonderful pop songs. Actually, I've just recorded a new project with an Italian pop singer who is very famous here. Her name is Irene Grande. We recorded a couple of things by Chico and Caetano, sung in Italian, but you don't need to know that they come from Brazil, because it's simply wonderful music.

AAJ: You realized an ambition when you played with Caetano Veloso at Umbria Jazz Festival in 2008. What was that experience like?

SB: He has got the most marvelous voice in the world nowadays. He's my favorite singer. I tell you, he could sing the phone book and it would be the same to me. I'm really in love with his voice, so it was really a great chance and a great honor.

AAJ: You had a fairly uncommon experience in Rio, when you went to play in a favela. Could you tell us that story?

SB: It was really nice. It was only the second time for a pianist in the favela. The first one was Antonio Carlos Jobim, so of course I was honored. It wasn't one of the most dangerous favelas, but we did have people shooting during the concert. Fortunately, they were not shooting the pianist! But they were not close to the stage.

But I can tell you that while I was playing, after maybe one song and a half, and as usual, I forgot where I was. If I'm really enjoying what I'm playing, I forget where I am. The moment of playing is the same, whether I'm in a favela or a theater in Europe. Between one song and another I'm talking to the audience, and I remind myself where I am, which language I should speak and which way I should refer to the audience.

The most incredible thing was the day before the concert, when I had the chance to go to the favela, with the kids from the favela showing me around. That's probably something nobody does, because if I hadn't been with them I would probably have been shot.

AAJ: Thanks for sharing that. You are attracted to a wide variety of different music, and have recorded an album of Scandinavian music, Gleda: Songs From Scandinavia (Stunt Records/Sundance 2005), with your Danish trio of Jesper Bodilsen and Morten Lund. What appeals to you about Scandinavian music?

SB: Actually, almost nothing. I love Jesper and Morten not because they are Scandinavian but because they are wonderful musicians. And they suggested we did a record of Scandinavian music. It was a good idea because I didn't know anything about that, and I didn't listen to the original songs. They just took a lot of songs they liked, and I prepared the arrangements, just having the charts of the songs but never listening to the original versions. That was a kind of weird way of working, but in this way I was proposing arrangements very far from the original ones and from the atmosphere of the original ones. I don't think we discovered a new repertoire, but we used those songs to build something which is really ours.

AAJ: To what do you attribute the phenomenal number of Scandinavian bands, above all from Norway, who are making waves in jazz/improvised music these days?

SB: I think it has to do with education. The Scandinavian countries are not so big. They're not as big as Italy, France, the UK or Spain, and they are going better. We do have problems in our countries. They are well organized. Denmark is the country I know best, and the thing is, they have choirs and orchestras of people who are not professionals. These orchestras and choirs are all over the place, full of people who are lawyers, students or doctors, and they get together in the evening and play. In Italy, that is not possible. Here, you are a professional musician or a student of music. It has to do with education, and that's very important. In Scandinavia, people grow up with music, so you have these twenty-year-old people playing bass and drums, and they're playing great because they've been playing since they were children.

AAJ: Recently, you recorded George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with conductor Riccardo Chailly, which went Top 10 in the Italian popular music charts. Were you surprised by the success of this album, given popular tastes in music?

SB: Yeah, absolutely. It was a surprise for everybody. It was the first time a classical recording got to that part of the charts. We've decided to go on, and we've recorded Maurice Ravel's piano concerto in G major.

AAJ: Why do you think the Italian public responded so well to this record? It seems to be at odds with most tastes in popular music these days.

SB: Well, I think Gershwin is always a best seller. I think it was a mixture of things which attracted such an audience. The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester is the oldest orchestra in Europe; then you have a famous Italian conductor, a very serious conductor, Riccardo Chailly; and then you have a jazz musician like me playing Gershwin, so it made for good advertising. There is also a great energy in the music.

AAJ: Another completely different project was the series of concerts you performed in early 2011, inspired by the music of Frank Zappa. What was the idea behind that?

SB: I've been a huge Zappa fan since I was a teenager. It was the thing I loved most in rock music, together with King Crimson. I used Zappa as a source of inspiration—not his music, specifically, but his way of using the whole repertoire of music history to build his own thing. I used his attitude, but I had never played his music so much. I just decided it was time to do it because I wanted to have a brand new band but I didn't have new compositions, so I started thinking about a project about his music. We used ideas by him, but everything was so improvised or rearranged that you couldn't really say we were playing Frank Zappa's music, except for a number like "Bobby Brown," which was almost the original version.

The band was [drummer] Jim Black and [bassist] Larry Grenadier and these other cats from America, but I never thought for a minute to have them play like a Frank Zappa band. I really wanted a new sound which was the result of the five people on stage. But I can say we were playing it in his spirit.

AAJ: You also had Josh Roseman on trombone and Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphones. Did you have these specific people in mind when you decided to do this project, or was it more a question of happenstance?

SB: Yes. I chose them one by one. The most surprising one was Jason Adasiewicz. I did want a vibraphone, which is unusual for me because usually I choose musicians because of who they are, not because of the instrument they're playing. I mean, I love Enrico Rava, I love the musician, so even if he played the trombone or the saxophone, it would be the same—I'm in love with Enrico Rava. In this case, I really wanted Jim Black on drums, I really wanted Larry [Grenadier] and I didn't know why, but I wanted a vibraphone and trombone because I was looking for a different sound to my bands before.

AAJ: Vibraphone is a classic Zappa sound.

SB: Exactly. That's exactly why I wanted a vibraphonist. I really discovered Jason on YouTube, actually. I got some names of vibraphone players, and I went on YouTube and found him. I didn't know anything about him. I just called him to be in the band, and it was a big surprise, not only for me but for the audience. Everybody loved him.

AAJ: A lot of Zappa's music is satirical, humorous—a send-up of people, politicians, et cetera—and you also have a lot of humor in your music and with the impersonations you do. You obviously share Zappa's take that humor belongs in music, but have you been influenced by Italian comics at all?

SB: I'm absolutely influenced by Frank Zappa, and I absolutely believe that humor belongs in music, but I think I'm influenced by a lot of other things, probably also Italian comics. Also people like Victor Borge, the pianist, who was a comedian in the '50s and the '60s. When I started playing the piano it was because I wanted to be a pop singer, but maybe an actor or a comedian, or whatever. The most important thing was being on stage and talking to an audience and communicating with an audience. Music is communication, jokes are communication, and impersonations are communication. It's just a way of saying something to somebody and being on stage.

AAJ: Are there any plans to do a recording with this band, interpreting Zappa's music?

SB: I wouldn't think so. I have so many projects on the go, so I think by now I'm putting this Zappa thing in a corner. It was perfect for a live show, but it's maybe complicated for a recording. I'm not sure the world is in need of a record of mine about Frank Zappa. Right now, I would like to do another chapter of Brazilian music with this wonderful bandolim player, Hamilton de Holanda. We've just done three concerts and we are playing again in Brazil, in Italy again and in Europe. We'll probably record something because piano and mandolin make a very special sound, and I would love to have it on record.

From left: Stefano Bollani, Hamilton de Holanda

AAJ: This year, at Lacco Ameno, Ischia, you played with Hamilton de Holanda, which was one of three quite different performances you gave, along with your Danish trio, and another with your Italian quartet. Did the idea of playing in a bunch of different scenarios in a short space of time appeal to you?

SB: Well, you got it. It was my ideal, actually, being a resident artist somewhere. I did it in London two years ago. I had four concerts, and I was delighted because I could stay in the same place with the same piano, not maybe with the same audience, though some of them came for four nights, and it was a chance to give them a very open show of what I am doing at the moment.

AAJ: You did a concert entitled: "Stefano Bollani Meets Buster Keaton: The General. Come Vinsi La Guerra." What is that about?

SB: It's the movie by Buster Keaton, The General [United Artists, 1926], where I improvise the music a lot. I have some ideas, and each time I do it as a live show I'm improvising a lot with him. I'm following him. I also released a DVD of that show, which only came out in Italy and France, which was for a series of old movies with new music, and I'm very happy about [it]. Buster Keaton is not a very good artist to have as a partner because he's not reacting to what I'm doing like Chick [Corea] is, of course. But Buster is a very good partner because he pretends to be very serious but he's really very funny. In a way, he's like Martial Solal; Solal is the kind of musician who is very funny but with a very serious face, and a lot of people don't get that, but I do and I love it.

AAJ: You recorded and played live with drummer Paul Motian, who died the other day. What are your thoughts about him?

SB: I have such good memories of those two recordings we did together and some gigs we did in New York. It seems useless to talk about the musician because everybody knows Paul Motian was unique, so I would love to talk about the man, because he was really particular. He was a very nice person and an artist in the pure sense of the term. I don't think anybody could play the drums in imitation of him because he was so unique. You could feel it was strange, a very weird way to play the drums, actually. I was delighted to play with him because I was playing with a unique giant.

AAJ: Could you elaborate a little more on what you mean when you say his way of drumming was strange?

SB: Yeah. Strange in the sense he was not playing like a drummer. When we recorded as a trio with Enrico Rava, he was really a kind of third voice but he was never really comping a solo in a normal way. Sometimes he was playing only the snare drum for a long time, and that's not typical of any drummer who usually plays all the drums with two hands and two feet. Paul really sounded like a soloist playing the drums—a singer playing the drums, I would say—because he was playing melodies most of the time. You have to take a lot of risks like that, the way he did, on the drums.

What I remember most about that session was that he wrote a song for the trio and then we recorded it. He said, "OK, you start, and I'll join in after a while." So we started recording this melody, with Manfred [Eicher] on the other side of the studio, and Paul was not coming in, after one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, and then the song ended, without the drums. The first thing you could hear in the headphones was Paul saying, "Man, that was great! You didn't need me. I love it!" I said, "OK, but now we're doing another one with you," and he said, "No, no, no. I don't want to play on this song." This song was a duo song because we were not able to convince him to play, and it was his song. I am still not sure, now, if he did it on purpose just to let us play in a different way, because we are really playing like two people waiting for the third one. If you listen to the track, you have the feeling we are slowing a little bit just to let him in because we were waiting for him, but he was not coming. As I said, I don't know if it was on purpose or if it was an accident, but it was a great artistic idea.

AAJ: Maybe he was another joker who kept a poker face?

SB: Exactly.

AAJ: You've done a large number of vastly different projects. What musical ambitions do you still have to fulfill?

SB: My ambition was always meeting Caetano Veloso, and I did it. There is one musician who I would love to meet and that is [guitarist] Bill Frisell. I still have that dream in my mind. You never know, maybe it will happen. Anyway, the most important thing is that I hope I can go on playing what I like with musicians I like, which is a great privilege.

AAJ: Frisell also did a Buster Keaton-related project, Go West: Music for Films of Buster Keaton (Nonesuch, 1995). Maybe his guitar and your piano could work together with Keaton films.

SB: I'd forgotten about Bill and Buster Keaton, but I saw the movie in Italy with him and his trio playing. You've just reminded me. Yeah, it could be a trio—Frisell, Keaton and me. It could be great.

Selected Discography

Chick Corea/Stefano Bollani, Orvieto (ECM, 2011)
Stefano Bollani/NDR Big Band, Big Band! (Verve, 2011)
Riccardo Chailly/Stefano Bollani, George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F (Decca, 2011)
Stefano Bollani/Jesper Bodilsen/Morten Lund, Stone in the Water (ECM, 2009)
Enrico Rava, New York Days (ECM, 2009)
Stefano Bollani, Carioca (Emarcy/Universal Music Italia, 2008)
Stefano Bollani, Jazz Italiano Live (L'Expresso, 2007)
Stefano Bollani, Piano Solo (ECM, 2006)
Enrico Rava, The Third Man (ECM, 2006)
I Visionari, I Visionari (Label Bleu, 2006)
Stefano Bollani/Jesper Bodilsen/Morten Lund, Gleda: Songs from Scandinavia (Stunt Records/Sundance Music, 2005)
Enrico Rava, TATI (ECM, 2004)
Stefano Bollani, Concertone (Label Bleu, 2004)
Stefano Bollani, L'Orchestra del Titanic (Millesuoni, 2003)
Enrico Rava, Easy Living (ECM, 2003)
Stefano Bollani, Smat Smat (Label Bleu, 2003)
Stefano Bollani, Abassa la tua Radio (Ermitage, 2001)
Stefano Bollani, Mambo Italiano (Philology, 1999)
Enrico Rava, Shades of Chet (Label Bleu, 1999)
Stefano Bollani, Gnòsi delle fanfole (Sonica, 1998)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Alessandro Demycost

Page 2: Courtesy of Umbria Jazz

Page 4, 5: Salvatore Basile,

Page 6: Michael Weintrob

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