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Stefano Bollani: And Now For Something Completely Different

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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