Stefano Bollani: And Now For Something Completely Different

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
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.
About Stefano Bollani
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.