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Stefano Bollani: Stefano Bollani: Joy in Spite of Everything

John Kelman By

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Anyone who's had the pleasure of watching pianist Stefano Bollani in concert—whether it's in duo with fellow Italian, trumpter Enrico Rava, at the 2009 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival; in the trumpeter's New York Days quintet at the ECM 40th Anniversary celebration, part of the 2010 Enjoy Jazz Festival; or in one of his own various contexts (solo, trio, large ensemble)—knows that, above all, joy is fundamental to the music he makes. Sometimes it's blatantly obvious, as on his 2013 duo release with bandolim master Hamilton de Holanda, O Que Sera (ECM), where these two virtuosos could barely contain themselves and the fun they were having at this documented live performance literally leaps out of the speakers; other times it's more subtle, as the pianist demonstrated on his duo recording with Rava, The Third Man (ECM, 2008). But at a time when the world seems filled with strife and conflict, it needs music like Bollani's Joy In Spite of Everything, an album whose title not only says it all, but reflects the music contained within.

After his ECM leader debut, the encyclopedic Piano Solo (2007), the Puckish pianist reconvened his Danish trio of bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund—together, now, for more than a decade, having first recorded two albums for the Danish Stunt imprint (2003's Mi ritorni in mente and 2005's Gleda: Songs from Scandinavia)—for the superb Stone in the Water (ECM, 2009). It's those same players that Bollani has recruited for the Euro side of the transatlantic group responsible for Joy in Spite of Everything, a recording brimming with joy, surprise, rapid-fire responses and, beyond the chemistry shared by Bollani, Bodilsen and Lund, the unabashed lightheartedness of the two American musicians the pianist has chosen to flesh out his quintet.

Guitarist Bill Frisell's credentials are long-established, but beyond his seemingly endless capacity for fitting into any context, whether it's reconciling with Jon Cowherd's Midwestern roots on the pianist's Mercy (ArtistShare, 2014) or examining the music of his own youth during his 2014 Guitar in the Space Age! tour, any who've had the pleasure of watching him perform know that he, too, shares the unapologetic joy, sense of mischief and lightning reflexes that make him a perfect fit for Bollani and his trio. Saxophonist Mark Turner may be the one who seems, at least on paper, a little out of place—a more cerebral player though, as he demonstrated in Rava's New York Days group, both on the 2008 ECM recording and 2010 Enjoy Jazz performance, one ready with plenty of firepower and passion, should the need arise.

And the need arises plenty on Joy in Spite of Everything, as Bollani steers his quintet through a set of nine original compositions that run the gamut from the lightly buoyant, Latin-esque "Easy Healing" and knottier-themed and idiosyncratically swinging "No Pope No Party," to the delicate classicism of "Alobar E Kudra" and darker-hued "Las Hortensias." Throughout, there's plenty of stretching room for everyone (only three tracks clock in at under eight minutes); the playful "Vale"—the literal centrepiece of the album—may begin in more abstruse and atmospheric territory but builds, over the course of twelve minutes, to more dramatic solo features, first for Bollani. Turner, whose range and firmly controlled altissimo have long been defining strengths, turns in his best solo of the set here, all the while with Frisell creating an underpinning of responsive support that always manages to work in concert with Bollani—no small challenge for two chordal players who have plenty to contribute yet, with ears wide open, manage to avoid stepping on each other's toes throughout.

Of course, Frisell is featured plenty as well, in particular on "Teddy, a piano/guitar duo that, despite being written by Bollani for Teddy Wilson, goes places the swing-era pianist could never have conceived possible as the two orbit around each other with remarkable intuition, obliquely lyrical lines flowing in all directions until the two finally converge on the theme, which briefly makes a direct reference to the tradition. It's not long, however, before the two leap off once again into uncharted territory where it's less about who is soloing and more about a unified sense of purpose that relies on a telepathic connection all the more remarkable for this not only being a first meeting with Frisell (and Turner), but for there being no advance planning—nothing but five musicians walking into a studio with a book of nine songs and two days to record.

Frisell also excels on "Ismene," a beautiful ballad that harkens back, somehow, to the early days of the label and some of its most groundbreaking and redefining work, where the notes left out are as important—and as fully intended—as those that are played. Frisell's tone has clarified, over the decades, into something both feathery light and sinewy, his gorgeous harmonics, octave playing and lazy, behind the beat lines filled with glorious space that Bollani finds ways to fill without losing their intrinsic cinematic openness. On this trio-plus-guitar piece, Bodilsen and Lund are particularly effective, implicit in their building of a temporal foundation, yet firm enough to provide both Bollani and Frisell with the trust they need to go wherever the music takes them.

Throughout, the chemistry shared by Bollani, Bodilsen and Lund—and Bollani's magical ability to somehow seem like he's in many places at once, as he pushes the music forward while, at the same time, resounding to everything going on around him—both define the recording and make it a worthy successor to Stone in the Water. At a time when there is so much despair and flat-out hatred and intolerance, albums like Joy in Spite of Everything provide hope: hope that, if there are people like Bollani, Turner, Frisell, Bodilsen and Lund in the world capable of music like this, then maybe, just maybe, there's hope for the rest of us to share in some of that joy, too.

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

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

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