The Inside Out Band: Enrico Rava Quintet at Birdland

Eric Benson By

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Making constant adjustments as he probed the music's possibilities, Bollani gave the Quintet a hungry, searching energy.
Enrico Rava Quintet
New York, NY
March 25, 2009

Before last Wednesday night, I'd never found the work of Italian pianist Stefano Bollani particularly compelling. Sure, he had that pristine touch, Evans-eque in its haunting elegance, but on albums such as his own Solo Piano and Enrico Rava's Tati, his playing sounded like it fluttered above the music instead of digging into it. Why, I used to think, does he need to be so precious?

After listening to Bollani play with the Enrico Rava Quintet on Wednesday night at Birdland, I'm happy to report I have a new take on him: he is a pianist of the highest order. From the opening number onward—the smoky, atmospheric "Interiors"—Bollani played hyper-fluently, prancing in and out of dissonant attacks, wide-open harmonic vamping, and virtuosic melodic flights. His playing was often soft, but it still managed to fill every inch of the room. It was beautiful, strange, and demanding of rapt attention.

The Enrico Rava Quintet started touring in January to promote Rava's latest album, New York Days, suiting up a dream team lineup of Rava on trumpet, Mark Turner on tenor sax (strong as ever after nearly losing two fingers in a career-threatening power saw accident last November), Ben Street on bass (subbing for FLY), Paul Motian on drums, and Bollani on piano. In a group this uniformly excellent, any combination of players could have become the center of musical gravity, but on Wednesday night, it was the rhythm section that exuded that special force.

The rhythm section in most quintets dictates the beat and establishes the harmony, but rarely takes control of the music's melodic direction (that's usually reserved for the horns). The Enrico Rava Quintet, however, is a band turned inside out. Rava and Turner played long notes that laid out the harmony while Bollani and the always playfully subversive Motian sent melodic volleys ricocheting between them and Street plucked into the crossfire.

On "Algir Dalbughi," Bollani gave his take on the boogie, firing off runs in his right hand while his left jogged along with a jaunty walking bass. Feeling the spirit, Bollani shimmied his legs back-and-forth like a chorus line girl dancing the Charleston. Rava's solo, a few minutes later, simply rode the crest of this rippling energy. When Rava finished playing, the music carried along without losing its intensity—the surfer had reached shore, but the swells continued.

This group balance may have been atypical, but it didn't throw the music out-of-whack. Both Rava and Turner tend to eschew improvisatory pyrotechnics for mature textural creations, so their harmonic role felt natural. On one solo in particular, Turner sounded more like a pianist than a saxophonist, weaving a series of intervals into a sophisticated, multilayered sound.

The rhythm section was equally well heeled, both temperamentally and artistically, to assume its role as the band's melodic and rhythmic engine. Street plucked faster and much louder than he does usually, simultaneously laying a foundation and rocking it with a furious, constant churn. Motian, whose abstract hijinks can sometimes bog down a band as much as liberate it, deployed his signature fits and starts with expert timing and taste. Yet it was Bollani whose playing really forced the rhythm section front-and-center. Making constant adjustments as he probed the music's possibilities, Bollani gave the Quintet a hungry, searching energy. When his delicate right hand fluttered around the keyboard, it didn't sound like detached delicacy, it sounded like a restless mind digging into the music, hard and deep.

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records

Bottom Photo: Claire Stefani/ECM Records

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