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Enrico Rava / Stefano Bollani: The Third Man

John Kelman By

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With the diminishing role of mentoring in jazz, it's gratifying to not only watch a young artist emerge from under the tutelage of a more senior master, but to become a musical equal. Italian pianist Stefano Bollani may have been drawn into the world of jazz at the age of 24 by veteran trumpeter Enrico Rava, but in the ensuing twelve years he's become a distinctive voice in his own right, culminating in the near-encyclopedic breadth of Piano Solo (ECM, 2006). While it's by no means a case of the student surpassing the teacher—Rava is still too vital and, at 68, refuses to stand still—with The Third Man it's clear that both now have plenty to learn from each other.

A series of duets written largely by Rava, The Third Man is an ideal setting, allowing for maximum freedom and intimate interaction. Nothing is as it seems, as Bollani and Rava also approach far-from-literal readings of songs by Brazilians Antonio Carlos Jobim and Moacir Santos, and fellow Italians Bruno Martino and Bruno Brighetti. Jobim's "Retrato Em Branco Y Preto, heard here in two very different but equally rubato and spontaneous versions, is barely recognizable, with Bollani's abstract impressionism and Rava's economical lyricism taking the song to unexpected terrain. Bollani's ability to morph conventional changes to places dark and indirect is reminiscent, at times, of pianist Marc Copland, although for Bollani it's a less singular focus than with his American counterpart.

The overall mood is introspective, and oftentimes skirts the edges of unsettling dissonance, but the duo's approach is largely defined by delicate, ever-present spontaneity and unorthodox beauty. Martino and Berighetti's "Estate" receives an expansive treatment, where its relatively standard changes are mere suggestions—especially for Bollani, whose solo stretches the song's potential to its limits, even as he telepathically ebbs and flows dynamically with Rava throughout, always finding a way back to its essence.

The freely improvised and dark-hued title track ranges from near-whisper to brief but sharp extremes, demonstrating that, while Rava has leaned increasingly towards the traditional in recent years, there are still traces of his avant-garde roots. Even his own tender "Sun Bay" moves from rich melodism to a more rarified place, where both Rava and Bollani take the subtlest cues from each other as opportunities to move farther afield. Rava's virtuosity is never in question—his soaring into the stratosphere during the turbulent middle section of the first version of "Retrato Em Branco" and his oblique playing following the maelstrom of Bollani's solo on "Cumpari" are proof of that—but The Third Man represents, perhaps, his most subtle and restrained playing in recent years.

Duets may provide the opportunity for maximum freedom, but they also expose completely bare their participants. That Rava and Bollani can create an album as thoroughly instinctive and starkly compelling as The Third Man—where every note is meaningful, every phrase implicative—speaks to Rava's continued importance and Bollani's relentlessly increasing prominence.

Track Listing: Estate; The Third Man; Sun Bay; Retrato Em Branco Y Preto; Birth of a Butterfly; Cumpari; Sweet Light; Santa Teresa; Felipe; In Search of Titina; Retrato Em Branco Y Preto, Var.; Birth of a Butterfly, Var.

Personnel: Enrico Rava: trumpet; Stefano Bollani: piano.

Title: The Third Man | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: ECM Records

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