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Top Italian Jazz at Birdland: New York, NY, June 4-9, 2013

Thomas Conrad By

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An evening with Bollani is a unique jazz experience, encompassing technical virtuosity, joyful creativity and wild hilarity. Bollani's command over his instrument is so complete that he functions differently from his peers on piano. Even players like Jarrett and Mehldau and Moran pursue specific paths of thought through an improvisation. Bollani is able to sustain multiple concurrent lines of inquiry at any tempo he chooses, including insanely fast. The opening piece, "No Pope, No Party," was lights-out, a collective frenzy, Bodilsen and Lund plunging and cracking, Bollani rocketing. When it was over, you realized that they had been unfolding a vast design while they raced.



Perhaps because operating a piano at a very high level is too easy for him, Bollani constantly parodies his own process. His sense of mischief is always in competition with his serious aesthetic commitment, and mischief often wins, at least temporarily. He teased his sidemen with jokes both verbal and musical. He aborted tunes and started over on a whim. He played a satire of a song with his right hand while dramatically conducting his three-piece orchestra with his left. He also sang as if he had forgotten he was not in the shower ("Billie Jean," "Besame Mucho") and whistled ("Smoke on the Water"). The latter was a huge crowd-pleaser (apparently many in the audience remembered Deep Purple). Bollani is a genuinely funny man and a natural entertainer, but it was hard not to feel that the jokes took up too much precious time. Without all the fooling around, he would have been able to include more pieces like "There Will Never Be Another You" (which he played both nights) and "All the Things You Are." He reimagined them completely, overwhelming them in new invention but occasionally allowing their melodies to blow by.

His range is extraordinary. He is a poetic, flowing, sensual interpreter of Jobim ("Portrait in Black and White"). He can do rapt ballads at any tempo, from the freely associative rapid streaming of "How Deep Is the Ocean" to barely moving, haunting mysteries like Bodilsen's "Min Sommerfugl." He writes addictive tunes in seven like "I've Never Been to Africa," a prancing celebration of many human tribes. He can hit a piano note with such strength it rings in every corner of Birdland, or so softly you have to lean forward to hear it (he can also play notes with his elbows and the backs of his hands).

The trio has been together ten years. Lund, one of the underrated drummers in jazz, fulfills his role with athletic precision, erupting in all the right places. Bodilsen has grown enormously over the years and is now an eloquent, stirring bass soloist. Bollani often lets him take the lead. The last tune they played at Birdland, the encore after the second set on the second night, was a ballad. Bodilsen was in the center of it, and he returned to the yearning melody over and over again, like a song his heart could not relinquish. Only the Italians in Birdland knew it: "Come Prima," a pop tune from the 1950's. The Americans who were present know it now.

On the last two nights, Enrico Rava's band Tribe recorded a live album for ECM. The personnel was Gianluca Petrella (trombone), Giovanni Guidi (piano), Gabriele Evangelista (bass) and Fabrizio Sferra (drums). This group made a studio album for ECM, Tribe, released in 2011. To describe them as tight risks missing the point. They are tight enough to be wildly free and loose. However far off course they independently veer, they always come back together and land exactly on the one.

Rava, in his 74th year, can knock you out of your chair with his shattering trumpet spikes. Petrella is the most visceral and exciting trombonist in jazz, pure energy and flamboyance, stabbing the air with his slide, spattering ideas everywhere. Guidi is a young pianist capable of arcane lyricism, as demonstrated in his new album City of Broken Dreams. In Tribe he is more likely to match the fire of Rava and Petrella with crashing chordal crises of his own, and keyboard-length glissandos.

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