04/14/06

Top Italian Jazz

By any standard, the six-night event billed as “Top Italian Jazz,” a collaboration of the Umbria Jazz Festival organization and the Italian Cultural Institute of New York was a high-class affair. There was an elegant reception at the Guggenheim with music by pianist Danilo Rea and Umbrian wine and hors d’oeuvres. (Attendees had the after-hours museum to themselves, and could climb to all six levels of the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda to view the sculptures of a major exhibition, the David Smith Centennial.) At Birdland, there was chef Claudio Brugalossi, who was brought in from Umbria. His creations, such as panzanella con gamberi di fiume, and suprema di pollo ripiena di salsiccia e rapi, supplemented the regular Birdland menu. There were the crowds that filled Birdland, more continental and better dressed than usual, and there was electricity in the air, because this mini-festival had been well-promoted and much-anticipated.

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Enrico Pieranunzi

And oh yes, there was the music. Enrico Rava, Italy’s best-known jazz musician, was there with his working quintet, featuring a trombone phenom about whom there is a buzz on the international jazz street, Gianluca Petrella. And speaking of phenoms and buzzes, it is safe to assume that, on Saturday and Sunday, the final two nights, most of the audience was there to find out whether what they had heard about Francesco Cafiso could possibly be true. Did this rosy-cheeked 16-year-old really amble onto the stage, smile sweetly, put his alto saxophone to his lips, and unfurl bolts of bebop, of a velocity and vastness that has not been heard for 50 years, since the passing of the player for whom Birdland is named? (The short answer is yes. Please read on.)

But while horn players like Rava and Cafiso and Petrella get more ink, this event revealed that the deepest strength of Italy’s strong jazz scene resides in its pianists. Danilo Rea, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Stefano Bollani all offer very different versions of the jazz piano art form that cannot be obtained elsewhere.

Rea’s performance at the Guggenheim reception was short but captivating. Many piano players would get lost in the towering space of the Ronald O. Perelman Rotunda. Rea dominated it, filled it with his lush, dramatic flourishes and resounding tremolos. His infusion of classical influences is deep and explicit. (He has even made a jazz album of arias from Italian opera--Lirico, on the EGEA label.) His work has the formal structural wholeness of classical music, shot through with the in-the-moment energies and asymmetries of jazz, all turned poignant and romantic in his hands. Danilo Rea is a seductive player.

Enrico Pieranunzi’s appearances confirmed what has been suggested by his five exceptional albums on the Italian CamJazz label released since 2003, and especially by his new double album on Challenge, Live In Paris: He is one of the most accomplished pianists now playing jazz, regardless of continent. He performed with a state-of-the-art American rhythm section of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Paul Motian. Pieranunzi eats medium to fast waltzes alive, like the originals “Mo-Ti” and “The Night Gone By” and “Jitterbug Waltz.” They generated complex lyrical outpourings of ideas, not in steady streams, but in lurches and spurts of creative energy, often launched by a Motian drum roll. “Everything I Love,” in medium 4/4, became the basis for a huge, diverse, interrelated design.

Pieranunzi is a very special ballad player. (He has an all-ballad album coming on CamJazz.) His own “Suspension Point” pivoted on a single note and spilled over, memorably, on both sides of it. Many years ago in Italy, he played “The Touch Of Your Lips” with Chet Baker. At Birdland, Pieranunzi’s version recalled a different American artist who occasionally played the song, Bill Evans. It did not hurt that the poetic bass solo was by Bill Evans’s last bassist, and that the flickering brush work was by one of Evans’ first drummers. Yet the closest to Evans’ spirit was Pieranunzi. He acknowledged the melody while barely touching it, rendering that state of coming into being that Bill Evans used to own.

Stefano Bollani looks like a younger Roberto Benigni (who won an Oscar for Life Is Beautiful), and shares some of that actor’s comic flair. Bollani is capable of bursting into startling, brief vocal song on “All The Things You Are,” and even of occasional forearm smashes on the keyboard. His basic paradox is that he acts like a clown while creating music of serious, subtle, luminous, flowing melodicism. His tight working trio contains two Danes, Jesper Bodilsen on bass and Morten Lund on drums. Lund understands what many drummers (occasionally even Paul Motian) do not: that piano trios require drummers with light, deft touches. Lund’s plethora of details never intruded, yet set real energy in motion. This band moved like three greyhounds, fast without obvious effort.

The most striking feature of Enrico Rava’s quintet was its two-brass front line that made every theme statement an intricate contrapuntal adventure. Rava’s art is founded on contrast. Every solo, even on ballads like “Nature Boy” and “My Funny Valentine,” contained trumpet lines that floated in the air like wisps of smoke, and ferocious, shattering high staccato blasts, jarringly juxtaposed.

Petrella did not live up to his hype. Granted, he is entertaining. He is lithe and serpentine, and when he lunges into a low note, throwing his trombone slide forward, he could be a cobra striking. But while his counterpoint behind Rava was effective, his own solos contained more bombast and bravura than musical substance.

Francesco Cafiso appeared with his working quartet: Riccardo Arrighini on piano, Aldo Zunino on bass, and Stefano Bagnoli on drums. The second tune he played was an original ballad, “She Loves Me.” (Cafiso is only 16, but he gets around, and he is probably not talking about his mother.) More precisely, the song began as a ballad. No Cafiso improvisation remains exclusively in the ballad domain. His creative process generates a melodic and harmonic calculus that feeds off itself and inevitably escalates in intensity. Cafiso is more than a prodigy, he is a virtuoso. Virtuosos are mysterious, even a little frightening. Every one of his solos is impossibly fast and impossibly flawless, and his tone is a pure singing sound beyond this world that never falters. You think his lines will never stop, and then they fall back, but only to soar even higher, and they all tie.

Still, Cafiso is 16, and his solos all go through the same arc, whether on exploded ballads like “What’s New?” or maniacal burners like “Speak Low” or “Seven Steps To Heaven,” and they always neatly resolve. They all build to a climax, which turns out to be a plateau, from which he rockets straight up again, streaming perfectly formed 32nd notes. When he has finally shot out all the stars, he releases his mouthpiece and offers a shy, almost apologetic smile. Riccardo Arrighini has one of the least enviable tasks in jazz: to solo after Francesco, and not blow everyone’s high.

If Cafiso’s patterns are recurrent, and if he is too fond of dated material like “Billie’s Bounce” and “Cherokee” that can make him sound like a bebop note factory, it is hard not to forgive a 16-year-old for these limitations. It is also hard not to fantasize about where this kind of talent might take him. It is also hard not to wonder why, even in these dark days for the record business, no American jazz label has signed him. He has made six recordings for Italian and Japanese labels. Only his newest, Happy Time, on CamJazz, is relatively available in the United States.

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