The five albums that Stefano Battaglia has made for ECM since 2005 contain the strongest work released by an ECM pianist during that period. That claim will be controversial, given that pianists like Keith Jarrett, Stefano Bollani, Bobo Stenson and Craig Taborn record for the label. But Battaglia’s Raccolto (2006), Re: Pasolini (2007), Pastorale (2010) and The River of Anyder (2011) offer new concepts of lyricism, sometimes notated, more often discovered in spontaneous acts of the imagination never to be repeated. Written or improvised, music played by Battaglia sounds inevitable, like it has always been there.
The new Songways is one of the prettiest piano trio albums of the new millennium. It opens with pure aural seduction, in the hovering chords and luminous tremolos of “Euphonia Elegy.” Then Salvatore Maiore’s dark bass begins to loom like night and Battaglia’s gentle swells clarify into one ascending single-note figure that becomes more poignant with each repetition. It is as if sonorities of nature like the sea or wind have become a human cry. In jazz, “pretty” is often an adjective that damns with faint praise. Battaglia’s music is pretty but neither shallow nor soft.
Battaglia describes Songways as “songs, chants, dances.” The three forms commingle. “Mildendo Wide Song” is a node of melody taken through so many nuanced variations it becomes incantatory. “Ismaro” is a dance in Battaglia’s left hand and epiphanies of song in his right. “Babel Hymn” is rapt ritual and ceremony. “Armonia” is patiently unfolded over 14 minutes. It moves through chant and song and hymn and even dance, but contains open spaces that leave three intuitive improvisers clear in the moment. Maiore shadows a phrase that Battaglia has just found in free air, and flows away with it. Drummer Roberto Dani touches his cymbals and creates flickering light and deepens the ongoing drama of Battaglia’s music.