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Enrico Pieranunzi at Birdland

Enrico Pieranunzi

Fittingly for shows on and around Halloween, there were different Enrico Pieranunzis on display last week at Birdland. The Italian master pianist spent two nights each with two starkly contrasting units: first a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian, followed by a Latin-themed quintet with trumpeter Diego Urcola, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Pieranunzi is not universally known in the States, and this ought to change. His recordings on Soul Note, Challenge and other labels date back to 1980. His output for CAM Jazz in the new century has proved indispensable, and Motian has played a major role, appearing on Fellini Jazz (2003), Special Encounter (2005) and most notably Doorways (2004), an adventurous piano-drum duo session with Chris Potter guesting on three tracks.

The Birdland trio summit with Swallow took two separate routes. Churning, vamp-based swing numbers alternated with episodes of flowing, spacious lyricism. The mood was loose, deliberately unrehearsed. In one instance Swallow leaned over to Motian and muttered, “Rubato, waltz,” and they were off. One in-tempo piece was wholly improvised; another, “PS 1,” seemed to rely on an “Inchworm” pattern made famous by Coltrane; still another began with a volcanic drum solo and made more than a passing reference to “Fascinating Rhythm.” But these pieces lacked the direction and solidity of Special Encounter with Motian and Charlie Haden. Swallow’s five-string electric bass, a unique and marvelous thing in many contexts, didn’t provide enough anchor here. The quieter pieces-Monk’s “Reflections,” Pieranunzi’s “Suspension Points” from Doorways-were better, more exploratory. But one never got the full dose of Pieranunzi’s magic, the elusive and aggressive quality you hear in his longstanding trio with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron.

Later in the week, the Latin quintet found steadier ground and embodied the truly international character of jazz-Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Brooklyn were all represented on the bandstand. The aesthetic this time was tightly rehearsed, crisp in rhythmic focus, less abstract in form. Pieranunzi featured his superb horn line extensively and played something of a backseat role, though he launched into some fierce Tyner-esque language on the opener, “Danza Due (Dance Two).” The underrated Terry played his feature, the romantic straight-eighth piece “Detrás Más Allá,” on soprano, articulating post-Coltrane linear concepts with bite and eloquence. Urcola painted with muted and open trumpet tones throughout the set and made a sly, perfectly tailored reference to “Old Devil Moon” on his feature, the bright “Danza Nueva.” Patitucci switched to six-string electric bass for that and the finale, loosely translated as “My Eyes Are Full of You.” This was solid, melodic, accessible, expertly arranged original music in a straightforward head-solos format. Satisfying as it was, one longed for the broad and boundless invention of the Pieranunzi-Johnson-Baron trio. Their next album is out in early 2009.

Originally Published