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Enrico Pieranunzi/Marc Johnson/Joey Baron: Play Morricone 2

The emergence of pianist Enrico Pieranunzi has been one of the significant recent events in jazz. His Fellini Jazz was one of the surprise jazz recordings of 2003. It revealed that 50-year-old movie music could provide uncommonly fresh, fertile starting points for jazz improvisation. It could, that is, if it was composed by Nino Rota for the films of Federico Fellini, was arranged by Enrico Pieranunzi, and was played by an all-star band containing talent like Kenny Wheeler, Chris Potter, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

Morricone 2 is Pieranunzi’s second album dedicated to the scores of Italy’s other great film composer. Ennio Morricone’s twangy soundtracks to Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” of the late ’60s made him a cult figure. But Morricone’s filmography is vast and diverse, containing more than 400 titles. For Morricone 2, Pieranunzi uses music from mostly lesser-known films by European directors like Henry Verneuil, Lina Wertmuller and Paolo Cavara.

It is a rich trove of material: atmospheric, dramatically melodic, sometimes intricate and witty (e.g. the Baroque theme for Edouard Molinaro’s La Cage Aux Folles). Whereas Fellini Jazz was about Pieranunzi the arranger, Morricone 2 is a trio album that turns Pieranunzi the pianist loose. He interprets Morricone’s evocative narratives in rippling, lush, passionate densities. His touch is sensuous and fervent, and it is impossible not to get caught up in his sweeping, ringing lyricism and his climactic flourishes. No matter how extravagantly Pieranunzi flows over and around and beyond Morricone’s resonant themes, he always returns to serve them. Pieranunzi speaks jazz with an Italian accent: romantic and demonstrative and seductive.

Bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron are not accompanists for Pieranunzi. They are very far forward in the mix and are full partners in this project. Johnson’s individual statements are as quick and fluent and emotionally charged as Pieranunzi’s. A major reason why Morricone 2 is so exhilarating, and also why it is so clearly a collaboration among three equals, is the vivid, full bandwidth sound by Luciano Torani.

Doorways, a duo session with drummer Paul Motian (plus Chris Potter on reeds on three tracks) contains Pieranunzi originals. The improvisations of Fellini Jazz and Morricone 2 are highly successful in transforming movie music into resonant, autonomous, newly relevant lyricism. Doorways is a less essential album. Some of the pieces here, like the three versions of “Double Excursion” and the two takes of “Utre,” sound like freely associative dialogues, technical and hermetic. “Anecdote” adds Potter’s tenor saxophone for a shouted, similarly exclusionary three-way conversation.

But the best moments on Doorways are very fine. “Words of the Sea” is an example of the revelations that Pieranunzi and Motian, alone together, can come upon. The piano’s pronouncements surge and recur and slightly vary, like waves, while Motian’s spare incidents are like flickering light over water. On performances like “Blue Evening” and “Suspension Points,” Pieranunzi’s restive, rigorous romanticism creates surprising concepts and takes them somewhere unexpected, while Motian clicks and taps explanatory percussive comments.

Two of Chris Potter’s three appearances are memorable. He slowly, relentlessly draws out the implications of the title track’s yearning theme. “The Heart of a Child” is Potter’s fervent encounter with Pieranunzi’s song about transitory grace.

Originally Published