The much-discussed “globalization” of jazz is not always apparent down here on the ground. Take Italy, for instance. It boasts arguably the strongest jazz scene outside the United States, yet most American jazz fans would be challenged to name three Italian jazz musicians. This essay, if it achieves nothing else, will enable them to name four: Enrico Pieranunzi, Stefano Bollani, Riccardo Arrighini and Danilo Rea. If any one of these men lived in New York, he would be the next big thing on jazz piano.
Enrico Pieranunzi is the oldest of the group at 57. Like all of these players, he was schooled in classical piano from early childhood. Also like the others, his discovery of jazz as a teenager led to a piano style in which jazz and classical languages are unconsciously and organically interwoven. “I love Bach like I love Bill Evans. I love Mozart like I love Paul Bley. For me, piano music is piano music,” says Pieranunzi. He is largely self-taught in improvisation, and speaks of learning to “decode” jazz by studying Erroll Garner records. His single most important influence was Chet Baker, with whom he played frequently in the ’80s.
“Chet and I exchanged maybe 10 words in all the years I knew him,” Pieranunzi says. “We never talked about anything but the titles of songs. Before I met Baker I had been a very extroverted player. But Chet played so few notes-only the essential ones. He was so melodic that he helped me learn something very difficult: to make the piano sing.”
Pieranunzi’s albums are easier to find than those of the other three pianists here because he records for the well-distributed CamJazz label. He worked for years in Roman film studios, and three of his best CamJazz recordings find rich, untapped sources for jazz in Italian film music (Play Morricone, Play Morricone 2 and Fellini Jazz). The recent Ballads and the double album Live in Paris (on Challenge) are among the essential piano-trio recordings of the new millennium, because Pieranunzi’s vast technical expertise is creatively informed by a single purpose: to make the piano sing.
Stefano Bollani looks like a younger, handsomer version of Roberto Benigni (the ebullient Italian actor-director who won an Oscar for Life Is Beautiful). He has that same mad glint in his eye. His occasional antics onstage and his bent, deadpan song introductions have led to comparisons with Frank Zappa. But Bollani’s chops are deadly serious. He was schooled at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatorio in Florence, where he swears that his maestro, Antonio Caggiula, used a stick to punish errant fingers. Bollani had the talent to become a major classical concert pianist, but he couldn’t “cope with the unconditional fidelity to the text,” so he chose jazz.
Humor is only one element in Bollani’s eclectic arsenal. “The fact is that I am having fun,” he says. “The humor in the music comes only from the joy.” Bollani’s discography already encompasses almost 100 recordings as leader and sideman on independent European and Japanese labels. The new major-label release, Piano Solo, on ECM, should properly stake his claim on the international scene. The album is 16 distilled miniatures, Bollani’s freest, boldest recorded achievement to date. The sources are diverse (Prokofiev, the Beach Boys, Scott Joplin), but the result is like a single thought process forming one creative arc.
It is Riccardo Arrighini’s karma to solo after the most electrifying young talent in jazz, the enfant terrible Francesco Cafiso, has left the audience gasping for air. As a member of Cafiso’s working quartet, Arrighini is sometimes overlooked. To understand that he is something special in his own right, it is necessary to hear the five albums (“chapters”) in Arrighini’s ongoing Antonio Carlos Jobim project, on the Italian label Philology.
He is 38, and played classical music exclusively from ages 7 to 24. When asked what happened at 24, he instantly responds, “Oscar Peterson.” He spent a “very important” year at Berklee in Boston in 1993, after which he returned to his native Tuscany “and started to practice jazz.” He now confidently commands a language containing classical precision and speed and sweep, and a percussive articulation of jazz lyricism reminiscent of another Arrighini influence, Michel Petrucciani.
It sometimes seems that no new jazz recording can now be released without a Jobim song. But Arrighini’s exploration of Jobim is the deepest and most comprehensive undertaken by anyone other than the composer himself. The two strongest “chapters” are trio recordings. They contain explosions of complex pianistic passion (“Once I Loved”), and diaphanous ephemera that gradually become “Corcovado,” and fresh revelations of very familiar material (“Garota De Ipanema”).
At the Umbria Jazz mini-festival in New York in March of 2006-only the second time he had played on U.S. soil-Danilo Rea performed an astonishing solo concert based on operatic arias at the Guggenheim Museum. The closest analogy to Rea’s uninterrupted improvised outpouring was a Keith Jarrett solo concert. The difference was the reference points of the arias, from sources like Puccini and Mascagni and Bizet. They recurred, sometimes only as glimpses in the maelstrom, yet tethered Rea’s free inventions to poignant form.
Rea attended the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome and studied under Liliana Vallazza. “She is now 87,” Rea says. “She always told me, ‘Whatever you play, think about the suono. When you put a chord down, make it profonda.'”
To describe Rea’s style as classically influenced fails to account for the complexity of his life in art. Audible in his vast musical alchemy are his years with Liliana Vallazza and the classical repertoire, but also Keith Emerson, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” (where he discovered improvisation at 16), Lee Konitz (with whom he played in Sicily in 1975), and the popular songs of great Italian composers like Fabrizio De André.
The performance in New York created a buzz. At the big Umbria festival in Perugia in July, Rea’s appearance was again billed as the “Guggenheim Concert,” even though it was a new spontaneous creation, with a new mix of arias and Italian songs and Rea originals. It was a single towering 90-minute spontaneous suite that contained worlds of raining lyricism and thunderous profonda.
Rea recordings are not easy to find. Lirico, on Egea, is worth the hunt, and worth paying an import premium. For albums by all four of these pianists, a good place to start searching is online at Cadence Music Sales Pages (http://db.cadencebuilding.com). Originally Published