Enrico Pieranunzi: Proximity

Like the other great piano players of our time, Enrico Pieranunzi mostly performs and records in trio and solo formats. Tales From the Unexpected comes from a concert in Gütersloh, Germany, in 2015, and is a valuable addition to his large, rich trio discography. The bassist and drummer, Jasper Somsen and André Ceccarelli, are longtime occasional collaborators. It is a rare recent example of a live jazz album recorded on analog tape direct to two-track. The sound is wonderfully warm and alive.

Proximity is even more noteworthy because it is a departure for Pieranunzi, a studio session from 2013 by a new quartet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and bassist Matt Penman.

Pieranunzi wrote all the material on both albums. He is a special interpreter of standards, so it is slightly disappointing that he did not choose to include even one. But he is a composer who creates enticing melodies, and it is interesting how his tunes are able to serve very different purposes. Tales is all about energy. Tracks are mostly up (“The Surprise Answer”) or medium-up (“Anne Blomster Sang,” “Fellini’s Waltz”), and all feel driven by inner ensemble urgency. But Pieranunzi’s touch always informs energy with graceful elegance and Italian romanticism. His formal sense is so sure that even fully improvised pieces like “Improtale 1” sound refined, symmetrical and complete.

The romanticism of Proximity is deeper and more plaintive. The title track and “Sundays” are melodies made from a few long, yearning calls that originate with Alessi and McCaslin. Their articulate voices and strong personalities sound submerged in Pieranunzi’s sensibility. Alessi draws out “(In)Canto” like a rapt ceremony, caught in its haunting theme, repeating it with subtle variations. In the open spaces, Pieranunzi lays in variations of his own, in luminous fragments. As for McCaslin, it is striking how he finds a way to take off from such a closed circle and solo, offering fresh, revelatory content.

Throughout, Alessi and McCaslin play with measured, concentrated lyricism. Pieranunzi, who rarely arranges for horns, employs their instruments with precision. He thinks like a painter, brushing in his melodies with trumpet and saxophone in alternating or interlaced strokes. Then, within his own clear parameters, he allows those horns to briefly roam free in his songs. The most emotionally resonant piece is “Within the House of Night,” without solos as such. Its pensiveness passes beautifully through everyone’s hands, including those of Penman, whose probing, poetic work on this record reveals that he is one of the most gifted bassists currently working. The absence of a drummer makes Proximity a form of chamber jazz, but it never lacks for fervor.