In the two decades since the release of 1999’s Mambo Italiano, Milan-born pianist Stefano Bollani has become a sort of Renato-Carosone-meets-Ryuichi-Sakamoto figure, an all-purpose oddball with an adoration of cinematic sweep, mirth, and menace. That makes him the perfect player to execute Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s holy rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar with just a lone piano as his weapon of choice.
The original Jesus Christ Superstar album came out exactly 50 years ago, and Bollani makes several appropriate nods to 1970 here. On “Strange Thing, Mystifying,” he goes for a gently ticklish tone and country-gospel treatment somewhere between that year’s vintage of Elton John and Keith Jarrett. For “Heaven on Their Minds,” he sets an uneasy syncopation below his darts into flowery flight before giving way dramatically to the score’s initial R&B leanings. This track in particular grows more groovy-grooving with each listen.
Similar syncopation plays a role in “What’s the Buzz,” neo-boogie with jittery hammered accents alongside Bollani’s rolling solo. An unsteady beat, a coolly discordant chorus, and a yen for melancholy turn the blowsy ballad “Everything’s Alright” into something new, slinky and stately. Add a playfully odd finale that Monk would be proud of, and this moment becomes Bollani’s alone.
Not that he’s forgotten the grandiloquent theatricality of his subject. “This Jesus Must Die” starts off upbeat and gently frantic, then moves into a sinister honky-tonk glee in accordance with its staged characters. A low, single finger plink in “The Temple” turns on a dime to become something rapid-fire and dramatic, a nail in a coffin, angry and indicting. “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” is wrenchingly pensive, moving through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief in draining, entrancing fashion.
By the time we get to the near-finale and the baronially jazzy “Superstar,” Bollani has made his teen obsession into something truly menacing, whispering its vocal line with effective intimidation as his end result. He’s turned his youthful love of Jesus Christ Superstar on its ear with as much daring as adoration. Bravo, maestro.