In conversation with stefano bollani (part one)

By Ted Panken

Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this year's Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvietoóa small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millenniumópianist Stefano Bollani sipped pear juice while digesting his first real meal in days. Bollani was looking forward to a well-earned nap. Five days earlier, he'd been called to replace bossa nova legend Jo„o Gilberto, the festivalís headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, an 18th century Umbrian opera house. Bollani had hustled to fulfill the task, and executed his duties with aplomb.

                          Stefano Bollani, by Jos L. Knaepen

After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet. On Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert, comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohenóherself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvietoís central square. After his nap, he would play sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by drummer Roberto Gatto.

American audiences know Bollani primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and will soon release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release, Piano Solo. Yet while he's an obscure figure in the States, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy. There, in addition to his eclectic musical productions, he's a television and radio personality, as well as a published author of both childrenís books and experimental novels.

Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florenceówhere he graduated with honorsóBollani was a teenaged bebop acolyte. Now 36, his music has evolved; his solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of far-flung repertoireóItalian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originalsóin which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.

During the course of his Thursday duos, Bollani displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, he sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partnerís solo episode) and with Solal, who went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play "musical piano benches." Solal even riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed-off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.

What youíre doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, youíre called to replace Joao Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets. Half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, youíre seamlessly occupying the flow, and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it isnít.

                 Stefano Bollani, by Jos L. Knaepen

Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second nightówe played what we play. Of course, we didnít know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didnít want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No 'Desafinados' in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque [the Brazilian singer, guitarist, writer and composer]. So it wasnít just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.

I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of musicóof course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.

How many groups are you working with now?

I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.

What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group for which you primarily compose?

Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.

Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?

I would say that everything has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, 'This is coming from Italian music,' or 'this is coming from Brazilian music,' etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, 'Ah, itís joy;' C-minoró'Ooh, something happened.' Symphonic orchestraó'Ooh, itís classical music.' The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.

You do that when you do those encores.

Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didnít see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. 'This is Chopin,' then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes... I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isnít that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, itís like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.

This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you canít ...

Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesnít expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I donít do. They do this on purposeóthey are waiting for me to do this. But if I donít know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I donít know, and I said, 'Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one [makes engine sounds].' Thatís what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, 'This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.'

Youíre 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.

A lot of old songs. Usually itís better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neil Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.

Youíve been a working musician since 15. Did you learn all these songs that way?

Not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentanoóold stuff. Iím sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what Iím looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I donít find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever ...

Youíre talking about Bjork, Radiohead ...

I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world: the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what Iím talking about, 'Musica legere,' 'light music.' It shouldnít be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record, or Mahler, or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesnít mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.

You also play with language when you compose and write..

I do. In almost any of my compositions, itís never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. Itís always 43. You miss something or thereís something more. Thatís why my musicians hate me.

Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?

Iím not sure, but I think itís deliberate. I pretend it happens.

Why is it deliberate?

[Cradles belly with hands] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one, who wants to be original. He is saying, 'Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little cornyóletís put a bar more.' I feel itís natural, but Iím not sure it is.

It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?

Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old 'til 16. I only listened to hard bopóHorace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock, or Free Jazz. I was playing the shit, like the Taliban of hard bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones; Iíd been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernovaóI got into rock music. The most intellectual ones, maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles ...

The songwriters.

The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speakingóDebussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didnít really like it. I was studying the technique. I didnít really like Beethoven at that moment.

But the way you use the pedal and your touch, itís obvious ...

Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini [the pianist], or Ricardo Muti [the conductor and soon-to-be Music Director of the Chicago Symphony], for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like bapp! So very serious. And he didnít know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, 'Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; heís going to throw me out.' But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, 'Okay, I discovered youíre playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.' Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he hated it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him 'Someday My Prince Will Come' and he just said, 'Okay, letís go on.' I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now heís happy about me, about my playing, even if he doesnít like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.

Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.

A little-little bit. I donít like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composersóbut I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you donít know the music, itís interesting because the character is so interesting. Thatís what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who Iím quite interested in as wellóthe technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, itís enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.

So itís a challenge, an additive thing.

Yes, I would say so. Itís not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think itís good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.

How about the jazz avant garde in the Ď70s?

Almost the same.

You were speaking of the Taliban of hard bop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to jazz neoclassicism and the Art Blakey 'Young Lions' editions of the Jazz Messengers, and so on.

Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people donít understand what youíre doingóthere is the Avant Garde Party and thereís the Hard Bop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans donít understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hard Bop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. Iím trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. Iím waiting for that.

Coming from the outside, thatís the opposite of my impression. For example, Iíve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.

Yeah, of course. I donít want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own musicóthey just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords; you learn the right thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.

But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each otherówhich is why itís hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably itís this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I donít know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.

I havenít heard you deal so much with Italian materials.

Not so much.

It seems to be pop.

Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kinds of things. But itís a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar .... Some songwriters from the Ď20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and heís older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello [a kind of dance]. So itís his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. Itís really different.

So itís hard to speak of Italian jazz because itís so ...

I think itís big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But itís actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the worldóitís like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.

What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think theyíre islands.

Antonello Salis is a genius, and heís an autodidact. He doesnít read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. Heís coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesnít have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, weíve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. Thatís what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.

Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad ... For example, Denmark. Thatís the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, 'Okay, now you can play whatever you want ...' 'Whatever I want? Okay, letís play a blues.' 'Ah, okay, letís play a blues.' Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You donít have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.

The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, theyíre wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But itís dangerous if you think that's the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still trying to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whateveróthey never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. 'Okay, they told me what music is.' Itís not like that.

Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?

Actually, I do think itís changing over time, but itís hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I donít know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to doótrying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz musicóhard bop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whateverówas a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I donít know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.

You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.

Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldnít sit down and think, 'I should go in this direction.' I donít want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, 'Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line ...'

You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock ...

Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasnít interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motianówe rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. Thatís quite interesting to do as practice. Itís not interesting at all when you do it on stage.

To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. Itís just Iím playing .... Then I listen back, and I say, 'Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.' But then after a minute, I see where Iím doing something different, so ok. Whew. Itís ok. Good. Because I donít really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I donít recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that itís an external thing coming into my music, that Iím adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I donít even recognize because itís part of my language.

You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?

I was talking about compositions, I donít like compositions.

Why not?

Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I donít like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. 'Elena e Il Suo Violino,' for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, 'I have enough.' But I donít have enough of playing 'There Will Never Be Another You' or 'Cheek To Cheek.'

What is it about those songs evokes that reaction? Is it about the music. The signification?

Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kinds of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. Itís nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.

Thatís interesting, too, because youíre speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet youíre loving both things simultaneously.

But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because itís anachronistic. Thatís why itís interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.

Iím fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. Youíre in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and itís beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. Youíre from Florence, the home of Dante ...

Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.

The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?

I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think itís a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.

The church was an instrument of political power.

Exactly. But itís not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. Thatís good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politicsóif you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. Itís not the ego thing. Itís the idea of the world. Itís the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable...

Youíre pointing to your brain.

Exactly. Itís much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.

So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is ...

Absolutely. Itís coming from that.

This is the end of Part One of Ted Panken's two-part interview with Stefano Bollani. Part Two will be posted soon.


January 31, 2009 · 4 comments

  • 1 Mitchell Feldman // Jan 31, 2009 at 08:01 PM
    Roberto Gatto is a drummer, not a bassist (see end of 2nd paragraph).
  • 2 Red Colm O'Sullivan // Feb 01, 2009 at 06:17 AM
    The cursory list of great Italian jazz musicians here omits Massimo Urbani (the greatest of them all?) and Gianni Basso... they just have to be mentioned - so I've done it now! RED (Ireland). PS.: In part 2, I would love any more details on his playing relationship with Solal if there are any (how it started and so forth), and his thoughts on Solal's uniqueness too.
  • 3 Giovanni Petranich // Feb 03, 2009 at 08:42 PM
    Sig. Panken doesn't know his Italian Jazz Piano History. Forgetting to ask Bollani about the King, Georgio Gaslini, is disappointing to say the least and unforgivable for a journalist. In Europe Panken would be booted out of town in less than a week. I hope this is remedied in part two. Speriamo! Ciao, Sig. Petranich Torino, Italia
  • 4 panken // Feb 05, 2009 at 01:23 AM
    Thanks for the correction, Sig. Petranich. However, this interview is not intended to elicit a history of Italian jazz or Italian jazz piano. It is about Sig. Bollani, and the opinions stated therein are his own. Ciao, Sig. Panken, Brooklyn. Bollani's opinions on Monsieur Solal will appear in a forthcoming Downbeat feature on Solal.