In conversation with stefano bollani (part two)
By Ted Panken
This past January, jazz.com's Ted Panken attended the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival in Orvieto. Besides hearing a lot of great music, he was able to interview the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani at length. This is the second part of Ted's two-part article. Part one can be read here. C.K.
You seem to have a very young audience.
I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacsóthe Hard Bop Taliban! But Iím not missing them too much. I donít understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I donít feel Iím strange. I understand Iím a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thingóI mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller; or in Europe, Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, itís always, like, 'Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.'
As though youíre not quite serious.
Yeah, exactly. I am not serious enough.
Itís interesting, because face to face, youíre ...
It seems that when you make jokes, itís very serious fun.
It seems more like performance art than comedy.
Actually, I donít know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello [Salis, the accordionist-pianist], everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I donít know where they are coming from.
You couldnít be more serious. But thereís a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.
No, no, no, actually not. Maybe Iím serious with you because Iím speaking in English, or because Iím tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. Itís not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing thatóbut that was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out ... When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.
How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?
Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.
The French ones are very serious.
Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.
Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava? If you have a musical mentor it would seem to be him, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.
Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was [either] Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I donít remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.
So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I donít think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We donít really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. Itís something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or Joao Gilbertoóa way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we donít talk about music.
He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didnít. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?
I never thought about it.
You were working the whole time, I guess.
Yes. Iíve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. Iíve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, 'Oh, I would like to be Chick Corea,' or whatever. I really like what Iím doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I donít really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, Iím hanging around, I like the atmosphere, Iím going to concerts, Iím going to buy records, whateveróbut then Iím going home. Iím not really mad for big cities. Itís not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I donít really like it.
When you met Rava, thereís a story that he told you, 'You donít have to play pop music if you donít like it; youíre young, you donít have responsibilities, you can do this.' Just so Iím straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanotti [a popular Italian singer-songwriter and rapper], which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.
I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.
But it wasnít that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz?
I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995, when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasnít playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Romeóthatís it. It wasnít a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decideóbecause it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didnít bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, 'Actually itís February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,' which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, 'I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.' Then we started playing. It wasnít a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.
And you found enough other work to ...
Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasnít earning so much money from the pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasnít that much.
But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.
Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever ...
I saw a YouTube video where you do that.
Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.
But talking about the pop thing, I donít know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but thatís what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so muchóI was playing chords. I thought, 'Wow, why doesnít he like that?' But that music doesnít need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.
You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading and your writing filter into your performance attitude?
Iím reading a lot of novels.
No, no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. Iím in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the letís call them young ones, who are in their forties. Iím reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. Itís a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending theyíre building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American onesóCortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosaówhere you pretend youíre living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you itís a novel. I really like to know that Iím reading a novel. Iím not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it, because after three pages, for example, there's a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, 'Wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.' When you read Calvino, or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think itís real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside ... A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. If On a Winter's Night, a Traveler.
Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [sings opening 12 bars]. This is a perfect world. Itís a guy. Then thereís a note, [sings second refrain] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.
Thereís also a structural quality. You can read Cortazarís Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice analogy for your performances.
Thatís what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. Thatís what I would love people to say about my records. 'Oh, itís so poetic, heís improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,' and then, 'Just a minute; thatís the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; thatís the same chord structure. Heís working on that. Heís not simply chasing birds.'
Is that what youíre referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?
Yes, I think so.
How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?
I donít know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swingóbut nobody can explain that, so I wonít try. I donít know. But you can get really far away, I think.
Is there anything about your aesthetic thatís influenced by Surrealism?
Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. Thatís what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, 'I would love to be on 52nd Street in the Ď50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.' Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst ... That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing ... Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.
I suppose thereís a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.
Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and Bretonís idea of Beauty. He said to LíAutremont, the French writer, that 'Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.' Which meant, you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and thatís beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and Iím going to paint that. Thatís what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. Thatís what I like. Thatís what jazz is about, because you take 'Yesterday' by the Beatles and you put weird chords. Thatís what Frank Zappa is about, even if heís doing that with his own compositions. Heís taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. Thereís a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.
To refer to the Taliban of Hard Bop is a clever phraseóbut hard bop is a style that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. It evolves into an art music, and takes its course. Itís an interesting parallel.
Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand thatís a culture, but itís not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, 'Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!' Maybe I did it, too. Itís the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because itís not my cup of tea. Itís this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because itís a kind of comment. It means that Iím saying 'I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now Iím doing another thing.' In a way, itís a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and itís like, 'This is so weird, itís coming from the Ď40s. Please, be serious.'
You wouldnít think that if you played a phrase from Webernís piano Ö
Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that ... Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If Iím playing a ragtime phrase, itís nice. But itís even better if you heard about ragtime and know that Iím quoting a style. If you donít know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in 'Antonia' which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but itís not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert. Because you understand that we are playing with the history. Thatís postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing 'The Wrong Note Rag' for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [sings it], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone ... What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the 'Wrong Note Rag' and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.
Does your familiarity with so many musical languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on 'Do You Know What It Means' on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.
Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.
The word 'idiomatic' would cover it.
Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think itís really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. Itís not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell itís a game, or a style thing. For example, 'Promenade' is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and thatís it. But itís extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but itís also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts Iíve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. Thatís a weird idea, but it helps me.
So sometimes youíre postmodern and sometimes youíre modern.
Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet [Baker]and Joao Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to Joao for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with Joao. I can go to a desert island with Joaoís Live In Tokyo. I love it. Itís fresh, even if itís the same melody. I couldnít do that, because after a while Iíd get bored for myself. But I donít get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. 'Girl From Ipanema,' six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. Thatís unbelievable for me. Because itís an idea of perfectionóthe idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melodyóthat I have as a listener, but I donít have while Iím playing.
Is practice important to you?
Iíve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so muchóand I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.
You have to remember that I absolutely donít remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really donít remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess itís peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to imagine myself doing something else.
Stefano Bollani was interviewed in Orvieto by Ted Panken on January 4, 2009.