Stefano Bollani: Orvieto

The Italian jazz piano tradition is especially distinguished, with artists such as Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Dado Moroni, and Giorgio Gaslini having set the standard, over a period of years, with an impressive body of work. Despite the quality of their music, however, these artists are still mostly forgotten when American critics vote in their various polls and hand out "best of year" honors. But Stefano Bollani, the relative youngster here, is proving harder to ignore, and even the jingoistic reviewers who seem to root invariably for home town talent need to pay attention to this exemplary pianist from Milan, whose improvisations are so fresh and untethered to the conventional. Once again on this track from his 2009 CD Stone in the Water, Bollani puts together the whole package. His touch is clear and crisp yet with almost no unpleasant bite or aftertaste, none of the brittleness one hears in so many of his peers. He works with bass and drums and never tries to dominate them, yet he doesn't need to, given the forcefulness inherent in his method of understatement. He brings an advanced sense of rhythmic phrasing to his music, but never tries to show off with eccentric displacements. Instead he lets the intentionality of his melodic lines find their own paths, based on musicality not licks. Probably his only limitation is the audience—can they dig an artist who does not resort to flamboyant methods and flashy tricks? Only time will tell, but count me in as an admirer.

November 02, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roberta Gambarini: Medley from Cinema Paradiso

Roberta Gambarini hits all the right notes, but I have sometimes felt that she misses the psychological riches of the songs she sings. I give her credit: she always surrounds herself with the finest musicians, and her own musicianship is never in question; yet I have expected more from this prepossessing woman. She is one of the most polished vocalists of our day, but if a polished sheen is not what you are looking for in your music, you might be better off checking out Patricia Barber or Cassandra Wilson, artists who grapple with songs from the inside.

Or at least that was my opinion before I heard this recording. Gambarini impresses on this track, recorded a few days after the 9/11 attacks, an event that left her shaken yet determined to immerse herself in her craft. Did the surrounding circumstances inspire the star singer to dig more deeply into her material? I can't answer that question, but I do know that the two tracks on So in Love that were recorded on September 22, 2001 are standout performances, and have forced me to reevaluate this artist, who shows here that she is capable of greatness. And there isn't a single oop-bop-uh-bam-boom tossed out glibly to spoil the mood. I am still cautious, but for the time being I am joining the fan club.

September 23, 2009 · 0 comments

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Francesco Cafiso: King Arthur

Prodigy is a term tossed around loosely in the jazz world these days. But Francesco Cafiso, who was still a teenager when this project was recorded, is no hype-driven creation of the publicists. His talent is announced by his horn, and what he demonstrates with an alto in hand earns him a spot on any short list of great young saxophonists. Yet despite the praise of Wynton Marsalis and others, Cafiso is still a well-kept secret outside of Europe. His Italian label doesn't have much traction in the US, and this new CD isn't in the top 500,000 sellers at Amazon.

That's a sad commentary on the audience and media, rather than a reflection of what the artist has achieved. This performance shows how much Cafiso's jazz vocabulary has expanded, and the youngster who had digested Bird and Cannonball by his mid-teens is now capable of pressing the chords to their limits. There is more than a dose of Ornette in Cafiso's bag these days, and you will hear long stretches on "King Arthur" when the tonal center disappears entirely. The accompanying ensemble is first rate, and adroitly adapts to the changeable musical attitudes of the altoist. This artist is poised for a bright future, but I wonder if the fans can keep up with him. They crowned him as a prodigy, but will they accept him as a revolutionary?

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Pieranunzi: Scarlatti Sonata K377 and Improv

The idea of "jazzing up the classics" is an old one, dating back to the rag and stride pianists of the early 20th century. At one time there must have been quite a bit of shock value when a pianist played a hot version of Chopin or Tchaikovsky, but not any more. Today it comes across as just another gimmick—and a tired one at that.

For that reason, you might be forgiven for dismissing pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's interpretations of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) before even giving them a listen. But you would be making a mistake. Pieranunzi is not a gimmicky player, and his best work has a profound rightness about it, an uncontrived immersion into musical essences and an almost tactile yet elusive sensuality. He brings these qualities to bear on his reworkings of Scarlatti, which both respect the integrity of the original compositions while finding in them a platform for contemporary improvisation.

This is not an small feat. Pieranunzi works a subtle transformation, and if you are not listening carefully you will miss that many gradual shifts in texture and tone that shape his interpretations. An even series of on-the-beat left hand notes evolves into a walking bassline. Eighteenth century harmony is hammered into twentieth century harmony through a series of granular level adaptations. Syncopations emerge from the counterpoint. The end result is penetrating modern jazz, but Pieranunzi arrives there as slowly and patiently as a sunset working its effects over the horizon. Few CDs these days sound so untouched by the expected and conventional—the wonder is that our pianist makes this happen with a composition that is 250 years old.

June 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Francesco Cafiso: Louisiana

Too often these days jazz writers hear about child prodigies via press releases from hired publicists. Francesco Cafiso made his name the old fashioned way, via word-of-mouth from other musicians. (Yes, kiddies, that was how reputations were once established in the jazz world.) The turning point for Cafiso came when Wynton Marsalis called the young altoist from Sicily the best 13-year-old saxophonist he had ever heard.

As I am writing this review, I note that it is Cafiso's 20th birthday. Yet even now, this artist is under-marketed rather than over-exposed, especially in the US. His appearance in Washington D.C. earlier this year to perform at events in honor of Barack Obama's innauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. day was a rare moment of prominence stateside for this extroverted performer. Cafiso plays with authority and authenticity, and his recordings testify not only to his own musicality, but also to how far jazz has come in Europe, where the leading players these day are staking out their own ground with less and less concern about following the road map set by U.S. trends.

This track, recorded when Cafiso was sixteen, is dedicated to pianist James Williams, who had died fifteen months before the session. From the opening bars, Cafiso shows that he's in charge. His duet with drummer Bagnoli is a musical sparring match that the saxophonist wins hands down. His long, sizzling lines literally force the drummer to raise his own intensity level. When you start a performance with this level of energy, it is hard to maintain it, let alone build it to something bigger. In truth, when the piano solo starts two minutes into the performance, the music loses much of its bite. Yet Cafiso's contribution here is impressive, and especially so when one considers his "tender years" at the time. Needless to say, there is nothing tender about his work on the horn.

May 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Big Band Ritmo Sinfonica Città Di Verona: Restless Spirits

Pianist Roberto Magris, to whom this album is a tribute, also performs on it. However, the beautiful keyboard introduction of "Restless Spirits" is not played by Magris. It is the impressive work of Daniele Rotunno. But Magris follows closely behind on Fender Rhodes. The song is quite indicative of its title. There are several dramatic theme changes. The intro suggests a pensive ballad. Once the tune kicks in, though, you might think you're hearing a Broadway show turned dark movie musical, a sort of film noir West Side Story. Then as quickly as you can say "Natalie Wood," the music turns Latin groove with a fantastic solo performance from trumpeter Massimo Greco. Magris offers jazz shadings throughout to maintain the tune's cohesiveness. A rave-up percussion exhibition follows. There are quite a few restless spirits at work here. The best thing to do is to let them loose in whatever form they desire! Magris's compositions work well in the big band setting. They are melodious and full of interesting twists and turns that can be exploited by musicians who know what they are doing. Such is the case with the Big Band Ritmo Sinfonica Città Di Verona under the direction of Marco Pasetto.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Big Band Ritmo Sinfonica Città Di Verona: African Mood

Prolific Italian jazz pianist and composer Roberto Magris now has such an impressive catalog that the Big Band Ritmo Sinfonica Città Di Verona has seen fit to present some of it under the conductorship of Marco Pasetto. There is no doubt that, although Magris is a great admirer of the American jazz tradition, his fame is almost entirely found in Europe. But as more international listeners discover his talent, his name will surely become better known in modern jazz circles worldwide. Projects such as this one could help that happen.

Magris's melodies and motifs are well suited for the big band sound. (And this band is BIG! At times it has close to 50 musicians.) Nor does it hurt if you invite the honored guest to take part in the performance. "African Mood" is every bit of its title. Rhythmic handclapping and guttural native calls set the mood for our adventure. The full big band sound gives great power to the African rhythms put forth by the band's percussion unit and guest star Sbibu. The horns provide a rhythmic counter, bassline and melodic theme all at once. In the middle of the African jungle, Magris takes a solo turn that contains as much urgency as Tarzan's yell. This cat can play! The band can play too. This is vine-swinging music that is sure to scare off the bad guys and attract all the cool animals from miles around.

March 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Leonardi: Afro Blue

With a slowly building drum solo by an energized Carlo Alberto Canevali to introduce this classic Mongo Santamaria piece, Stefano Leonardi and mates set the pace of their "Afro Blue" in a steamy medium tempo. With their darting lines, Leonardi and Matteo Turella are at once comparable to such classic flute/guitar tandems as Mann & Almeida or Lloyd & Szabo. They have listened well and absorbed some of this genre's finest examples of brilliant interplay. After a probing bass solo by Paolo Ghetti, Leonardi and Turella play off each other in a simpatico display of dancing notes in joyous synchronicity. Leonardi's tone is pure and his technique facile, and he and Turella push one another to explore the edges of the melody, weaving in and out of each other's ideas. All the while Ghetti and Canevali keep the beat prancing nicely along. A worthy rendition of this classic song.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stefano Leonardi: E-Ray

With a distinctively Arabic sound, Italian flautist Stefano Leonardi and troupe have created a mysterious and exotic offering. "E-Ray" builds its mood with a variety of string and percussive techniques to create an aural landscape reminiscent of a hot desert wind like a Simoom. Here Leonardi invites you into his world of nomadic repose, where he uses the deeper-toned alto flute in a hypnotic, snake-charming approach, with guitarist Matteo Turella playing in an almost oud-like fashion to complete the magic. Paolo Ghetti's bass and Carlo Alberto Canevali's drums and percussive arsenal pick up their respective parts to perfection and in keeping with this skillfully rendered piece. A tightly conceived gem of other-worldly inspired music. Check your shoes for sand after listening.

February 12, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Lulù

At first glance, this summit of leading Italian and American jazz musicians might seem to present an incongruous combination. The world may be getting smaller in a virtual sense, but even today U.S. and European jazz bands usually embrace different conceptions of the beat, of melodic development, even contrasting approaches to pacing a solo. Yet the lineup here is quite an inspired combination. These are five world-class musicians who are also great listeners. From the opening whispers between Bollani and Motian until the final outside-the-chords wail by Rava over the rubato rhythm section, this music proceeds as a hypersensitive polyphonic dialogue, in which even the silences seem charged with significance. Despite the CD title New York Days, a European aesthetic is at work here; but Motian, Grenadier and Turner must have worn their Armani suits to this gig—certainly they sound perfectly at home, and thrive in the floating funhouse sprung from Rava's fervent imagination. All-star lineups of this sort usually last for one CD, then the artists move on to different projects; but I would be delighted to see this band reunited for another date. Maybe Milan and Manhattan are getting closer together.

January 31, 2009 · 0 comments

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Enrico Rava: Bye Bye Blackbird

Few tunes in the jazz repertoire are more indelibly associated with a single artist than "Bye Bye Blackbird" is with Miles Davis. (Yeah, I know, an obscure tenor player named Coltrane played it once in a while, too.) Trumpeters Rava and Fresu approach the standard with Davis's characteristic lyricism and chromatic skittishness. Pianist Stefano Bollani channels such Miles pianists as Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans in his comping. Bassist Enzo Pietropaoli swings hard on the backside of the beat; his solo has more than an echo of (Paul) Chambers. The superb drummer Roberto Gatto occasionally imbues the performance with a bit of post-boppish rhythmic freedom. When playing this tune, no trumpeter can ever escape the shadow of Miles—especially two so indebted to him stylistically—but that's rather the point of this performance, one supposes. In any case, for all his gifts as an "out" player, Rava never disappoints as a straight-ahead trumpeter. This is a typically fine example of his work "in the tradition."

September 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roberto Magris Europlane: Blues for My Sleeping Baby

I must admit I am a sucker for the blues. Whether performed by enthusiastic novices or consummate professionals, this form in all its simplicity can be irresistibly entertaining, provided it's played with passion. On Roberto Magris's touching "Blues for My Sleeping Baby" – sounding very much like the Blue Note dual-horn groups of that label's heyday – his Eastern European-based group Europlane plays it just right in my book. The tune runs over 12 minutes, yet despite its length never falters. The sensual and at times searing Lakatos on tenor has an inventiveness that is a joy to behold. Erian is no slouch either. Playing together, they inspire each other's explorations of this tried-and-true form. Czech bassist Balzar follows in the footsteps of his compatriot bassists Vitous and Mraz with a lyrical improvisational approach that dances gingerly around the melody while never losing the beat. As for Magris, he seems to be of that rare breed of pianist/leader willing to forgo showcasing their own prodigious talents in favor of the total musical package. His solo work runs the gamut from arpeggio-laden flurries of notes played ostinato to chordal splashes of sound that run up and down the ivories. But he is foremost a master accompanist, and the music is at once cohesive and balanced due in no small part to his skillful leadership. The freshness and creativity of these musicians make this a must have for those who like this genre.

August 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roberto Magris Europlane: I Remember You

Right from the opening sax duet by Tony Lakatos and Michael Erian, you know you're in for no ordinary rendering of the 1941 classic "I Remember You." The two tenormen display a familiarity that is both joyful and entertainingly competitive. These guys mesh as flawlessly as two brothers who have been playing in tandem for years. Hungarian-born Lakatos, a player who inspires further listening, has an especially vibrant sound, with improvisations both fresh and passionate. Italian-born Magris, a talented pianist, composer and leader active on the European jazz scene, here wisely lets his front line take the lead, accompanying them in a sparse but effective way. When he does solo, his sound has a touch of Tristano, with sparing but purposeful dissonance. The rhythm section is also top notch, demonstrating skill, love and obvious respect for the music. This is a great addition to my mainstream collection. I look forward to hearing more from these talented musicians.

August 02, 2008 · 0 comments

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Roberto Magris Europlane: Stray Form

Roberto Magris is a talented Italian pianist who has assimilated many fine qualities in his playing and writing from classic American straight-ahead jazz. In this outing he is joined by veteran Herb Geller, an accomplished alto saxophonist from the West Coast school, who to me has the smooth flowing sound reminiscent of Paul Desmond on alto. This sound, devoid of bite or harshness, seems to be fading out of favor with the younger generation of saxophone players. On this Geller-penned tune, his mellifluous alto slides silkily through the turns of this clever song. Magris is a wonderfully adept accompanist and an inventive soloist who is able to sit back respectfully and let the elder take center stage for most of this tune, while the rhythm section holds down the beat unobtrusively. When Magris does solo he plays succinct single-note runs accentuated with brushstrokes of arpeggio-laden notes. A good representation of mainstream jazz played by professionals who like and respect the music with no pomp or pretense.

August 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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Roberto Magris Europlane: I Concentrate on You

Italian pianist Roberto Magris is consistently good. Here he leads an aggregation augmented by guest star saxophonist Tony Lakatos on a take of the Cole Porter classic "I Concentrate on You." The performance really speaks for itself. It is presented in a straightforward way. If anything distinguishes it from other fine attempts, it is a bit higher tempo and brighter than most efforts. It is beautifully interpreted by everyone involved.

When I hear Europeans or other international musicians play American jazz with this type of feeling, I have conflicting emotions. I am proud that the music is honored in this way and that others around the world treat it with such an obvious reverence. Listening to great musicians is about listening to great music wherever it comes from. At the same time, I wonder why so many Americans can't seem to find the same enjoyment for music that came from their own American culture. Ah well, that is their loss. I can't change the world with a comment in a review. I'll just enjoy listening to anyone who can play.

July 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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