Stefano Bollani Joy In Spite Of Everything (ECM)

Stefano Bollani has truly wooed me in the last few years. The Italian pianist’s work with Enrico Rava boasts a muted radiance that brings a gleam of joy to the trumpeter’s dark-hued work. Listen to how he energizes even the most ghostly passages of Rava’s remarkable New York Days. And last year’s encounter with Brazilian mandolim virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda is filled with the kind of quick-witted interplay that impresses anyone who demands music both animated and accessible. I caught the pair at the Newport Jazz Festival in early August, and they had a crowd – who I’m betting hadn’t previously heard their music – utterly enthralled.

This new quintet album, one of the most seductive jazz records of the year, seals the deal in regards to Bollani’s charm. The pianist pinballs off his rhythm section on the flurry of lines that make up the title track. Genial agitation is something he’s expert at, but the fluid touch that’s at his command often brings a Bud Powell elegance to the fore when he shifts into high gear. The quintet he’s assembled here is remarkably pliable. Guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Mark Turner share the front line and bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund charge everything they touch. The boss is the pivot man, granting himself a fair amount of solos while feeding the fire when others are having their say. His comping work is as inspired as his feature excursions. I reference Powell on purpose; Bollani brings a jaunty drive to the table on “No Pope No Party,” a post-bop romp that could be a one-shot convincer for the group’s awesome esprit.

Whimsy bubbles up in various spots. “Alobar e Kundra” sounds like it’s stitched together with moonlight, the pianist and his rhythm section following impulse after impulse while chasing gossamer. In Italy he is a recognized author of children’s books, and lacks not when it comes to wit. There’s a gamesman slant to his playing, too. The duo exchange with Frisell on “Teddy,” a two-man reverie that parallels last year’s Fred Hersch/Julian Lage meeting for poise and playfulness, makes counterpoint seem to be the most essential element of improvisation. You can almost see the grins on their faces.

All this talk about elation somewhat belies the command this unit has over autumn moods. “Vale” sits in the middle of this fetching program, providing an eerie stroll that gives Turner ample time to plot a luminous course while the quintet, especially the leader, sets a pensive mood. “Ismene” is somewhat similar – call it a tone poem of deep evanescence – but here Frisell’s dewy lines help the aura unfold.  Like the opening calypso, “Easy Healing,” it resounds of character, distinct even as it uses a cloak of amorphousness to help establish its lighthearted essence. That’s not easy to do, and as the music drives the group (especially Turner) to sound unusually inviting, the heart of Bollani’s art emerges. He’s all about drawing you in.


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