Stefano Bollani is an artist of ebullient virtuosity, with uncommon sensitivity and range. The Italian pianist has proved to be at home on ECM improvising solo or leading a trio, as well as engaging in duos with Enrico Rava, Chick Corea and Brazilian bandolim player Hamilton de Holanda. With Joy In Spite Of Everything – an album of new compositions by the pianist for a trans-Atlantic quintet – Bollani has made his most beautifully textured and infectiously lyrical statement yet. He recorded these nine pieces at New York City’s Avatar Studios with the Danish rhythm section heard on Stone In The Water – bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund – plus two prominent American players and ECM intimates: guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Mark Turner. As its title reflects, Joy In Spite Of Everything brims with an indefatigable lightness of spirit despite the inevitable shadows of life.
The New York Times reviewed a concert at Birdland by Bollani with Bodilsen and Lund just before they went into the studio with Frisell and Turner. Critic Ben Ratliff described Bollani’s quicksilver musical personality in a way that resonates with Joy In Spite Of Everything, calling his music-making “intensely alive” and adding: “You don’t have to watch him to know what kind of musician he is: puzzling, finessing, fast-thinking.” Previous reviews have noted the semblance of Bollani’s musical personality to the films of Fellini, with a mix of circus-like humor and bittersweet reflection. For his part, trumpeter Enrico Rava – father figure of Italian jazz and Bollani’s mentor and frequent colleague – has summed up the younger artist as “a real poet of the piano.”
The Guardian has noted that “Bollani loves tunes that sound sung,” and Joy In Spite Of Everything begins with a lilting, lyrical calypso for quintet, “Easy Healing,” that’s as contagious as anything he’s written. The album’s performance configurations range from quintet to quartet, trio and duo. Humor and melancholy are juxtaposed with two tracks for trio plus Turner: the faintly Monk-like “No Pope No Party” and the pensive ballad “Las Hortensias.” Occasional North African accents jostle with the overriding Latinate lyricism of the trio track “Alobar e Kudra,” while the album’s centerpiece is the 12-minute-plus quintet track “Vale,” which hovers like fog in the night.
Bollani insists that he wrote “Teddy” – a duo feature for the pianist and Frisell – with Teddy Wilson in mind, even if the style of the track didn’t end up sounding all that akin to the Swing-era keyboardist. “Ismene,” for trio plus guitar, has a lovely melody tailor-made for Frisell’s limpid way with a tune. “Tales From the Time Loop,” an expansive piece for quintet, brims with vamping rhythmic tension, though Bollani’s unspooling solos are a lyrical release. Yet Bollani’s imaginative attributes are often apparent on Joy In Spite Of Everything not just in his solos but in the way he adds subtle color and commentary to the solo passages of other players.
Bollani first got to know Bodilsen and Lund playing with Rava, going on to tour with them as a trio across Europe and in the U.S. He says about the rhythm section: “I like them both musically and personally. We are the same age. We listened to the same records; we grew up with the same kind of music, the same idea of music – very spontaneous, with a kind of empathetic, telepathic communication. Playing with them is special because we don’t need to talk so much about the music we are playing.”
As for Frisell, a veteran of myriad ECM albums in a career of ever-widening horizons, Bollani says: “Bill is not a ‘guitar player’ for me – he is a complete musician. I’m in love with the way he is playing and performing music without thinking about boundaries, about genres. He is not playing jazz music – he is playing the music. That’s what I like: this attempt to play different things each night, on each record. And, of course, I love his guitar sound.”
One of the most admired saxophonists of his generation, Mark Turner will soon debut as a leader on ECM with the quartet album Lathe Of Heaven, having recorded for the label in the trio Fly (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard) and on two albums led by Billy Hart. And Bollani previously played alongside Turner on Enrico Rava’s 2008 ECM album New York Days. “I love Mark’s sound because it’s very particular,” the pianist says. “A lot of saxophone players today, they are playing very well, but they sound like somebody else. Mark has a special voice, particular and unique.”
“I love to take my inspiration from musicians, thinking about their sounds,” Bollani says. “For example, there’s this way in Bill’s playing of using the empty holes, using the silence in the music, which inspired me. Jazz is full of people playing a lot of notes, cascades of notes, arpeggios and scales. Bill is special because he’s careful to use space. My first jazz teacher told me to be careful to hold back. Because many jazz pianists – including me, because I was a fan of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum – have to take care to not fill in all the blanks. That’s why I’m in love with Ahmad Jamal, because he’s balances the music and the silence.”
No preconceptions was the rule for Joy In Spite Of Everything, as the album was made by a band brought together just for the session. “We went into the studio without all meeting each other,” Bollani explains. “I had never before met Bill, neither had Jesper and Morten. And Morten had never played with Mark. But that’s what I like about jazz music: You just go and you see what happens.”