I first became aware of Stefano Bollani on an Enrico Rava recording on ECM about 5 years ago, and I remember listening to the intro to the first piece, hearing the piano comping, and saying to myself 'who's that playing piano!?' It's a mark of Bollani's brilliance that he can make you stop short just by the way he's comping. After listening to his playing on that recording I checked out lots of his stuff and and I discovered a brilliant pianist and musician, with a complete command of colour and sonority aligned with gift for melody and a great time feel. Combine this with an extraordinary gift for improvisation and you have a recipe for the complete jazz musican - but........
In his recordings I also discovered what I can only describe as a mixed bag. Mixed in that I never really heard a recording in which, from start to finish, Bollani played in the sublime way that he can. Inevitably on every recording, he would play something that made me shake my head in admiration of the brilliance and depth of his playing. But, for my taste it would never sustain itself over the whole recording. There would always be one or two tracks in which Bollani would indulge in his penchant for humour, and this, for my money anyway, would detract from the whole and make the totality of the CD a less satisfying experience than if he had left those tracks out.
Having said that, I'm all for humour in music - I think jazz musicians these days are far too po-faced and far too prone to believing that the only deep emotions, or the only cool ones, are the ones where we're feeling angry, sad, intense, or pensive. But of course in life we also display happiness in our daily lives, and there's no reason why we should willfully omit happiness from the range of emotions we choose to display in our music - I've written about this before.
And Bollani does this humorous thing brilliantly - it's never cheap or puerile. He's genuinely playful and has the imagination and technique to bring off something like this rendition of 'Maple Leaf Rag' in which he inserts all kinds of 'stumbling' effects, phrase stretches and sly modulations to create a very funny and witty version of this hoary old chestnut
It's typical of Bollani that while the piece seems to be sloppily played, it's only possible to do something like this if you have a phenomenal command of the instrument. The same is true on this constantly modulating version of 'Tico Tico'
But while I enjoy the humour and wittiness of these performances, I always felt that they never really sat with the other pieces on the Bollani albums that I checked out - they were like jokes, albeit very good ones, being made at an inopportune time - jokes which gatecrashed a very sublime atmosphere and somehow diminished the overall impact of the music.
But then I saw Bollani play live last year, in a solo performance in France, and there it all made sense. Within the live context, the humorous flourishes seemed no longer out of place, but completely at one with the skittishness of Bollani's personality and the fecundity of his creative imagination. The guy who played a sublime version of 'Blame It On My Youth', was clearly the same guy who, for an encore, created an extraordinary collage of themes from suggestions shouted from the audience - yes the encore was a schtick, but was so creatively done and executed with such obvious enjoyment, that it seemed all of a piece with what had gone before.
And this year I saw him again, this time in the company of the unique Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton De Holanda, and again the reconciliation of both sides of Bollani's personality was even clearer. Playing Brazilian music in duo, all of his lyricism, technique, light-heartedness, rhythmic strengths and harmonic palette was on display and put at the service of the music. This was technically difficult music, but those uninitiated into the arcana of music technique would never have known it, such was the effortlessness and sheer joy in music making that was on display. Here they are from a concert last year, playing Piazzola's darkly lyical 'Oblivion'
Seeing performances like this has resulted in my previous reservations being completely overcome, and for my money, Stefano Bollani is one of of the finest jazz pianists in the world today - he really has so much to offer. While he's very well known in Europe, his profile is nothing like it should be in the US, though recent duets with Chick Corea might possibly change that a little. However, if the predictability and typical herd instincts shown by the recent Downbeat Critic's poll is anything to go by I wouldn't hold my breath while I'm waiting.........