Bollani’s Wild Italian Musical Adventure

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MEDITERRANEO / MONTEVERDI: L’Orfeo: Prelude (Toccata); Sinfonia (act II). ROTA: Amarcord. Fortunella. MORRICONE: Maddalena: Chi mai. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. CONTE: Azzurro. MEDLEY: PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro; LEONCAVALLO: Mattinata. ROSSINI: Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Largo al factotum / Stefano Bollani Trio (Bollani, pn; Jesper Bodilsen, bs; Morten Lund, dm); Vincent Pierani, acc; Martin Stegner, vla; Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Act Jazz 9849-2

Here’s one of those albums I really revel in: a jazz group playing arrangements (all written by Geir Lysne) of Italian classical and film music, and doing so with taste and subtle humor. It begins with the one and only purely classical performance on the CD, a 36-second snippet of the Prelude to Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo before moving into a jazz version of the second-act Sinfonia from the same opera. I was stunned to hear the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal violist, Martin Stegner, suddenly swing into an improvised solo every bit as good as anything Bollani or accordionist Vincent Pierani could do, and Lysne’s arrangement for the full orchestra is nothing short of miraculous. The Berlin Philharmonic can play jazz? True, it’s only 14 of their members, but they really do. And the whole session is live!

The Sinfonia winds down for the last chorus, with Pierani’s accordion riding over sotto voce playing from the orchestra members. That’s when he move into Lysne’s arrangements of Italian music from famous films, including Amarcord (a piano solo by Bollani), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. Bollani’s piano style is highly eclectic, including some elements of Claude Bolling along with jazz influences, but it works. The orchestra returns for Morricone’s Maddalena, and again play with the swing and phrasing of a jazz orchestra. I’m still in shock; I’d never have guessed they had it in them. They’re the kind of arrangements where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; there are tempo and rhythm changes, swirling figures and a very strong bass line from Jesper Bodilsen that keep things moving. Bollani swings like Jaki Byard on this track, with Pierani coming in behind him in one chorus to nudge him forward with some edgy chord playing.

To a certain extent, despite the inclusion of such legitimate classical composers as Monteverdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Rossini, this is actually less of a jazz-classical fusion album in the strictest sense of the term as a set in which classical themes are used in a purely jazz fashion. This is not to take anything away from Bollani’s trio, the orchestra or Pierani (who contributes a fascinating solo in the low-key performance of The Good, the Ban & the Ugly), but merely to point out that both the arrangements and their execution are jazz. Only a few figures here and there, such as the cleverly-written string accompaniment to Bollani’s solo in this same piece, are based on classical principles, and the arrangement quickly reverts to a jazz bias, with the Berlin Philharmonic playing much like the Clare Fischer or Duke Ellington band with strings.

And yet, and yet…the progression of pieces arranged in this order almost make up a suite. Lysne has so ordered the pieces that as they follow one another the listener is drawn into the music as an abstract entity, sequential and logical in its own way. Moreover, the manner in which Lysne arranges each piece, with its changes in tempo and rhythm, they seem to be self-contained units that could be played independently of the others. There is order in the layout but daring in the solos, and it all fits together superbly. To some extent, the way these arrangements are written put me in mind of some of Charles Mingus’ pieces, except that they have an Italian accent.

In short, one’s interest never flags. Azzurro is taken at a brisk 6/8 with the rhythm section pumping hard behind Bollani and the orchestra sitting this one out. One of the very few touches I thought a bit artificial was the string passage in Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, but the brass figures that follow and play behind Pierani are just sensational. This is a medley that morphs halfway through into Leoncavallo’s Mattinata (which, for history buffs, was the first piece of music written specifically for the phonograph, way back in 1904). The tempo winds down to that of a ballad, the melody taken over by Bollani and Pierani before a string figure comes in for the “break,” followed by a quicker tempo for the improvised section.

Lysne’s version of “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville is more classical than most of the rest but also one of the zaniest, playing around with both melody and displacement of rhythms. It helps that it’s a piece that virtually everyone knows, or should know, which makes the transformation all that much fun to follow. And everything falls into place here, every solo and break and written passage, like a row of dominos that, once set in motion, fall one after the other in a continuous chain. Bollani has some fun sustaining a long piano trill near the end, as a baritone would a high note, before the quick coda.

The session ends with a short (two-minute) version of Nino Rota’s Fortunella, which was later slowed down and performed as the theme of The Godfather in the U.S. This boisterous version is far more fun to listen to, and the crowd explodes into applause.

This is surely the surprise CD of the young year. Molto bene!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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