27 December 2006

Enrico Rava
the benefits of easy living…

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...the point being that getting the most out of life, and of your art, whatever that may be, is in the approach you take to life being 'easy'...not necessarily that you have an easy time of it. Anyone who has ever know anyone who makes their living as a musician knows full well that it doesn't always lead to an 'easy' life...but oh, the benefits that come through as a result...
I’ve been listening to Enrico Rava on and off for around 30 years now – I wore out a couple of vinyl copies of his 1975 debut for ECM Records, The pilgrim and the stars and very likely left some of my friends of that era with the impression that I didn’t own any other records. He had been active – and had recorded – previous to that release, but it was my introduction to his art and cemented my love and admiration for his music. He has been continuously active since the mid-1960s, both as a valued sideman and a leader – and his recordings have been consistently at the standard-setting level of quality. With influences as diverse as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Don Cherry – and others – filtered through the unique prism of his own innate talent, it’s amazing to me that he’s not more widely known.
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After recording several albums for ECM through 1986, Rava released his work on various labels (Soul Note, Gala, Label Bleu, Philology and Enea, to name a few) before returning to Manfred Eicher’s ECM fold for 2004’s stunning Easy living, easily one of the finest jazz recordings of the decade in my opinion. Rava continues to be fearless in pushing the envelope of his music – but his creativity and sense of melody, long two of his strong points, show that his writing and playing are vital as ever.

One of the many factors that keeps Rava’s art fresh is his ability and willingness to surround himself with great players, known or unknown (as far as the casual US audience is concerned), whose imagination, chops and sheer energy inspire his own. The ensemble assembled for Easy living is astonishing in every regard.
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Stefano Bollani (piano) was born in 1972 in Milan – a child prodigy, his playing includes elements of classical and pop as well as jazz. He met Rava in 1996, who encouraged him to concentrate on jazz (good advice, considering the accolades Bollani has received since), and the two have been playing together regularly ever since. Bollani’s first ECM solo recording – the curiously-titled Piano solo (‘sorry if that’s confusing…’ – Basil Fawlty) is out now in Europe, and due to be released in the US in early 2007.
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Gianluca Petrella (trombone) is from Bari, in southern Italy. Born in 1975, he is widely respected for his musicianship and innovative ideas – he has played with Rava regularly since 1997, as well as in various other groups (including Noisemakers, since 1980, with drummer Roberto Gatto). Like Rava and Bollani, he combines tradition with experimentation, seemingly effortlessly, giving the listener a breathtaking ride on a musical evolutionary carousel. His Blue Note recording Indigo4 has garnered wide praise, and is netting him some well-deserved attention.

Roberto Gatto (drums) and Rosario Bonaccorso (double-bass) complete the ensemble for Easy living – much more than ‘simply’ sidemen, they add immeasurably to the listening experience on this recording. It simply wouldn’t be the same without their contributions.

Rava’s playing has always drawn me – he’s a true artist, a master of his instrument, able to encapsulate a wide dynamic range with both power and delicacy, never sounding shrill or brash even when turning up the volume. The nuances he achieves by controlling the distance between his horn and the microphone are incredible. The pieces on this album alternate between mellow and upbeat, without ever coming even close to releasing their holds on the listener’s attention. Starting off low-key with ‘Chromosomi’, the band works its way gently through the first four tracks – the achingly beautiful ‘Drops’, conjuring images of water trickling down a mountainside (to me at least); ‘Sand’, Rava’s tribute to Duke Ellington; and the title track, ‘Easy living’ (the only non-Rava composition here), easily one of the loveliest jazz instrumentals I’ve ever heard – before kicking it up a notch with ‘Algir Dalbughi’, which is not just stunningly creative in its composition…it’s downright fun. ‘Blancasnow’ returns to a more plaintive, haunting sound – ‘Traveling night’, led off by a great double-bass solo from Rosario Bonaccorso, settles into a wonderful groove and opens up some incredible interplay between Rava and Petrella. As the title would indicate, ‘Hornette and the drums thing’ showcases not only the wind players, but the work of Roberto Gatto as well – and the album ends on another low-key note, the beautiful ‘Rain’.
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Stepping back from the quintet for 2005’s Tati, Enrico enlisted the talents of bandmate Bollani on piano and the inimitable Paul Motian on drums and percussion for a beautiful, extremely personal recording. A true trio effort, the compositional credits are split – Rava offers 6 tracks, Motian 3, and Bollani 1, with a couple of ‘outsiders’ included: George Gershwin’s ‘The man I love’ and a little ditty by a fellow named Puccini (‘E licevan le stelle’, from Tosca). It’s clear from the first notes that this album is going to be a very special listening experience – and it doesn’t fail to live up to that promise. The intimacy of this session is palpable – the first time I heard it, I could have easily believed that it was recorded for my ears alone…but of course, given the depth of feeling that’s conveyed here, it’s too much a part of the souls of these players for me to be so selfish – this should be a gift to anyone who loves great music.

The second track, Paul Motian’s composition ‘Birdsong’, brings to mind the beauty and tranquility of Eric Satie. Bollani issues his piano lines straight from the heart, and Motian’s percussion is so delicate that it’s barely audible – Rava lays out completely on this track…which might have been planned, but I could easily imagine him taken so much by the beauty of what Bollani and Motian were playing that he simply stayed out of it. ‘Tati’, Rava’s tribute to the much-loved French film star, follows – a tune filled with both melancholia and joy, both attributes of Jacques Tati’s art. The mood remains laid-back and reflective through the next three tracks before picking up the tempo a bit with Rava’s ‘Jessica too’ – ‘Golden eyes’ and ‘Fantasm’ slow things down a little, then ‘Cornettology’ (which I suspect is another nod – along with 'Hornette’ on Easy living) by Rava to Ornette Coleman, with its jagged yet melodic melody lines). ‘Overboard’ and ‘Gang of 5’ round out the set in fine fashion. Listeners who prefer smaller, more intimate settings such as the ones featured on Tati are encouraged to check out Enrico's excellent 1993 duo recording (on the Egea label, which is a bit like an Italian ECM, considering the quality of their releases) with the fine Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, Nausicaa.
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As if I wasn’t ‘wallowing’ enough (and very happily, I might add) in these two albums, I recently discovered Enrico Rava live in Montreal 2005, a DVD recorded at the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival – and while Gianluca Petrella (stunning to watch him play, as well as hear him!) is the only musician from Easy living to appear in the film, I have no complaints about Rava’s choice of sidemen…his judgment is right on the mark, as always. On piano for this outing is Andrea Pozza, another frequent Rava collaborator, and an incredible musician in his own right – his sense of timing, both in solos and in support, is nothing short of breathtaking. Guesting on alto saxophone is Francesco Cafiso, who delivers some absolutely blistering solos -- the rhythm section is made up of Enzo Pieropaoli (double-bass) and Fabrizio Sferra (drums), both veterans of the Italian / European jazz scene (having played with the great Italian pianist Danilo Rea, among others).

Rava leads this group masterfully and gently through a great set of tunes – 4 tunes from Easy living (‘Algir Dalbughi’; ‘Sand’ – given two very different treatments here; ‘Traveling night’; and ‘Hornette and the drums thing’), tracks from a couple of his other many releases (‘Certi Angoli Segreti’ and the amusing-but-honestly-titled ‘Happiness is to win a big prize in cash’), along with a couple of jazz standards, ‘Nature boy’ and ‘Ponciana’. Every tune is a treat, as Rava displays his melodic and dynamic mastery, making sure that each member of the group is given an opportunity to shine as well. Petrella and Pozza are especially effective, along with the aforementioned sax work by Cafiso – but Pieropaoli and Sferra are stunning also.

The joy that is apparent in the performance by these musicians, in playing together and sharing their creativity and vision, is infectious – I can’t think that anyone who enjoys great jazz would not be blown away by this document. At one point, during a beautifully executed solo by Pieropaoli, Rava gathers Petrella and Cafiso around him into a tight circle and leads them in some incredibly apt off-mic support riffing. These guys are having fun and creating beautiful, moving art while doing it – how much better can music get?

Rava’s next album with his quintet, The words and the days, is due from ECM in February of 2007 – I can’t wait to hear where he leads us next. I’m sure it’ll be a rewarding musical journey. If you’ve yet to experience the music of this modern master, I suggest you get busy – I doubt that you’ll be disappointed.
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related links :

Enrico Rava
Stefano Bollani
Gianluca Petrella

ECM Records
Egea Records

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