“I've rarely met an improvising musician with such a strong sense of structure and form.” Thus ECM producer Manfred Eicher, speaking of the pianist Stefano Bollani. Having made remarkable appearances on the albums of his former mentor Enrico Rava (“Easy Living”, “Tati”), Bollani now makes his ECM début as soloist. His outstanding technique, stylistic versatility and sharp wit have made the 34-year-old Italian highly successful in his own country. But his international prestige too is growing steadily with well-received tours and concert appearances on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Piano Solo”, however, marks a new stage of artistic maturity: 16 terse miniatures combine spontaneity with melodic flow, lightning virtuosity with refined melancholy, to form a grand and unbroken arch.
“For a long time I ran the risk of playing too much, of putting too many effects, tricks and surprises into my improvisations,” Bollani admits. “Since then I've learned that good ideas have to be treated carefully. I often have too many ideas in my mind at the same time. That’s why Manfred's suggestion to combine the pieces I recorded into a sort of self-contained suite was very valuable to me. I used to be fond of constant contrasts, regular alternations between up-tempo numbers and ballads, simply because I felt the audience needed it.’
Here, however, Bollani blends experiences from diverse musical milieus into a distinctive and homogenous personal voice, offering an almost encyclopedic array of styles and inflections. “I love a great deal of music from all imaginable directions: classical, tango, Brazilian, and every kind of jazz, of course. Characteristic idioms like stride piano or the Alberti basses of the Viennese classics are marvelously useful because they immediately trigger associations in the audience. I use these well-known elements to create something like a basis of understanding and develop new things. It's like the traditional way of dealing with jazz standards. Do you know this song? Here it is; now it's gone; no, it's peeking out again... Conjuring tricks like that are crucial to me. For example, I first played ‘A Media Luz’ fairly straight at the recording session, probably because I love it so much. Manfred sensed it immediately and encouraged me to take more liberties and really play the piece in my own style.”
Originally Bollani planned to have the album focus on the music of Sergei Prokofiev. “To me, Prokofiev is something like the essence of modern music. He builds a world out of a few bars. Take the opening of ‘Peter the Wolf’: its melodies are so strangely sweet, its harmonies are tonal but capricious. That's what I love, for I still believe in the power and potential of tonality. Prokofiev moves brilliantly along a straight and narrow path – with kitsch looming on one side and plain exaggeration on the other.” Bollani had prepared material from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” and the “Visions fugitives”. But right at the beginning of the session in Lugano he sensed that he didn't want to limit himself in his choice of repertoire. The only Prokofiev piece that ultimately found its way onto the album was the (freely paraphrased) slow movement of the First Piano Concerto. “Promenade” and “Sarcasmi” are at least clearly inspired by Prokofiev’s music; “Buzzillare” and the four improvisations that arose spontaneously in the studio abound in allusions and veiled reminiscences, though none of them is actually tangible. Most of all, “Piano Solo” bears witness to Bollani's fondness for standards and old pop songs. “Don't Talk” by the Beach Boys, released in the late Sixties on their album “Pet Sounds”, is the most recent tune used here, except for the opening number “Antonia” (1998) by the Italian songwriter Antonio Sambrini. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a pop singer. I simply love the voice. My father had all these records: Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Bill Haley, Elvis of course, and Frank Sinatra. Later one of my heroes was Renato Carosone, the great Neapolitan singer and pianist. He was a true role model.” A short while later Bollani discovered jazz. He began to study and play through the solos of the great masters, trying to assimilate the styles of a wide array of jazz pianists so that he could command them at will. At fifteen he began to play in clubs with his own bands – a trio and a quintet – activities he kept secret from his professor at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory.
“The training there was very strict and formal, but today of course I'm grateful that my professor was so severe.” In 1993, at the age of 21, he finished his studies with top honors, but considered a career as a classical musician out of the question: “I love classical music, but I can't cope with the unconditional fidelity to the text. I can only manage it for a couple of days, then I have to break away, even with composers I like a lot, such as Ravel, Poulenc or Milhaud. The idea of literal repetition goes against the grain for me. I want to play something differently each time, because I never want to pin down how a piece should sound. The main thing for me is evolution, the ongoing process.”
Bollani’s early professional work included a stint as keyboardist in the band of Italian rapper Jovanotti, but Enrico Rava encouraged him to devote himself to his true passion, jazz. “Rava dared me to take the plunge. In 1996 we started playing together in different formations – duo, quartet and quintet. Over the years we've made twelve albums for various labels. Enrico became something of an artistic father figure to me. He taught me what a bandleader really is: that the point is to show confidence in your musicians and never to build cages. Enrico always told me never to play something only because I thought he'd like it. On the contrary, I should only trust my own nature.”
And what does Bollani himself think of his “sense of structure and form”? Is that his true nature? Instinct and awareness seem to strike a balance in his music: “I'm a classically trained musician. I love songs. That's why I'm accustomed to forms and automatically grope for them, even if it’s only two chords or a particular rhythm. The best music is often built of very simple molecules. The simpler they are, the more you can get out of them.”