As anyone who has ever seen Italian pianist Stefano Bollani in concert will know, he’s a vivid, dynamic performer. Effervescence and virtuosity vivify his music, making it unusually, impulsively uplifting. And yet—as the title and cover photograph (burning oil wells evoking images of Gulf War destruction; a splash of red in a skirt, a child’s red coat in the otherwise monochrome Schindler’s List) of this new album suggest—this music isn’t simply joyful. I might be misreading the symbology (the album conveys nothing really portentous), but there’s real depth of feeling here, Bollani’s characteristic ebullience leavened with real sensitivity.
If Bollani didn’t learn how to balance exuberance with elegance by working with Enrico Rava, who once praised Bollani as “perhaps the most gifted pianist since Art Tatum”, their long relationship has surely been formational. Although Rava doesn’t contribute directly to the present album, he has had a significant bearing on it. The great Italian trumpet player made his ECM debut in 1975, but his 2003 album Easy Living was a notable career high that also introduced Bollani to the label. Both Bollani and Rava have since recorded multiple albums for ECM, including three more together under Rava’s leadership and a duet, The Third Man (2008).
It was also through Rava that Bollani first met Danish bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
When Rava won the JazzPar prize in 2002, the prize committee suggested Bodilsen and Lund as the ideal rhythm section for Rava and Bollani’s subsequent tour. Bollani, Bodilsen and Lund subsequently recorded three albums together, the first under Bodilson’s leadership, the most recent Bollani’s leadership debut on ECM, Stone in the Water (2009).
Bollani and Turner first played together—alongside bassist Larry Grenadier and master drummer Paul Motian—in a quintet assembled to record Rava’s New York Days (ECM, 2008). The American/European blend of that group is replicated on Joy In Spite Of Everything with the addition to the established trio, alongside Turner, of Bill Frisell. The guitarist has a longstanding association with ECM, and his presence is perhaps down to match-making by the label; either way, he’s an inspired choice.
At a shade over 75 minutes, Joy In Spite Of Everything is a long album (all of the music composed by Bollani), and its contour describes a wide arc of true depth. The lead track is an infectiously upbeat Calypso, “Easy Healing”, the rhythmic buoyancy of which Frisell’s liquid phrasing suffuses with light. Turner is lithesome, and Bollani adds splashes of dappled colour, reserving a hint of gospel gravitas for the ending. The bustling “No Pope No Party” continues the uptempo mood with its snappy, Monkishly be-bop bounce. All three frontline players take turns to stretch out, and Bollani engages Lund and Bodilsen in concise exchanges.
With the quintet warmed up, Frisell and Turner both sit out for the intricate but breezily Latinate “Alobar e Kudra”, a piece named after an amorous, immortal couple in Tom Robins’ novel Jitterbug Perfume. Turner then returns for the gorgeously limpid “Las Hortensias”, reflecting deeply on Bodilsen’s supremely lyrical contrabass solo. Again, Bollani’s own brief solo near the end develops the conversation in unexpected ways.
The album’s centrepiece, and its longest track at 12:21, “Vale” is unhurriedly unfurled according to the quintet’s by now characteristically ineffable collective logic. Turner’s spot on point is relatively impassioned, but Frisell’s harmonics have a contrastingly, beguilingly diffusive effect. The guitarist’s subsequent duet with Bollani, “Teddy” is more spritely, paying tribute its dedicatee, swing pianist Teddy Wilson, mostly by dint of its gracile en pointe elegance and complex lyricism. When the players relax into more sensuous interplay on”Ismene”, the effect is just gorgeous, and the reintroduced Bodilsen and Lund animate the performance with real finesse.
Turner brings the quintet back to full strength for the crisp, lightly swinging “Tales From The Time Loop”, and his presence reintroduces some bodily sinuous tension. Frisell plays some judicious, deliciously jazzy phrases, and Bollani draws the performance taut with some vamping toward the conclusion that produces a restriction, the sudden release from which springs a quintet coda bloom.
The album ends with its title track, a frisky uptempo number for piano trio with Bollani at his most infectiously puckish. It’s an encore piece, set to draw spontaneous ovations from a live audience, and a reminder here of the zestful positivity with which the pianist invests even the most multi-hued performance.
This was the last of three back-to-back reviews of new ECM recordings featuring tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. The others consider the debut recording of Turner’s new Quartet, Lathe of Heaven, and the latest album from the former Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Quartet, now working under Billy Hart’s leadership, One is the Other.
Mark Turner tenor saxophone; Bill Frisell guitar; Stefano Bollani piano; Jesper Bodilsen double bass; Morten Lund drums.
Buy Joy In Spite Of Everything direct from ECM.